Yes, Great Lent is now upon us all, at least as of sunset tonight. Or perhaps midnight. Or Vespers. I never was very clear on that question. Among modern Christians, at the mention of Great Lent, the first and most likely response is: what are you giving up?
Among Orthodox the question doesn’t usually come up. There are certain ground rules: fast from meat, dairy, olive oil, and alcohol. Keep a prayer rule. Go to services as much as possible. Most importantly: repent! Within these, there’s room for variation. Usually we don’t want to know how much variation, lest people who are keeping the fast strictly start feeling particularly virtuous about it, or those who aren’t either feel wretched, or complacent about being the “stronger Christian,” able to look with pity upon his “weaker brother” who apparently feels his salvation is dependent on keeping the fast. Generally, however a person is observing Lent, their rules bend a bit to the feelings of their hosts or guests. A person who’s still eating cheese probably oughtn’t be serving cheese and wine after Liturgy, or to an Orthodox guest. If they forget, though, and DO serve said snacks, the guest probably ought to eat it, since the intentions were likely kind.
Questions come up: is it alright to eat non-dairy chocolate during? What about evil jungle princess curry with deep fried tofu. Sure, it’s vegan, but is it fasting? What about veggi-crumble sloppy joes or tofurky? Does “olive oil” stand for oil in general? What if I want to fry my veggie burger in safflower oil? Why didn’t the church fathers think of this? Is it weird that I want to sleep on the floor, five feet from my perfectly good bed? New converts are most likely to ask these kinds of questions.
When your neighbor asks you over for corned beef and cabbage on Saint Patrick’s day, which is more convincing a) I’m a part time vegan, b) it’s Lent, or c) I have church that night (no, I have church that night too. Actually, I have church every night)? It probably depends on whether they’re celebrating Saint Patrick (in which case b or c are your best bets), or if they’re mostly interested in green beer and pinching, in which case a will go over best, especially if this is your friend from college, where fasting out of love for animals is more comprehensible than fasting out of love for God.
All this contributes to a reticence when it comes to “what are you giving up for Lent?” It might come across better if asked as “how are you observing Lent?” but even then it may yield only generalities of how Lent is customarily kept. The alternative is a number of conversations that go something like this:
Ah! Is it Lent? I hadn’t thought about that… I suppose it is. What are you giving up?
Meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, wine, beds, singing “blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” during Matins, food from sunrise to Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays, complaining about my boss, an hour of sleep… and other assorted stuff. Isn’t lent great? *unnervingly eager look*
Hmm… Really? I think maybe I’ll give up chocolate.
Isn’t it terrible how we’ve let things slip to the point where we’re only taught to give up “something of our choice,” so as to “learn that we can live without it,” or whatever the tepid explanation may be? Even the Catholic Church has made abstaining from meat on Fridays optional – like it was some kind of burden to eat fish once week to begin with!? In the sixth century people would take off into the desert for 40 days with only a sack of dates and some water! And now we find it a hardship to “give up” our addiction to soda!
Hm. Ok. Well. Good luck with that.
I’m mostly speaking for Orthodox enthusiasts here, who are either rather young or recent converts. The non-enthusiasts amongst us follow the much wiser course of not beginning their conversations by wishing somebody a blessed lent.