In the Ruthenian Church, we begin our lead-up to Lent on the Sunday of Zacchaeus, which is 4 weeks before the beginning of the Great Fast. I always found it very interesting how the Church Fathers decided to prepare for Lent. Lent doesn’t just “happen.” We aren’t celebrating on Sunday as if it’s just another day and then *poof* time for Clean Monday and strict fasting. The transition to Great Lent is rather smooth, and a lot smoother than our Roman bretheren’s transition. When I refer to Rome, I, of course, am referring to the TRUE Roman Liturgy, which is the Traditional Latin Mass, which has its most current form in the Missal of 1962. According to their use, they have the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, but it really isn’t much of a transition as much as a heads up.
This isn’t said to bash those on the Western side of our Holy Church, but rather for us to have a deeper appreciation for our rich liturgical tradition. So let’s dive into the PreLenten Season!
Sunday of Zacchaeus
The Sunday of Zacchaeus is what we consider to be the kickoff of the Pre-Lent season. Interestingly enough, not a lot changes. We don’t begin using the Triodion, the liturgical book for Lent, yet. The Sunday of Zacchaeus is just an ordinary Sunday after Pentecost. The resurrectional tones for the Troparia and Kontankia are used. From an outside perspective, the only difference is that the Sunday, instead of being named XXth Sunday after Pentecost, is called the Sunday of Zacchaeus, and we simply have a Gospel reading about him in the Sycamore tree. So, why is this day important? The theme we are to take away from this Sunday is that we should go out of our way to seek God. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and because of his efforts, was able to repent.
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
On this Sunday, while we are still in the Sundays after Pentecost, the Triodion begins to be used. While the resurrectional troparion is still used, the Kontankion is taken from the Triodion. We have the theme this Sunday of pride and humility. The prideful pharisee had done everything right according to the law, and had no need for God. The god the pharisee was praying to was his own ego. Whereas the publican, after living a horrendously sinful life, beats his breast in compunction crying aloud “O God be merciful to me a sinner!” Sound familiar? That prayer is something we say on a daily basis. Because of his humility, he carried away the absolution of sins! So, now we have a continuation from last Sunday. First, we must go out of our way to seek God. Then, we must humble ourselves before him.
Sunday of the Prodigal Son
The transition continues because this Sunday kicks off Meat-fare week. It is the end of the Sundays after Pentecost. After we walk out of church on this Sunday, we know that we only have one week left to eat hamburgers, pork-chops, bacon, etc. before Pascha. We can see the beginning of the starting line. The theme of the Prodigal Son is repentance. We turn back and run to the Father. Yet, at the same time, we are also called to be merciful like the Father. So after going out of our way to seek God, and after we humble ourselves before him, we then must repent to the Father of all our sins.
Enjoy your last steaks! On Meatfare Sunday, we give up meat until Pascha. That is a transition in itself! And the theme of this Sunday? Well, the past three Sundays, we see that we need to go out of our way to seek God, humble ourselves before him, and repent of our sins. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we see that if we do this, we will be judged to be in God’s good graces! That’s right! It’s judgement Sunday! We also see what awaits us if we do not follow the instructions given by the last Sundays. If we do not seek God, if we remain prideful, if we do not repent of our sins, we get to glance into the windows of what awaits us in the future – damnation. My parish priest actually expressed to me that this is the one Sunday where he is supposed to be fire and brimstone in his preaching with no holds barred. Salvation is serious business!
As the name suggests, this is the last day to eat cheese and dairy products (including eggs) until Pascha. The theme of this Sunday? Forgiveness! It is Forgiveness Sunday! After being admonished to seek God, humble ourselves, and repent, and after being shown what awaits us in the future, we learn that the first step to the remission of our sins is us forgiving everyone else. By forgiving one another, we enable our hearts and souls to journey into the 40 days with full vigor and to receive the blessings of God.
We see a smooth transition, in the liturgical cycles, in our fasting disciplines, and in our mindset and journey towards the Great Fast. I liken the PreLent season to the Daytona 500 (which ironically, occurs on Cheesefare Sunday this year). In NASCAR, the race begins with the cars taking 3 warm-up laps around the track at about 50 or 60 mph. Then after the 3rd lap, once they hit the start line, the throttles open and they go full speed.
PreLent is sort of like the three laps of NASCAR. We begin warming our engines up to be able to endure a long, harsh fast. We don’t warm up by walking slowly, but by going at a fast pace. 5omph is not a slow speed, using normal cars as a standard. 50mph is considered highway speed. Fasting from meat and dairy for a day is like going around the track at 50mph. While we may struggle fasting every Wednesday and Friday, it’s manageable. However, going 56 days without meat and 49 days without dairy is not an easy feat. We need to warm up to that. And once we are warm, we can hit Clean Monday, opening full throttle to run the race of Great Lent.