Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent: The Jewel of the East

The prior night, "fat Tuesday", was indeed quite fat here in Dallas. Beef tartare, seared Wagyu, chocolate tartlet, and something resembling a salad for decoration. Mardi gras has become a tradition to indulge prior to a strife that never really comes in the Western Church anymore.

Just a century ago all of Lent aside from Sundays, included fasting every day and the addition of abstinence on Fridays. "Fat Tuesday" originates in the Middle Ages, when animal fats were used up before a purely vegan Lent began on Ash Wednesday. Today, at least in these United States, fasting is mandated only for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Meat is theoretically banished one day a week, but the American bishops always grant a dispensation if Saint Patrick's feast falls on a Friday.

Had I followed the prescriptions of the Byzantine Church I attend, meat would have been off the menu for two weeks and I would have last tasted cheese or milk on Sunday. While liturgically the Sundays of Great Lent are a bit dull in the East, with the readings pre-dating their ill-related feasts, the weekdays are the most unique and beautiful of the year.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified, celebrated at no other time during the year, is all that is right about the Byzantine rite: drama, great moments, and didactic gestures. At no other time of the year does the priest circle the altar counter-clockwise while we sing "Let my prayer arise like incense before you and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."

The faithful sing may of the hymns greeting the Eucharist while kneeling, as the priest passes by during the Great Entrance holding the precious Body of Christ under a veil, much as we expect to see Him now but not in eternity. The entire service is one great lesson in penance for those who have been conditioned by the gradual elimination of luxuries and disposed by the Church's lessons toward penance.

By contrast, our Latin tradition, yes, even the old rite, seems a bit barren by contrast. The Mass of the Presanctified is celebrated on Good Friday. The weekday Masses of Lent were presumably Presanctified Masses during the middle part of the first millennium, as evidenced by some of the orations, but gradually became penitential Masses. If the Good Friday Mass is any indication of post-antiquity, they were not so very different from actual Masses to begin with.

We have Stations of the Cross on Fridays and the odd parish fish fry, the Lenten mission, but no solid liturgical basis of Lent outside the Masses anymore. Once upon a time the Station Masses of Lent were observed in most major European cities, not just Rome, in which the bishop's appointed representative would lead a procession to the chosen church with the Litanies sung, the minor hours, the Mass, and then Vespers with the preces, psalm 50, and the suffrages of the Saints. The demolition of Catholic culture, the gutting of the Divine Office, and the atomization of society has robbed us of these treasures which even traditional parishes have displayed little interest in restoring.

We Latins have Advent, Christmas season, the Pentecost octave, and the great feasts as our boasts, but in this season of humility the East has found a precious pearl and given all it has to acquire it and show it to the rest of the Church.

1 comment:

  1. I do think there is something awe inspiring about the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified. The combination of 'Let my prayer be directed', along with the incense etc is very moving.

    The fact that Lent in the Byzantine rite is still very much a period of intense fasting ties in holistically with the liturgical rites. In the West with only two fasting days of obligation left, after a century of continuous diminution, Lent becomes far more nebulous.