Listers, the season of Lent is fast approaching. Our brethren in the East call the period of Lent the “Great Fast,” or alternatively, “Great Lent.” It is the most important of the four fasting seasons in the Eastern churches, since it is the preparation for the feast of feasts, namely Pascha, or Easter. In the Byzantine rite, the period of Great Lent is preceded by four Sundays (five in the Slavic reckoning), during which the faithful prepare themselves for the asceticism, prayer, and repentance which accompanies the Fast. The first of these is the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, followed by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and then and then the Sunday of Forgiveness.

These last two Sundays are called “Meatfare” and “Cheesefare” Sundays respectively, since the one marks the end of the eating of meat two weeks before Lent, and the other the end of the consumption of dairy products one week before. The Monday after the Sunday of Forgiveness (known as “Clean Monday”) heralds the beginning of the Great Fast proper, after which time wine, oil, and fish, are allowed only on certain days, meat and dairy being excluded altogether. The particulars of the Great Fast are as ancient as they are fascinating, and while certainly meriting their own study, in this list we will be focusing on some of the more general virtues of Lent extolled in the East. In particular, we will cover nine Byzantine liturgical gems of wisdom to gaze upon, as we prepare to enter into the spiritual arena of the Fast. A quote from the hymns of the Byzantine liturgy will be provided, either extolling a particular virtue or repudiating the vice which must be rooted out in order to possess it [1]:

 

1) Self-Control

The virtue of self-control, as practiced through fasting and temperance in food and drink, is of paramount importance to the Eastern church. According to the Damascene, the passion which this virtue seeks to destroy is that of gluttony, which is considered one of the three chief passions [2], as it was the act of eating the forbidden fruit by which Adam and Eve transgressed the divine Commandment:

“Adam was deprived of the delights of Paradise by the bitterness of the fruit; his gluttony made him reject the commandment of the Lord. He was condemned to work the earth from which he himself had been formed; by the sweat of his brow, he had to earn his bread to eat. Therefore, let us learn self-control, so that we do not have to weep before the gates of Paradise; rather, let us strive to enter therein.” [3]

Through fasting and abstinence, we refrain from good things, in order to more easily concern ourselves with better things. In the Byzantine monastic tradition, abstinence from meat is a reminder of the blessed condition of Adam and Eve before the Fall, where they walked with God, and lived an angelic life of contemplation and grace.

And yet, it is not simply enough to fast or abstain. The key to success in the attainment of self-control, as the Fathers warn us, is that it must be practiced in concert with the other virtues. For as Chrysostom teaches, even the demons fast, being by nature incorporeal; while prayer—as well as all the other virtues of a life lived in communion with God—is obviously neglected by them.

 

2) Holy Desire

This is a zeal for God, a longing for Him, and a confident hope and longing for the blessings of the world to come. The vice which this virtue seeks to destroy is that of unchastity, by directing the intellect away from the transitory things of this world, and to the promises of the future life of blessedness:

“O beloved Paradise, beauty of Springtime and divinely created abode, unending joy and delight, the glory of all the just, the enchantment of the prophets, and the dwelling-place of the saints, by the rustling of your leaves, implore the Creator of the universe to open the gates that I have closed by my fault; let me partake of the Tree of Life, and share the joy that I once found in you.” [4]

 

3) Almsgiving

Compassion for the poor, as the Damascene teaches, fights against the vice of avarice. This vice is the one which, according to the ascetic Fathers, is the root of all evil: [5]

“Driven by his love of money, Judas the traitor cunningly planned to sell you, O Lord, the Treasure of life; in his frenzy, he hastened to the impious ones and said: ‘What will you give me, if I will deliver him to you to be crucified?” [6]

 

4) Charity

In addition to almsgiving, the goodwill and love for all, as exemplified in the virtue of charity fights against the vice of anger. But whoever who seeks the salvation of their neighbor does not have the luxury of harboring rancor or malice, but rather seeks their good, both in reference to their life on earth, and eternal life in heaven:

“O faithful, let us vie with each other in zeal, and let us seek to do good. Let us live together in humility, and may our hearts sigh with tears and prayer so that we may obtain forgiveness from God.” [7]

 

5) Joy

Although Great Lent is a time of sadness and sorrow for sins, it is a “bright sadness,” because the benevolent Father waits in earnest for the return of His prodigal children. The spiritual joy which comes from God allows us to vie against the vice of worldly dejection, which arises when we find that our efforts go unrecognized and unheralded by the world, or when we are even rejected by it on account of our faith. This divine joy also serves as a healing balm for those who despair of the mercy of God on account of their sins:

“O faithful, let us discover the power of the divine mystery. The Prodigal came back from his sin and returned to his father’s house; in his lovingkindness his father came out to meet him and kissed him. He restored him to the glory of his house, and prepared a mystical banquet on high. He killed the fatted calf so that we might share in his joy; the joy of the Father who offers in love, and the joy of the Lamb who gives himself for us; for He is Christ, the Savior of our souls.” [8]

