The Great Lent and Easter in Russia
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
What do Russians do during Great Lent and at Easter? Nonbelievers go on living the way they always lived, and this period does not mean an awful lot to them. There are also different types of believers. There are those who believe in a higher reality, in Angels and retribution, but they are not members of the Church. They do not fast, do not confess their sins, receive communion, attend the liturgy or observe any other ecclesiastic rites and rituals. There are strict believers who do all these things, but sin anyway. And then there are the priests and monks who give their whole lives to the Lord leaving nothing or almost nothing for themselves. They keep all the fasts, listen to people’s confessions, receive and give communion and pray for those who come to them to confess (as well as for their spiritual children) thus helping them to perfect themselves. At least this is what they are supposed to do.
But let us talk not about the whether people stick to rules or not, but what the Russian Orthodox Church expects of believers. In the Church calendar one will find ordinary days, Lenten days, holidays and special days of commemorating the dead. Lenten days are divided into strict Lenten days: those days allowing cooking oil, those forbidding oil, Lenten days allowing fish, Lenten days allowing wine, Lenten days allowing caviar. There are also days allowing forbidden food without meat, usually during the weeks before the Lent.
So what is one supposed to do during the Great Lent and Easter? During the Lent a believer should reflect on his or her life, behaviour and way of thinking. Abstention from the forbidden foods (meat and milk products) is only the corporeal part of the Lent, which helps the believer to purify him or herself and concentrate on prayer in order to be able to grow spiritually. Entertainments are also forbidden during Lent. Instead, a believer should go to Church more often, read morning and evening prayers more carefully and do good deeds, such as helping invalids and the poor. In this context, confession and communion are a kind of an indulgence and a chance to start afresh, to be able to ascend spiritually.
It is not so easy to keep the fast even for weather-beaten believers, let alone neophytes. However, one can start with a small amount of self-denial, while experienced members of the church go further. The Church, however, is not a dictatorship. Each believer decides what is the correct measure of asceticism for him or herself. The Church allows small children and the sick not to fast at all, especially if their diet prescribes the forbidden products.
This year February 8 – February 14 was Maslennitsa, that is a week before the Great Lent when people are baking blinis (pancakes) and eating them with caviar, herring, salmon, butter and oil.
The first three days of Lent, from February 15 until February 17, presuppose strict abstinence from forbidden food. During the rest of the February, oil can be added to Lenten food at weekends, and this general regime is practiced in March.
This year, Easter falls on April 4, which is a Sunday. So on April 1, Thursday, one is allowed to consume food without oil. April 2, the Great Friday, (the day when our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified) is a strict Lenten day. April 3 allows one to drink wine. April 4 is the Great Easter.
All believers spend Easter night in Church, a service ending with the Holiday Easter Communion, the Greatest Communion of the year. Then the priest congratulates the believers. Some good food awaits them in Church to end the Lent. At home people eat eggs painted on the eve of the Easter, sweet cottage cheese with raisins or dry apricots called Paskha (Easter) as well kulichi or Easter cakes. All this food is brought to the Church to be sanctified or hallowed on Easter eve. On Easter day and during the whole Easter period, people (especially in the Church) greet each other with the cry: “Iisus voskrese” or“ Jesus is resurrected”. The answer to this is “Voistinu voskrese” or “In truth He is resurrected”.
Many neophytes who are learning to fast think that Easter day is it, and now they can go and eat to their hearts’ content. They sometimes eat so much that they even have to go to hospital. They should be careful, especially this year, because the Annunciation will be celebrated after Easter, on April 7, which will also be a strict Lenten day. So, one should not relax to the full, but only a little.
Spiritually, Easter is the Day when Jesus rose from the dead. It means He redeemed us all from the depths of Hell, starting with Adam and Eve and ending up with the last man on Earth. However, we are all sinners anyway. We spit from time to time, use four-letter words, are vicious, jealous, discuss each other, disrespect our bosses, make love on the side and so on. We can only hope the Lord will forgive those who repent and start afresh, which is never too late, I suppose.