Monday, 15 February 2010

Clean Monday and the beginning of Lent

The iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox parish church in Arbour Hill, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This year, and once again in 2011, the dates for Lent and Easter fall at the same time for both the Western Churches and the Orthodox Church.

This is not a regular occurance, and so the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, Canon Ken Kearon, has suggested that “members of the Anglican Communion, especially those with close relationships with the Orthodox families of Churches ... may wish to take the opportunity to mark this in some way, perhaps by sending greetings to their Orthodox neighbours or some meaningful joint gesture.”

For Orthodox Christians, however, Lent begins not on Ash Wednesday but today, Clean Monday (Καθαρή Δευτέρα).

To mark Clean Monday, the first day of Lent, the Irish Hellenic Community is gathering at 12 noon today at Johny Fox’s Pub in the Dublin Mountains for the traditional κούλουμα (koulouma) celebration, with kites, halvas, &c.

Καθαρή Δευτέρα or Clean Monday is also known as Pure Monday, Ash Monday, or Monday of Lent. In Cyprus, it is also known as Green Monday.

The name “Clean Monday” refers to the hope of leaving behind sinful attitudes. The name “Ash Monday” is probably derived from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in Western Churches. However, few Eastern Churches – apart from the Maronites, a uniate tradition in communion with Rome – practice the Imposition of Ashes at the start of Lent.

Liturgically, Clean Monday – and Lent itself – began last night with a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which ends with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, when those present bow down before each other and ask for forgiveness. In this way, they begin Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love.

The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” when it is customary to go to Confession and to clean the house thoroughly.

The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament reading appointed for the Sixth Hour on this day (Isaiah 1: 1-20), which says in part:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool
(verses 16-18).

A special kind of azyme bread (λαγάνα, lagana) is baked only on this day. Some Orthodox Christians abstain from eating meat, eggs and dairy products throughout Lent, eating fish only on major feast days.

Clean Monday is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus, where it is celebrated with customs such as outdoor excursions and kite flying, like the Hellenic Community’s outing to the Dublin Mountains today. The happy, spring-time atmosphere of Clean Monday seem at odds with the Lenten spirit of repentance and self-control.

However, this apparent contradiction is characteristic of the Orthodox approach to fasting, taking to heart the Gospel reading from Saint Matthew (Matthew 6: 14-21) which includes the admonition:

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (verses 16-18).

In this way, the Orthodox Church celebrates the fact that, as the Vespers for Wednesday say, “the springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open.”

The Old Testament reading for the Sixth Hour on Clean Monday (Isaiah 1: 1-20) is reflected in one of our morning readings (Isaiah 1: 10-18) at the start of our Ash Wednesday retreat in Donabate this week, while the reading from Saint Mathew’s Gospel is included in our Gospel reading (Matthew 6: -16, 16-21) at the closing Eucharist our retreat at 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon in Saint Patrick’s Church (Church of Ireland), Donabate.

May the springtime of the Fast dawn, and may the flower of repentance begin to open for us.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin