Russian Orthodox: Carnival ends, Lent begins
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Two weeks before the "Sunday of Forgiveness" (which is tomorrow), a progressive ascent from meat is suggested, to approach the Lenten period, with a "vegan" diet. The excesses of the Maslennitsa festival, similar to the Carnival of the West. Return to some pagan traditions, experienced as folklore.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The "week of farewell to cheese" (syropustnaja) ends on March 14, during which observers stop eating meat to prepare for Lent, the "Great Fast" which will begin on Monday 15 March, after the "Sunday of Forgiveness".

Together with the week preceding the "farewell to meat" (mjasopustnaja), the Russian "carnival" ends, all centred on a progressive increase in food restrictions, because the Lenten period prescribes a completely "vegan" diet, without any food of animal origin and alcohol-free.

But in the days before the Fast, vodka is the host on the tables, to accompany the pancakes (bliny) covered with black and red caviar, and other delicacies (first with and then without meat) in a continuous feast called Maslennitsa, the " festival of butter ”and fried oil. The Orthodox Church has always condemned these excesses, which interpret the "approach path" to Lenten penance in a completely distorted way. If in the Western tradition, Carnival is a time for jokes and joy, and in part also for fatty foods, the Russians focus on food, because masks and games have already been widely practiced during the Christmas period, up to the Baptism of January 19th.

The most famous opponent of Maslennitsa was a great saint and preacher of the late 1700s, Tikhon Zadonskij, author of spirituality texts and bishop of Voronezh, who spoke of "festivals dedicated to the devil, in which people try to drown human worries in wine and mirth." Saint Tikhon accused the people of waiting all year for this period of revelry, much longer than the Passover of Our Lord.

The Church's appeals not to give in to carnival excesses unite the Eastern and Western Churches: the institution of the "Forty Hours" of Eucharistic adoration, for example, were introduced by St. Charles Borromeo in reparation for the sins of the Carnival. A document of the Russian Church at the end of the 19th century warned that "the institution of the Syropustnaja week by the Church must help to introduce oneself into the practice of the Great Fast ... meat foods are replaced by more modest ones of fish and milk, to favour the soul's dedication to prayer”.

Pagan throw back

The pre-Lenten mirth also contains pagan reminiscences, such as the spring festival of Jarylo, the ancient idol that was symbolically burned in hay puppets on the fields, around which wild dances and mating rituals take place. This pagan rite is now back in fashion in various places in Russia, where reminiscences of neo-paganism take place, but it is often proposed by restaurateurs and tourist facilities as a folkloric expression, very coveted precisely in these times of forced lockdowns due to the pandemic, as a form of release from quarantine.

Sports competitions were also a typical practice of Maslennitsa, from boxing competitions to frenzied races on trojke, sleds pulled by three dogs or three horses, across the endless plains of the Russian countryside. The saint Tikhon Zadonskij also recommended refraining from sharedwalks and visits to dachas far from the city, knowing full well how it would end: "evil ends up entering even the sacred walls of the domestic hearth, and then spreads through all the streets and the forests”- he wrote in 1756 -“exciting souls to songs and dances, to then arrive at quarrels and mutual ruin ”.

The reason for the "Sunday of Forgiveness", also known as "the expulsion of Adam", which closes the Maslennitsa and proposes, on the eve of Fasting, the rite of mutual forgiveness is even better understood. At the Sunday liturgy we read the passage from Mt 6: 14-21: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do."

At matins and at vespers, the account of original sin is remembered (the Old Testament is not read in the Eucharistic liturgy), to identify with the condition of the first man, who begins the earthly journey of suffering, finally redeemed by Christ on the Cross.