Eastern Orthodox Christians begin 2016 fast of Great Lent

Lagana bread, usually baked without oil, in a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Lagana bread, usually baked without oil, in a photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Lenten season begins for hundreds of millions of Eastern Christians, also known as Orthodox Christians, through a series of traditional steps to prepare for this Great Fast …

  • Clean Monday kites flying photo from Wikimedia CommonsSUNDAY, MARCH 6: Meatfare Sunday or Sunday of the Last Judgment. Preparing for the “Great Fast” of Lent, this is the last day that meat can be eaten until Pascha (Orthodox Easter, this year, on May 1)—but dairy products still are allowed for another week. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America provides this in-depth overview of Eastern fasting practices and the various religious milestones during this season.
  • SUNDAY, MARCH 13: Cheesefare Sunday or Forgiveness Sunday. This is the last day that dairy products can be consumed until Pascha. The spiritual focus of this Sunday liturgy is on “forgiveness,” an appropriate theme to remember as these Christians enter this long period of prayer and reflection.
  • MONDAY, MARCH 14: Clean Monday is the beginning of the “Great Fast” of Lent. Let the kites fly! And—read further to learn about Lagana, a seasonal bread known throughout Greece as the taste of Clean Monday. Wikipedia has a detailed overview of Clean Monday customs.
  • EAST & WEST and the unity of Easter: Western Christians begin their Lenten season this year with Ash Wednesday on March 10 with Easter on March 27. The differences in dates are due to centuries-old customs for calculating the date of Easter, which vary from East to West. The Christian world won’t have a unified Easter again until 2017—and then there will be years of differences until Easter 2025 and 2028.

Prayerful Attention to Tradition: To many Americans, this Great Fast may sound extreme. Another way to think about it, though, is as a healthy season of Mediterranean eating. Whole grains and vegetables dominate in recipes associated with Great Lent. Of course, some families from an Orthodox background skip the fasting rules—just as many Western Christians overlook their own far-less-restrictive fasting traditions. But, observant Orthodox families around the world do change their eating habits, each year, in the weeks leading to Pascha.

During the fast, Eastern Christians avoid: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, wine and oil. There are traditional exceptions within the Orthodox calendar. Wine and oil are permitted on all Sundays during this period, for example. And an ancient tradition—the feast of the Annunciation—is considered so sacred that it always falls on March 25, even during Great Lent. That feast recalls Mary receiving news that she would be the mother of Jesus, nine months later. Thus, on Tuesday March 25, this year—fish, wine and oil are permitted for the feast.

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

Greek Orthodox Calendar App

The Tsolias logo.

HOW DO WE KEEP TRACK? Here at ReadTheSpirit online magazine, how do we cover this complex season? Well, thanks to longtime reader David Adrian, each year, we receive the kind of Orthodox wall calendar that many congregations provide to their faithful. That’s one way.

The other is via smartphone apps. Our favorite is the Greek Orthodox Calendar app, developed by Tsolias Software. The app shows us each day’s spiritual resources at a glance, including colorful little icons of the food groups permitted that day. (There are lots of fasting days in the Orthodox calendar, each year, and the app keeps track of all the rules.) We also have heard strong reader recommendations of the apps developed in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. And, if you want a “free” app, we’ve heard that the Orthodox Calendar by David Ledselidze is pretty useful, as well. Plus, Ledselidze’s app has more resources of special interest to Russian Orthodox men and women.

WHY KITES?

Considering the strict nature of this fast, the cheery celebration of Clean Monday may seem jarring. Congregations are reminded, however, that it is important to remain outwardly pleasant during the fasting period. The passage of Matthew 6, verses 14-21, is read to drive home this spiritual lesson. It says, in part: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”

The most common Clean Monday vista in Greece is a blue sky full of colorful kites. Families pack up traditional Lenten foods for a picnic. It’s a national holiday, so most workers and students have the day free.

TASTE CLEAN MONDAY: LAGANA

The traditional Greek Orthodox taste of Clean Monday is a sesame-topped bread called Lagana—usually made long and fairly flat, and ideally a very tasty bread. It’s also true that some home cooks produce something more akin to a giant, crunchy breadstick—but, if prepared properly, this is a delicious bread.

Want a recipe that’s likely to produce the tastier variety? There are many online, but we especially like this photo-illustrated, step-by-step recipe from The Greek Vegan. Beyond the helpful photos, here’s another reason we like this particular website’s approach to the recipe: These days, a lot of online recipes wink at the restrictions of the Great Fast and include oil in the ingredients. The Greek Vegan recognizes that this is a serious issue for many Christians and explains how to make this bread in the traditional, oil-free way.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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