March 22, 2013

Great Lent in Byzantium

By Sergei V. Bulgakov

According to the witness of St. John Chrysostom, some people during his time were content with only bread and water during the entire Holy Forty Day Fast, and "on other hand, although the fast was coming there were those who tried a thousand times to get him to drink wine or to eat something not appropriate for the fast; he decided to undergo all that, rather than to taste the forbidden food."

In Byzantium in the Sixth Century, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, there was a famine during the time of the Holy Forty Day Fast. The emperor allowed the sale of meat. Even though it was allowed out of necessity, the people, out of piety, did not buy nor eat the meat, wishing to endure hunger rather than to depart from ancient customs and traditions.

In every possible way abstaining from food and strictly limiting its choice, ancient Christians, agreeing with the canons of the Holy Church, limited themselves in even all the purest and holy joys, considering even such actions as incompatible with the quiet sorrow of the days of repentance.

From the most ancient times as it has been told by us before, on the weekdays of the Holy Forty Day Fast the full liturgy was attended by ancient Christians with spiritual gladness and festive agape meals (Laod. 19, Trullo 52), on those days the commemoration of the holy Martyrs were not celebrated (Laod. 51). And during all of the Holy Forty Day Fast it was strictly forbidden "to perform marriages, or to celebrate birthdays" (Laod. 52). To not give an occasion to believers to absentmindedness and entertainments, the canons of the Holy Church have forbidden all shows and common games. And ancient Christians counted it an inexcusable sin for themselves during the days of general repentance, humility, soulful weeping and lamentation for sins, to afford the earthy entertainments and worldly pleasures with which pagans betrayed themselves at this time of prodigality with the darkness of superstition and impiety. Subsequently the Emperor Theodosius the Great prohibited public shows through the imperial code of laws. Similarly fairs were prohibited in lent, and also suits and litigation was stopped during this time.

During the same time of the Holy Forty Day Fast was the time of the greatest display of Christian mercy and love: the sovereigns released captives, forgave debtors, facilitated the destiny of criminals, removed fetters from those in prison; bishops reconciled penitents with the Church, released the reformed from heavy interdicts and public penance; all believers considered it their primary duty at this time to help the poor, the needy, to visit the sick, to comfort pilgrims, to mediate conflicts, to stop all mutual quarrels and disputes, to manage slaves with special kindness, etc.

Several times a day the faithful gathered in the temple for divine services, for public prayers and hearing the word of God, filling these practices with obligatory personal prayers; assiduously preparing themselves for worthy reception of the Holy Mysteries and during the Holy Forty Day Fast repeatedly receiving communion during the full liturgy and at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

Full silence reigned during this time even in the special life of Christian societies. St. John Chrysostom in one of the commentaries says: "What blessing does not occur for us in lent? Everywhere there is silence and pure clarity. And are not the dwellings also free from noise, bustle and any anxiety? But before yet the dwelling, the spirit of the one who fasts tastes calmness, and that all the cities everywhere should reveal such decency, as what exists in spirit and in the dwellings: neither the audible singing in the evening, nor the afternoon commotion and drunkenness. There is no audible shouting, nor quarreling, but everywhere great silence."