“All the members of the congregation line up facing each other, in a long double-line like a bicycle chain. One member of the pair asks the other, in his or her own words, ‘Forgive me for any way I have sinned against you.’ … In this way we take up the challenge of Lent at peace with one another.” Frederica Mathewes-Green occupies a unique and significant role in the contemporary church. Once a 60’s flower child (her wedding was out in the woods!!), committed to women’s liberation, her own spiritual journey has taken her from Roman Catholic to Episcopalian to Eastern Orthodox. She’s now a notable representative of ancient Christian wisdom, an ardent defender of human life and dignity, and offers a peaceful, compassionate, and attentive presence to everyone she encounters. We asked her to share more about the long-standing practices of Orthodox Christians during Great Lent, their journey toward Pascha (Easter).
The Table: What do you read during Great Lent?
Frederica: Among Orthodox Christians, traditional Lenten reading is the Ladder of Divine Ascent, written by St. John of the Ladder, who was abbot of the monastery on Mt. Sinai in the 7th century. It sets forth spiritual growth as a series of 30 “rungs” on a ladder. St. John’s psychological insight was profound and the challenging book helps us see ourselves more clearly.
The early church was mostly illiterate, so the emphasis is more on what we hear read aloud than private reading. We hear a great deal more of Scripture: the healing service in Holy Week (Wednesday night) includes seven Epistle and Gospel readings about miraculous healing, and the Thursday night service includes all the Gospel passages describing Christ’s Passion, which takes over three hours. We also hear read aloud the story of St. Mary of Egypt.
The Table: What are you giving up (or taking on) for Lent? How do you practice penitence this season?
Frederica: During Lent, Orthodox Christians, myself included, fast from meat, fish, dairy, all animal products, and (except on weekends) alcohol and olive oil. Tertullian, an early Christian apologist of the 3rd century, likened this fast to Daniel’s diet in the king’s court (Daniel 1).
The Table: What Orthodox practices of Great Lent stand out to you as particularly formative and impacting?
Frederica: In the Rite of Forgiveness when Lent begins, all the members of the congregation line up facing each other, in a long double-line like a bicycle chain. One member of the pair asks the other, in his or her own words, “Forgive me for any way I have sinned against you.” That person gives forgiveness, and then asks for it in turn. They embrace, then each person takes a step to the right and repeats the act of forgiveness with a new person. Over the course of an hour or so, every person in the congregation asks and gives forgiveness with every other person there. In this way we take up the challenge of Lent at peace with one another.
FURTHER LENTEN READING FROM FREDERICA
Frederica Mathewes-Green leads a guided retreat—ideal for the Lenten season—through the classic Great Canon, a wise, ancient, Orthodox text that will enrich your experience of spirituality and prayer.
First Fruits of Prayer will bring readers of all denominational backgrounds into the prayer experience of first millennium Christianity through immersion in this fascinating text, a poetic hymn written in the eighth century. This extraordinarily beautiful work, still chanted by Eastern Christians every Lent, weaves together Old and New Testament scriptures with prayers of hope and repentance. It offers ancient ways of seeing Christ that will nevertheless feel new to most readers today.
This insightful book offers all readers an opportunity to walk through a classic text from the Christian East in a series of 40 prayerful readings, with accompanying commentary and questions for further reflection.