There’s no getting around it. Food plays a central role in just about every Ukrainian celebration, none more so than Easter. However, before that joyous celebration, we approach Easter during a period of fasting and preparation — Great Lent.
For Byzantine Christians, fasting, both inward and outward, is central to Great Lent. In The Meaning of the Great Fast: The True Nature of Fasting, Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware explain. “Here the utmost care is needed, so as to preserve a proper balance between the outward and the inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has always an inward and unseen purpose. Man is a unity of body and soul, a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible, and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once.” They add that Christians must view themselves as “an integral unity of the visible and the invisible” with the body playing a positive role in the spiritual life.”Just as we are both body and soul, fasting is not merely physical. It is moral as well. We must be converted in heart and will and return to God, as did the Prodigal. St. John Chrysostom put it this way: “It means abstinence not only from food but from sins. The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body.”
While fasting may seem onerous, Bishop Ware sees it as just the opposite. “Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality. Certainly it has its sombre aspect, with the repeated prostrations at the weekday services, with the dark vestments of the priest, with the hymns sung to a subdued chant, full of compunction. Yet these elements of austerity should not blind us to the fact that the fast is not a burden, not a punishment, but a gift of God’s grace.”
Great Lent begins the Monday before Ash Wednesday and continues until Holy Thursday. Sundays are not considered part of Lent. The first day of Lent and Good Friday are observed as “black fasts.” No meat or dairy products are eaten. Although fasting customs vary, throughout Great Lent as a minimum Wednesdays and Friday are held meatless. Some faithful abstain from meat on all 40 days. At one monastery no salt was used during Lent.
With the fast over, the faithful gather to celebrate Pascha — the feast of the Resurrection of the Lord. Pascha is a transliteration of the Greek word, which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew pesach, both words meaning Passover. The spiritual joy of encountering the risen Christ on Easter morning is combined with the temporal joy of feasting on the foods which have been forgone during the Great Fast. Thus it is customary for the faithful to bring baskets of food to church on Easter morning. The food is blessed and taken home to be shared by all in the family. (In modern practice, because some congregations are very large, food is often blessed on Holy Saturday as well.) Central is the pascha, in this case referring to a large round loaf of bread. It is accompanied by babka, a sweet bread enriched with raisins and saffron; ham, its richness symbolizing the joy and abundance of Easter; eggs reminding us of new life coming from that which seemed lifeless; butter symbolic of the goodness of Christ which we are called to share; cheese with its bland taste speaking of moderation in daily life; kobasa — garlic sausage — reminding us of God’s generosity; and horseradish mixed with pickled beets that we may remember the bitterness of sin and of the difficulties we must all face in everyday life.
Of the many Ukrainian food-related traditions, the blessing of baskets is my favourite. There is something special, something unique, in sharing that first meal on Easter morning, knowing all of the food has been blessed in church. It is as if the Pascha divine liturgy is continued around the family dining table. It is special because some of the foods are eaten only once a year. Like a birthday cake, the anticipation is tremendous. It is special because there is an overpowering link with the past and ones ancestors. I am sharing in the same foods as my grandparents did on Pascha, as did their grandparents. Finally, I find this tradition particularly practical. Arriving home from divine liturgy there is no preparation required before the meal can begin. All is in readiness to satisfy the appetites which have anticipated this moment for 40 days.
Easter isn’t about food. It is about the risen Christ who offers us life in abundance. It is about the heavenly feast we look forward to. Yet in our joy of encountering him on Pascha, we also relish the abundance of blessed paschal foods. Pascha — nourishment for the soul; nourishment for the body. I can hardly wait!
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 36 years and have eight grandchildren.