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Ancient Help for Modern Lent // Dust No. 15

David Bradshaw

An Eastern Orthodox perspective on Lent

Professor of Philosophy, University of Kentucky
March 27, 2014

The Table: What is the meaning of Lent?

Bradshaw: Eastern Orthodox Christians observe Lent much as do other Christians, as a time of fasting and prayer. The fasting and other practices (described below) are fairly rigorous, so we think of this time as a “Lenten journey” that we all share. It is the dark cave that one struggles through in order to reach the glory of the Resurrection.

The Table: What do you read during Lent?

Bradshaw: People often read saints’ lives or devotional works by the Church Fathers during Lent. However, the most important readings are the Scriptures appointed for each day in the Church lectionary. There are specific Gospel readings for each Sunday, including the four weeks prior to Lent, that help set the tone and define the stages of the journey. The four “preparatory” Sundays are the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 2:22–40), the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31–46), and Forgiveness Sunday (Matthew 6:14–21). Each of the five Sundays in Lent also has a specific character that defines it as a stage along the journey. The details are too much to summarize here, but see this resource on pre-Lent and Sundays of Lent.

The Table: What are you giving up (or taking on) for Lent?

Bradshaw: Ordinarily we give up meat, fish, and dairy, along with alcohol and olive oil. There are some times of relaxation, such as that fish is permitted for the Annunciation (March 25) and Palm Sunday, and wine and oil are permitted on weekends. Also, if a person has special needs such as ill health a priest can grant a dispensation. But otherwise it’s fairly strict. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I have to admit that I still find it pretty hard. But that’s the point! You have to give yourself affliction in order to really feel your weakness and need for God.

The Table: How does bodily experience factor into the Orthodox understanding of Lent? (E.g., prostrations, fasting, other embodied actions/movements of devotion, etc.)

Bradshaw: Bodily actions are tremendously important. Many are part of Orthodox worship throughout the year: we light a candle when we enter the church, reverence and kiss the icons, and so on. The biggest difference during Lent is increased use of prostrations. One particularly important example is Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday. At that service we form a long line. Each person as he passes down the line makes a prostration before each other person, saying “Forgive me [that person’s name] for my sins against you.” That person replies, “God forgives,” and then does the same. Even small children do this. It’s very moving and also a bit exhausting! [Frederica Mathewes-Green also comments on this beautiful practice of the Orthodox during Great Lent here.–Ed.]

The Table: What specific prayers stand out to you as formative and encouraging of a penitential disposition?

Bradshaw: A prayer that we say repeatedly during Lent, both at church and at home, is called the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. +
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. +
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.
For Thou art blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen. +

(At each point where there’s a “+” you make the sign of the Cross and prostrate toward an icon of Christ. But of course if you don’t have an icon or aren’t comfortable making the Cross, you cannot do those things and it’s still a good prayer.)