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A different take on fasting comes out of the Byzantine Church tradition
HONG KONG (SE): An afternoon of instruction on Lent and Easter, or Pasqua, as practiced in the Byzantine rite of the Catholic Church, began and ended with a bit of hands-on prayer, Byzantine style.
Father Richard Soo, a Jesuit priest from the Catholic Byzantine Ukrainian Tradition in Canada, introduced the 30 or so people present at the Diocese Centre in Hong Kong on March 9 to his tradition of prayer.
As he led people through the great Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim, Father Soo explained that in the Byzantine tradition people pray with their arms spread, like the priest at a Latin rite Mass, as the gesture is a proclamation of love.
He also demonstrated how the fingers are pressed together when making the sign of the cross, representing one God and three persons, adding that the arm crosses to the right shoulder first when invoking the name of the Son, as he sits at the right hand of the father.
At the end of the afternoon, he invited people to pray St. Ephraim’s prayer again, this time using the prostrations.
He demonstrated the various body gestures and postures that can be used from a simple lowering of the head to bow from the waist and touching the ground with the hand to the full prostration, where the head touches the floor.
The prostration is an expression of humility, as well as an act of worship and prayer for forgiveness.
The Byzantine rite is one of 22 autonomous, self-governing Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See, all of which are quite different. Father Soo noted that between them, there are six, basically different rites.
“None are independent of each other,” he explained. “All work in concert with each other.”
In the same way as the Latin rite, a bishop is the head of a diocese, but there is also a patriarch for each rite.
All relate to the pope, who is the bishop of Rome, patriarch of the Latin Church and patriarch of all 22 rites.
Father Soo explained that Vatican II encouraged the different rites to go back to their roots and not get absorbed by the one, dominant Latin rite in the modern world. “It was an invitation to avoid being acculturated, or swallowed up,” Father Soo explained.
He called it the entire Church breathing with both lungs.
Father Soo explained how the Byzantine rite liturgical calendar differs from the Latin one, as it is built around 12 great feasts, lesser feasts and times of fasting.
“We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays all year round,” he explained. “Then there is St. Philip’s Fast that takes in the 40 days leading up to Christmas, the Apostles’ Fast, which is short, and others including the Great Fast in the week prior to Easter.”
He noted that some are strict and some are not, but the attitude that people are encouraged to bring to the fast is one of joy, not dread. “We also call the Great Fast the Joyful Fast,” he related.
“It is a way of beginning the season with joy, because it is a time of healing to become who we really are and regain our humanity,” Father Soo continued.
He used expressions like wonderful time of penitential practice that gives a focus and flavour to both day and night.
He also spoke of a bright sadness, as a time of fasting is high with anticipation and is a way to be in solidarity with the suffering Christ. It promotes compassion and joy in the grief of compunction.
“It is a way of despising the addictions that can destroy us and must be healed, and of course, must be nourished by good deeds,” he went on.
“Fasting means no wine, no oil for cooking, nothing with a backbone, which includes meat, fish or dairy products, as they come from cows. However, on Sundays there is oil and wine. The oil is important, as it gives cooked food flavour,” he explained.
However, Father Soo explained that the guidelines for the fast are not a required minimum bar for getting a ticket to heaven, as it is sometimes thought in the Latin Church.
“It sets a maximum high bar,” he explained. “It is not an arduous thing to punish the body, like training, it is encouraged rather than imposed or commanded, something you do as you are able. You have to adjust according to your circumstances.”
He stressed that the purpose of the fast is not so much for its own sake, but to prepare to celebrate. “Without deprivation there is no experience of joy,” he commented.
He added that it is not seen as earning grace either, as God will always provide what we need.
Father Soo added that the other components of fasting are compassion and almsgiving, as social justice is an important part both of the Byzantine tradition and current pastoral practice.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Father Soo grew up in the Presbyterian Church. A lawyer by trade, he began searching for religion seriously as a university student.
While he noted that you just do not go out and find a Byzantine church on the street corner, he said that he researched various religions and, after becoming attracted to the Catholic Church found that the Byzantine tradition was more in keeping with his evangelical background than the Latin rite.
As a Jesuit priest, he works as a spiritual director in Loyola Retreat Centre near Toronto.
During his two-week stay in Hong Kong, he spoke on the Lenten, ecumenical and sacramental practices in the Byzantine tradition.
He also led people in the Byzantine way of praying for the dead and celebrated liturgies at Mother of Good Counsel parish and Good Hope School.
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