Every year it seems to come up. Someone asks me what I am giving up for Lent.
It is not a matter of what I am giving up, I say. It is a matter for me of whether I am willing to be crucified with Our Lord. So this year, I say, I plan to pray and fast and to do more spiritual reading, with greater reverence and attention and watchfulness, than I did the last.
Usually, I am asked this question about a week before we begin the Fast, a point in time when in the Byzantine churches we are in our fourth and last week of preparation for the Great Fast.
During these four weeks of preparation, we have spent time reflecting on the arrogance of the Pharisee and the humility of the publican, the repentance of the prodigal son and the compassion of the father.
During the week before the Great Fast, we enter into fasting by abstaining from meat. We also have turned our attention to Our Lord’s death by focusing on his Passion, and we have begun to make dozens of bows and prostrations during our daily prayer.
A week before Ash Wednesday in the Latin churches, on the Wednesday during our week of abstinence from meat, our morning prayer reminds us that our fasting from food is worthless if we do not spend more time fighting against our passions. We also are instructed in our prayer to imagine ourselves crucified beside Our Lord.
If you engage fully in these four pre-Lenten Sundays of the Byzantine liturgical year, you will be ready to meet the demanding expectations of the Great Fast.
The general requirement for Byzantines during the Fast is to abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, alcohol, and oil during the week. Abstaining from oil includes all foods cooked in oil. Fasting is mitigated on all Saturdays and Sundays, as well as on the Annunciation and Palm Sunday. Bishops of each of the particular Byzantine churches also offer instructions.
Not everyone can follow these strict requirements, and pregnant women, children, the elderly, and the sick are not required to do so. They are encouraged, however, to do as much as they can without causing themselves physical harm; good advice, actually, for everyone.
When I first began fasting as a Ukrainian Catholic, I allowed myself oil for cooking and did not fast on weekends during the Great Fast. Eventually, however, I continued to abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, and alcohol on the weekends, allowing myself food cooked in oil and breaking this abstinence only if I had a good reason.
Besides fasting from food and drink, Byzantines also are expected to increase their prayer and spiritual reading during the Fast and to give alms.
If you pray the Divine Praises privately as a Byzantine during the Fast, you will spend at least six hours each day in prayer, double the amount of time you generally spend outside the Fast. Each day you will make dozens of bows and prostrations. Each week you will pray the Psalter twice. By the end of the fast you will have read and reflected on The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus in its entirety.
As with fasting, I was able to pray and read more during the Fast only after time, only after adding a bit more each year, a practice I recommend to others.
The more deeply you enter into the Byzantine liturgical year, the more prepared you will be to do more fasting, prayer, and spiritual reading during the Great Fast. The more of this spiritual work you do during the Great Fast, the better prepared you will be to celebrate the joy of Pascha and to live every day of your life joyfully on a cross beside Our Lord.