Preparing ourselves for Pascha
Preparation is an essential part of Orthodox spirituality. It is for this reason that the Church has established that each major feast day be preceded by a period of fasting and spiritual preparation. The greatest feast in Christendom is the Resurrection of Christ, Great and Holy Pascha. It is called the Feast of feasts and Festival of festivals. Since it is the greatest of feasts, the period of preparation for Pascha is the most intense. The period of ten weeks which lead to Holy Pascha is contained in a book called the Triodion. The Triodion can be divided into three different sections, the first which, commonly called the Triodion, consists of the four Sundays: 1) the Publican and the Pharisee 2) the Prodigal Son 3) the Second Coming and 4) the expulsion of Adam from Paradise.
These commemorations remind us of the message of repentance which we recently heard from St. John the Forerunner and later from Christ Himself: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee teaches us that true repentance cannot accompany arrogance and judgmental-ness and that, “whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we are taught that we have freewill, the inheritance we have received from the Father. We may squander it on loose living or we may remain close to the Father. When we decide to return to God in a contrite heart and desire only to be a servant of God and not even a son, which is our birthright, we must lift ourselves up from the mire of sin and set out on the road to return to the Father. Then, while we are still afar off, God will run out to meet us and embrace us and kiss us, then will He kill for us the fatted calf. On the other hand, those who have not fallen so far away must not begrudge our repentant brethren nor God for receiving them joyfully.
After these two Sundays the message becomes more severe. Having been taught that God is merciful, lest we take advantage of His mercy, we are reminded of the coming judgment and the eternal fate of sinners. He calls all men His brethren and requires that we also treat them thus, saying: “Inasmuch as ye have done good or evil unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (c.f. Matt. 35: 41-45). This day is called Meat-fare Sunday because it is the last day on which we are permitted to eat meat until the great day of Pascha. During the week which follows, which is called Cheese-fare week, we are permitted to eat of all foods, save meat: dairy products, fish, wine, and oil, even on Wednesday and Friday. Also, during Cheese-fare week the services gradually begin to take on a Lenten character: on Wednesday and Friday of this week, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated and Alleluia is chanted during Matins instead of God is the Lord. In this way, the Church begins to prepare us for the Great Fast, on the one hand comforting us with the consumption of all foods, save meat, and on the other hand transforming the services into Lenten ones.
On Cheese-fare Sunday, the last day before the Great Fast, we remember the expulsion of Adam from Paradise. The two themes of repentance and fasting are united in this day’s hymnography, for the first commandment God gave to Adam and Eve was to fast from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Having violated this commandment, and being cast out of Paradise, Adam sat opposite Paradise and wept. For it is only through fasting and repentance that we may attain Paradise.
On the following day, Clean Monday, the stadium of the virtues is opened, the Great Fast. Let those who wish to enter, gird themselves for the good struggle of the Fast, for those who lawfully compete shall be justly crowned.
So be it, through the prayers of our holy fathers. Amen.