The Very Rev. Nabil Hanna of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church holds a cross as Amy Madsen venerates (kisses) it. Behind her Wednesday was her mother, Nancy Madsen. Hanna said fasting is a "spiritual exercise" for Orthodox Christians.
Lent is different for the Orthodox
Christians in the Eastern churches give up more foods and have their own calendar
By Robert King
For most American Christians, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus known as Easter falls on April 16.
But for Orthodox Christians around the nation and in 14 Central Indiana congregations, the resurrection celebration, which they call Pascha, comes a full week later -- on April 23.
That offset calendar -- which allows Orthodox families some great deals on chocolate bunnies and bright spring dresses -- is just one way the Orthodox, or Eastern, Church marks the holy season differently from its Western brethren.
Beyond the calendars, the Very Rev. Nabil Hanna, pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church on the Eastside, said the key difference might be that the Orthodox view their much-stricter Lenten fasting not as a sacrifice but as a "spiritual exercise."
"The body is truly the partner of the spirit rather than being at odds with the body," Hanna said. "We need to discipline ourselves as a whole being, which includes the body. . . . If we just do whatever we feel like whenever, what separates us from the animals?"
The Orthodox Church, which includes Greek, Russian, Antiochian and other churches, was united with what we know today as the Roman Catholic Church through Christianity's first millennium. Differences over the authority of the pope, among other things, pulled them apart in the 11th and 12th centuries.
For Roman Catholics, the observance of Lent is characterized for many by abstaining from meat on Fridays. Some also give up other items -- chocolate or caffeine, for instance -- as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice.
But for observant Orthodox Christians, Lent is preceded not with a feast along the lines of Mardi Gras but with weaning oneself away from the consumption of meat and dairy products.
With the actual start of Lent, many observant Orthodox forgo meat, dairy products and fish for the entire season -- not just Fridays. The most devout may fast completely during daylight hours and consume only fluids, vegetables and grains at night.
"It really is a beautiful time where we see God's presence more," Hanna said. "We shut out so many of those things that, when we think about them, are distractions."
Aside from fasting, the Orthodox Church emphasizes prayer and giving to the poor during Lent. There is a dramatic uptick in the number of worship services and communal meals -- albeit meals with more modest menus.
The calendar discrepancy between the Eastern and Western churches developed in the 16th century, when Pope Gregory commissioned a new calendar. The Eastern Church stayed with the one developed by Julius Caesar.
The two calendars are now 13 days apart. Because the date of their celebrations of Christ's resurrection are based on the first appearance of a full moon following March 21, the dates frequently don't coincide.
Natalie Ashanin, a 74-year-old St. George member and a lifelong Orthodox Christian, is the child of Russian immigrants. She likens the Orthodox Lent to an old Russian phrase -- bright sadness.
"It is a time of thinking about Christ's death," Ashanin said. "Also, there is a joy in it in thinking that Easter is coming and the blessed Resurrection."
Orthodox Pascha and the Western church's Easter do not always fall on separate dates. But the frequent calendar discrepancy between the two was something Ashanin, who has four adult children, always welcomed.
"I loved it. I didn't like it when they were on the same time because the chocolate candies and the things and the dresses would go on sale after Western Easter, and we would go and get things for half-price," she said.
Still, Ashanin said that discrepancy can cause problems for families in which one spouse is Orthodox and the other is Catholic or Protestant. The side of the family that celebrates Easter typically wants to have a big meal on Easter Sunday, she said. But that falls in the midst of the Orthodox side's fasting.
A bigger problem, according to Rev. Hanna, is that the Western churches don't seem to observe Lent and Holy Week with the same special regard that Orthodox churches do. That can lead to issues such as one that occurred with Hanna's son. Two years ago, the boy's middle school band scheduled a trip to a Pacers game on Holy (Good) Friday.
"When I grew up and was in school, Holy Friday was a day people of all denominations went to church," Hanna said. "It seems to have little bearing (these days) on the celebration for Catholics and Protestants."
Hanna said Christians of all denominations need to understand that their faith is not lived out inside the stained-glass world of church services but is demonstrated in the community.
"These are not merely obligations," he said of the fasting and devotion to faith. "They are a way of life. Our faith is not something that we do when we happen to be in this building, but it should be all-pervasive."
A COMPARISON OF CHRISTIAN CALENDARS
Because the Orthodox Christian Church follows the Julian calendar for setting the dates for Lent and the Resurrection (Easter) celebration, their observances in many years fall on dates different from the Western church, which includes Catholics and Protestants. A look at 2006.
Lent begins -- March 6.
Palm Sunday -- April 16.
Good Friday -- April 21.
Pascha (Easter) -- April 23.
Roman Catholic/Protestant dates
Lent begins (Ash Wednesday) -- March 1.
Palm Sunday -- April 9.
Good Friday -- April 14.
Easter -- April 16.