It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the Western church calendar. We Orthodox enter the season a little more gradually. The liturgical book for the Lenten season, the Triodion, begins two Sundays before the start of the Great Fast with a commemoration of the Gospel story of the Publican and the Pharisee. The following Sunday is devoted to the parable of the Prodigal Son. We begin preparing for the full fast with Meatfare Sunday (March 2nd this year), which is devoted to the theme of the Last Judgement. It is called "Meatfare Sunday" because observant Orthodox will give up all meat products until the celebration of Pascha (Easter) some eight weeks from now. This coming Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday, the final preparation before the start of Lent. It also called Cheesefare Sunday, because we now add dairy products to the list of foods set aside until Easter.
This may seem excessive to folks used to giving up chocolate for Lent or going meatless on Fridays, but it used to be a universal custom in the Church, both East and West. To this day you can find "Shrove Tuesday" pancake suppers in Catholic and Episcopal parishes. The original purpose of these was to use up the last of your butter, eggs and milk before the start of the fast. There is of course more to the purpose of the Great Fast than simply doing without. Fortunately there are a number of resources on-line to help explore the deeper meaning of the Lenten observance. In the coming weeks I will try and list a few of them here, as well as suggesting some other materials to aid in the journey.