This past Sunday evening, 18 February, we began Great Lent (also called “Great Fast”) in the Byzantine Catholic Church with Forgiveness Vespers. Unlike the Roman Catholic practice of receiving ashes on the forehead to begin Lent, Byzantine Lent begins quite simply in the dimly lit church. I had the privilege of joining the small community at St. George Melkite Catholic Church in Milwaukee, WI (just a few blocks north of Marquette University). As Byzantine Vespers continued, we heard various Scripture readings calling the people to wisdom by turning to God and praise of God. Toward the latter part of Vespers, we did several prostrations and metanies. Prostrations are what we frequently see among the Muslims for their daily prayers – on both knees with head touching the ground and the palms of the hands on the ground. Metanies (from the Greek, “metanoia”, or repentance) are profound bows with the sign of the cross (Byzantine style). At the end of the service, the officiating priest ceremoniously asked the congregation for forgiveness, and the congregation, in turn, asked the priest for forgiveness. Then we had a sign of peace in which each person approached another, including the priest, kissing him or her on each shoulder and saying, “Forgive me, brother/sister, for I am a sinner.” With that the Vespers was completed. It was a beautiful gesture of peace-making and reconciliation to begin the Lenten Fast.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
We began Lent yesterday in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Today at our community Mass Fr. Roch Niemier, OFM shared with us that what we hear in the Scriptures today from the Prophet Joel is a call to “turn.” That is the essence of Christian conversion – turning the heart to God. Ascetical practices, then, are only meant to aid is in this direction. Fr. Roch referred to the Lent of 1213 when St. Francis of Assisi had someone row him to an uninhabited island in a lake. St. Francis stayed there all Lent to pray and fast. He had some bread and other provisions with him on the island. But Francis so wanted to identify with Jesus in the wilderness for his fast of 40 days (cf. Matthew 4 and Luke 4) that he himself went to pray alone in a wooded wilderness on this remote island. His purpose was to turn his heart intensely to the Lord. It shows us that Francis’ whole life was a constant turning to the Lord – that was the goal of any ascetical practices. And so, for us, said Fr. Roch, any ascetical practices we undertake this Lent (e.g. avoiding candies, smoking, alcohol, etc) are to help us turn to the Lord. What good is it if on Easter Sunday we simply return to the former activities (e.g. smoking) and our hearts have not turned to the Lord?