Today we in the Eastern Orthodox Church begin the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday, as celebrated by Western Christians in the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations, is not a part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And so, for us, Great Lent begins with what is known as Clean Monday.
The day is called Clean Monday because on this day we begin Lent–a time of repentance and fasting. We fast from foods (all meat and dairy) and from sin in order to prepare ourselves to fully enter into Christ’s saving death and resurrection. Clean Monday is the beginning of Clean Week and the “kick start,” so to speak, of our Lenten journey.
There are various Orthodox traditions surrounding Clean Monday and Clean Week. Some traditions are specific to different ethnic traditions, while others are more widespread or even mandated.
Eastern Orthodox Clean Week: Traditions and Tips
Clean Week Traditions
1. Forgiveness Vespers
Clean Week begins liturgically the evening before with Forgiveness Vespers. Forgiveness Vespers is one of my absolute favorite services of the entire Church year! At the end of this vespers service, the priest prostates himself completely on the floor and asks the parish to forgive him, a sinner. The parish responds with forgiveness, and the priest rises. Then the ceremony of mutual forgiveness begins, and members of the parish go to each other and ask for forgiveness. By the end of the service, each person has bowed down before every single other member and asked for their forgiveness, received it, and offered forgiveness. It is so incredibly powerful, and such a wonderful way to begin the Fast–forgiven.
2. The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete
The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is a very lengthy, penitential prayer that is broken up into three nights of communal prayer during Clean Week. Most parishes gather together several times over the course of Clean Week to pray a portion of the prayer. To learn more about this beautiful, powerful prayer, be sure to check out this article.
3. Presanctified Liturgy
The first Presanctified Liturgy of the Lenten season is during Clean Week. Presanctified Liturgy is a mid-week liturgy that provide the faithful with an extra opportunity to receive the Eucharist to strengthen them during the intense spiritual struggle of fasting. I have described this beautiful service more in depth in Presanctified Liturgy: The Gift of Lent.
4. Go to Confession
Many Orthodox Christians go to confession during Clean Week in order to cleanse their hearts and consciences. Partaking in this holy sacrament in a practical way to enter fully into the spirit of Clean Week.
5. Strict Fasting
Many Orthodox Christians observe a strict fasting practice during the first few days of Clean Week. We all abstain from meat and dairy during the fast, but Orthodox Christians who are able are also encouraged to add additional discipline to their fasting on Clean Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Many people do not eat or drink anything during this period. Others will eat only in the evenings, and then only simple foods like fruits, vegetables, and bread.
6. Clean the House
In the spirit of Clean Week, many people do a “spring cleaning” of their homes. Any extra food, clothing, and other items can be given to the poor.
7. Go Outside
One Clean Monday tradition for Greek Orthodox Christians, is to spend the day outdoors. Many families also fly kites on this day.
8. Bake Greek Lagana
Many Greek Orthodox Christians also bake a special bread called lagana. This flatbread is traditionally only eaten on Clean Monday. I just baked my first ever lagana, and you can find the recipe I used here!
9. Make a Lady Lent Cookie
Finally, some Orthodox families will make a “Lady Lent” cookie on Clean Monday. This traditional cookie is a way to count down the weeks until Pascha. The cookie is drawn in the image of a nun who has seven feet for the seven weeks of Lent. At the end of each week, one foot is cut off until you reach Pascha. Sylvia at Adventures of an Orthodox Mom has more information (plus a recipe!) on the Lady Lent cookie.
Clean Week Tips
1. Start Small
It is really easy, especially as a new convert, to try to take on everything at once. To jump right in with ALL of the beautiful Orthodox traditions available. This can quickly lead to burn out! (Don’t ask me how I know….) Instead, start small. Perhaps you will choose one tradition to focus on this year with your family. (I would recommend starting by attending one of the services of Clean Week). Then next year you can add another tradition, and so on over the next several years.
2. Know Your Season
This tip relates to starting small: Know the season of life that you are in. Are you currently nursing one baby and chasing after a toddler at the same time? This is probably not the year to try a strict fast. Do you have teenagers that keep you running around from activity to activity each night? Then trying to make all sorts of new dishes for dinners is probably not practical. Speak with your spiritual father or with Orthodox mothers who are in the same season of life that can give you ideas.
3. Keep Your Family in Mind
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I begin thinking about and planning for Great Lent as if I were still a single woman. I want to attend all of the services, try all of the traditions, zero in on my spiritual life with single-minded focus, and more. But, as a wife and a mother of three, I need to keep my family in mind.
What does this mean, practically? Even if I am strictly fasting, I need to plan good meals for my kiddos. Attending all services just isn’t possible right now with early bedtimes. (My husband and I will alternate going to services and watching the children.) Cleaning out my house and finding items to donate affects others and should be done with them. So, as you begin Clean Week, make sure to consider the other members of your family.
4. Plan Ahead for Meals
Clean Week can get busy with all of the special services, so it is good to plan ahead for meals. I’ve been loving the book Fasting as a Family and the meal-planning worksheets in the back. When I set out to make my meal plan for the week, I consider the activities of the day and plan accordingly. For example, I knew that my oldest son and I would be attending the Canon of St. Andrew on Clean Monday. So, I planned a simple slow cooker white bean soup that will be cooking all day while I am teaching. I also made lagana last night, as I knew I would not have time tonight. When I get home from work tonight, there will be soup ready for dinner and bread to go along with it. Simple, tasty, fasting-friendly.
5. Talk with Your Spiritual Father
Finally, this last tip is the most important (and should be done first). As always, speak with your spiritual father. He knows you personally, understands your weaknesses and temptations, is responsible for your spiritual state, and knows your family. He will be able to best advise you as you enter Great Lent and Clean Week.
Did I miss any? What traditions do you have for Clean Week?
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