Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Arena of Virtues: Selections from Cheesefare Sunday

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Yesterday, for Roman Catholics around the world, marked the official beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a beautiful and solemn tradition in the West. But the Eastern lung of the Church offers its own unique set of services meditating on the beginning of (as we call it) the Great Fast. For us, the Fast began four days ago, on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

The name requires a bit of explanation. The Church, in her wisdom, realizes that the Fast has a tendency to sneak up on us all. So she lets us ease into the penitential season in stages--a sort of pre-preparation period. The Sunday Gospel readings for the weeks leading up to the beginning of the Fast features characters like Zaccheus and the Prodigal Son, who are called to repentance and reconciliation. The second-to-last Sunday before Lent is called Meatfare Sunday--for the very simple reason that it's the day we "say farewell" to eating meats until after Pascha. Similarly, the Sunday after that is labeled Cheesefare Sunday--the final day we can indulge in dairy products.

However, the focus of the liturgical prayers on Cheesefare Sunday is anything but food. Instead, the prayers for Vespers and Matins commemorate the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Through the plethora of hymns we enter into the character of Adam, weeping "over the memory of what used to be". The these verses from Ode 4 the Matins Canon bemoan the sorrow of separation from the Creator:

I was filled with honors when I was with you in Eden, O Master. Woe is me! How was I deceived by the envy of the Devil and rejected far from your face?
 
Choirs of angels, pour out your tears for me, and also you beauties of Paradise, the magnificent trees; for I was led astray by my misfortune and chased far away from God.
 
O pleasant meadows, O sweetness of Paradise, you trees planted by God, let your leaves, as so many eyes, pour out tears for my nakedness and my estrangement from the glory of God.
 
The poetry brims with the tone of a funeral dirge, and forces us to confront our own state of sin. But the Church hardly leaves us to drown in despair. By the second half of Matins, the verses during the Psalms of Praise offer a stern but joyful encouragement for the spiritual struggle to come:
 
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
From the hands of Christ, the almighty One, on the day of judgement.
 
(Because I am an incurable romantic, that particular verse has always held a special place in my heart. Being patient and charitable and not taking that extra helping of breakfast cereal become more endurable when viewed in terms of an epic quest.)
 
The most distinctive service of Cheesefare Sunday--Forgiveness Vespers--takes place after the Divine Liturgy. (Although it's technically an evening service, many parishes, for the sake of convenience, celebrate it directly after the morning Liturgy.) Forgiveness Vespers marks the official beginning of the Fast. During the service, the altar cloths and clergy vestments are changed from gold to the penitential red. The ordinary melodies for the psalms and litanies switch over to the plaintive Lenten tones. Finally, we recite the signature prayer of the Great Fast--the Prayer of St. Ephrem--complete with full-length prostrations after each stanza:
 
The Prayer of St. Ephrem
 
Lord and Master of my life,
spare me from the spirit of indifference, despair,
lust for power, and idle chatter. (Prostration)
 
Instead, bestow on me, your servant,
the spirit of integrity, humility,
patience, and love. (Prostration)
 
Yes, O Lord and King,
let me see my own sins
and not judge my brothers and sisters;
for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen. (Prostration)
 
The beautiful words combined with the physical action of humility make for an unforgettable experience of the solemnity of the season.
 
Finally, the service concludes with the profound Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness. In it, the celebrant and the congregation ask each other for forgiveness, and then each person comes forward to embrace and ask forgiveness of every other individual. It's a moving tradition, which forces us to step out of our personal shells and commit to the Fast as a community. All the while, the cantor quietly intones the Canon for Resurrection Matins--giving us a tiny glimpse of our Lenten goal:
 
Let us cleanse our senses
that we may see the risen Christ
in the glory of his resurrection
and clearly hear him greeting us:
"Rejoice!" as we sing the hymn of victory.
Christ is risen from the dead!
 
(But, shhh! Not quite yet!)
 
Indeed, let us cleanse our senses, body, mind, and soul. A blessed Great Fast to you all!