Tuesday, 3 March 2009


“Prayer requires more of the heart than of the tongue.” - Adam Clarke

Yesterday was “Clean Monday” for Greek Orthodox people, marking the beginning of the great fast of Lent. Lent is the period of fasting before Easter, in commemoration of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert. Interestingly, the 40-day period is one that recurs in the Bible: Moses spent 40 days on Mt Sinai, Elijah spent 40 days travelling to the Mount of God. In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic faith), Sundays are not included in the period of fasting and the fast begins on Ash Wednesday. In the Greek Orthodox faith, the period of Lenten fasting begins on “Clean Monday” and continues until midnight on Easter Saturday, a period of 48 days. The Greek term for Lent is Μεγάλη Σαρακοστή (Meghale Saracosté), meaning the “great 40th day”, fast being implied, and the “great” including the extra 8 days of fasting. The “lesser 40th day fast” of the Greek Orthodox Church is the one preceding Christmas and lasts 40 days. It was traditional for children to cut out a paper figure of an old lady with seven feet showing beneath her long skirt. This figure was dubbed “Mrs Lent”. She had no mouth as she was fasting, her hands are crossed in an attitude of prayer and contrition and she has 7 feet, one for each week of the Great Lent. As Lent progressed, one of the feet was cut off on the Saturday, the last one on Holy Saturday before Easter. In the days before calendars, Mrs Lent was an easy way to keep track of the progress of the fasting and the advent of Easter.

The term “Clean Monday” also refers to the Spring cleaning which was traditionally done on this day. Everything was taken out of the house, furniture dusted, floors mopped, walls were whitewashed, houses aired, and the rubbish taken out of the village and burnt. This represented a purification of the house, readying it for the Lenten period ahead. In Greece, Clean Monday is a time when children go out and fly kites, a practice known as koúlouma, which usually combines this kite-flying with a picnic in the countryside. It is customary to eat a special unleavened bread on this day, called a laghána. The baking of this special bread may be related to the Roman Feast of Ovens, the Fornacalia at around this time. During this feast, it was customary to eat wheaten flat cakes resembling the laghána. The Fornacalia cakes may also be linked to the tradition of baking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

The Great Carnival is gone and o’er Masquerading, feasting, alas no more. Lent is here, Clean Monday dear - Eat your olives and almighty God fear!
Greek Folk Rhyme

The term Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lenctene, meaning the time when days lengthen. The Scottish term for Lent is “Fasterns” while the Gaelic and Welsh terms also allude to the period of fasting. In Latin the term carnesprivium is given to Lent and means “the time of abstinence from meat”. Before the fast, all foods forbidden during Lent had to be consumed and generally this was a time for merry-making and feasting. Carnival is derived from the Latin carnelevarium, meaning “taking away of meat”. Other sources link carnival with carnevale, literally, “goodbye to meat”. No eggs, milk, cheese, meat or fish are partaken during the period of fasting, a largely vegetarian diet being followed. The Roman Catholic faith has relaxed the requirements of Lenten fasting whereas the Greek Orthodox church still applies the same stringent requirements to the faithful.

Shrovetide is the period just before Lent when people made their “shrifts”, or they were “shriven” i.e. made their confessions. Lent is a period of meditation, fasting, doing penance, preparing spiritually for Easter and giving money to charity. No weddings should be performed during Lent, couples usually waiting until Easter Sunday, a very popular day to celebrate a wedding in many countries. Traditionally, the 40-day period of Lent was also a time that new candidates for admission into the Christian faith prepared for their baptism, which occurred on Easter Sunday.

This year, Greek Easter falls one week after Western Christian Easter, and hence the beginning of Lent is one week later than the Western Church Lent, which started last week.

Spend some time over Lent trying to help others, think a little less of yourself and try to reflect a little on your good fortune. Pray for those things that you always take for granted, not for personal gain nor for useless luxuries. There are millions of people out there who are much worse off than you and who have to battle each day for the continued privilege of simple existence. Reflect a little and reconsider your actions, repent if you need to, ask for the forgiveness of those you love, they are the one whom you often hurt most deeply. Shed a tear for another’s pain, lend a helping hand, be kind to a stranger. And who knows, once Lent is over, you may decide to do all of those things all year round.
Have a Good Lent!

1 comment:

  1. We also have the Clean Thursday - during The Great Week, the last Thursday of the Lent. Usually, we clean the house, wash curtains, etc. Friday we begin baking... Then, on Great Saturday, by 6 in the evening everything is ready - and one can take their baskets with eggs, meats, cakes to the church to be blessed..
    But it is still a long way away! I am trying now to focus on reading - at least 2 Psalms a day and 2 pages of the New Testament... This is more difficult than following a vegan diet!