 

6) Patience

Constant vigilance and perseverance, with continual thanksgiving to God, fights against the vice of self-love. While avarice is considered the root of all evil by the Fathers, the inordinate love of the body and its pleasures is considered the “mother of vices,” to be striven against mightily during the Great Fast: [9]

“The arena of virtues is now open! Let all who wish to begin training now enter! Prepare yourselves for the struggle of the Fast; those who strive valiantly shall receive the crown! Let us put on the armor of the Cross to combat the Enemy, taking faith as our unshakable rampart. Let us put on prayer as our breastplate, and charity as our helmet. As our sword, let us use fasting, for it cuts out all evil from our hearts. Those who do this shall truly receive the crown format he hands of Christ, the almighty One, on the day of judgment.” [10]

 

7) Prayer

As was mentioned above, any increase in discipline must be accompanied by increased prayer, marked by a spirit of true compunction, humility, and interior stillness. This virtue combats the vice of arrogance, which ascribes progress to the self rather than to God. In prayer, one remembers that all good comes ultimately from God Himself, and in humility the Christian acknowledges that all he has is a gift from the Creator of all things:

“Let us fall down before God in prayer and tears; with deep sighs, let us imitate the humility of the Publican which lifted him up, so that we may sing in faith: ‘Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our fathers.’” [11]

 

8) Humility

Although the demons keep vigil in the sense that they do not sleep, and fast in the sense that they do not eat, the virtues of prayer and especially humility make the Christian soul a frightful bane for them to behold. The Damascene, therefore, proscribes this virtue as a remedy against pride. The believer should refrain from judging or despising anyone, emulating the repentant Publican rather than the boastful Pharisee. We must therefore consider ourselves as the “least of all” among our fellow human beings. [12]

“Seeing the dignity to which the humble are raised, and the deep abyss into which the proud fall, let us imitate the virtue of the Publican, and despise the sins of the Pharisee.” [13]

 

9) Repentance

Although not included in Damascene’s list, it is of course naturally implied, being part and parcel with the other Lenten virtues. Indeed, without true repentance, the other virtues are no longer meritorious. Confession of sin, tears of compunction, and good works are all radiant jewels in the crown of repentance, lauded in the Byzantine liturgy as the “queen of virtues”:

“O faithful, let us purify ourselves with repentance, the queen of virtues. Behold, it brings us an abundance of blessings. It dresses the wounds of passions, it reconciles sinners with the Master. Therefore, let us embrace it with joy, and cry out to Christ our God: ‘You are risen from the dead; keep us free from condemnation, for we glorify you as the only sinless One.” [14]

And so, with our minds firmly fixed on these virtues—and on God, who is the Source of all that is good—let us begin the “bright sadness” of Lent, cleaving firmly to Christ in faith and in love. May God create in us a clean heart, and the governance of His Holy and Life-giving Spirit, that we may enter worthily into the mystery of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.

***

 

Born in Charleston, S.C., Brian Battersby is a recent graduate from the M.A. program in Theology from Ave Maria University. Originally a convert from Protestantism, he was confirmed into the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2005. In addition to theology, he also has a great love of the liturgy, sacred music, the Church Fathers (especially John Damascene), and the Byzantine East. He currently resides with his beautiful wife in North Carolina.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The list itself is taken from an ascetical work of St. John Damascene, On the Virtues and the Vices (Philokalia, vol. II, p. 338). In addition to writing superb theological treatises, he also composed beautiful liturgical hymns, for which he is somewhat less known in the West. It was he who wrote the famous Canon of Pascha, a work in honor of the Resurrection. It is fittingly called the “Golden Canon” in the Eastern churches, both on account of the magnificence of its imagery and the sublimity of its Subject. Western Christians may already be familiar with this monumental work through the English hymn The Day of Resurrection, a translation of the Canon of Pascha from the original Greek into English verse by the John M. Neale, an Anglican cleric of the nineteenth century.

[2] Theodoros the Great Ascetic, A Century of Spiritual Texts, Philokalia, vol. II, p. 26.

[3] Canon for the Sunday of Forgiveness, Ode 1.

[4] Sticheron from the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

[5] John Damascene, On the Virtues and the Vices, Philokalia, vol. II, 335; cf. 1 Timothy 6:10.

[6] Second Sessional Hymn from Matins of Great and Holy Wednesday.

[7] Canon of the Publican and the Pharisee, Ode 3.

[8] Sticheron from the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

[9] John Damascene, On the Virtues and the Vices, Philokalia, vol. II, 335.

[10] Sticheron from Matins of Forgiveness Sunday.

[11] Canon of the Publican and Pharisee, Ode 7.

[12] John of Damascus, On the Virtues and the Vices, Philokalia, vol, II, p. 338.

[13] Canon of the Publican and Pharisee, Ode 1.

[14] Matins Doxastikon for the Sunday of Judgment.