Chant Notes: Cheesefare Sunday

As I explained in the last episode of Chant Notes, Cheesefare Sunday takes its name from the fact that it is the last day before the Great Fast, or Lent. According to the traditional rules of fasting, no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products are eaten from the first day of the Fast until the feast of the Resurrection. So during Cheesefare Week, we finish off all the eggs and dairy products in the house.

Last Sunday, the Sunday of Meatfare, the Gospel reading and hymns considered the inevitability of the Last Judgement;  this Sunday, we go from the end times to be beginning, and consider the fall of Adam and Eve. The hymns of Vespers recall the beauty of Paradise, and all that was lost due to man’s disobedience, in taking food at the wrong time, and in the wrong way.

(Vespers doxastikon)

At Matins, we sing one final time the psalm of exile, “By the waters of Babylon”; we will continue to sing the stichera of repentence on each Sunday of the Great Fast. The Canon, once more, speaks of Paradise, the Fall, and Adam’s misery apart from God.

But the day’s Divine Liturgy strikes a new note. Like each of the pre-Lenten Sundays, Cheesefare Sunday has its own kontakion. So after singing the troparion of the Resurrection in the new tone of the week (this week we are in Tone 4), in the kontakion of Cheesefare Sunday we confess that we have sinned, and ask our Lord Jesus Christ for strength and enlightenment:

(kontakion of Cheesefare Sunday)

The prokeimenon of Cheesefare urges us to make vows to God, and bring them to fruition:

(kontakion of Cheesefare Sunday)

The epistle, from the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, tells us why we are beginning the Fast:

(Romans 13:11-21)

It is time to wake from sleep, says Paul; we must cast off the works of darkness and become serious about our faith. The reference to vegetables has to do with the customs of the ancient world: except in very rich households, most meat in the Hellenistic world would come from local pagan temples, where animals had been sacrificed to the gods. Some Christians saw eating meat as a participation in idol worship, while others invoked their freedom in Christ to ignore such matters. Paul insists that, in either case, we must not judge others.

But we have no need to be gloomy, as the Alleluia reminds us: It is good to give thanks to the Lord.

The Gospel reading, Matthew 6:14-21, adds final theme of Cheesefare Sunday. This reading immediately follows our Lord’s giving of the Our Father to his disciples, and explains the need for forgiveness. Not only are we to forgive, but to fast and give alms, laying up treasure in heaven, and doing so not with a gloomy face, but with joy.

(By the way, I strongly encourage cantors to READ the Scripture lessons from each service well before the Divine Liturgy. The readings are on the calendar, and I would certainly hope that every cantor has a Bible at home! During the Liturgy we are concerned about many things; but the day’s Scriptures are important, and we should meditate on them before or after the Liturgy.  If we do this beforehand, the day’s prayers and hymns at the Liturgy make a LOT more sense.)

The Gospel reading for the day, together with the service of Vespers in the afternoon, give Cheesefare Sunday its other name: the Sunday of Forgiveness.  Not only are we urged to forgive, but we are given an opportunity to do so right away, in the communal service of mutual forgiveness that is celebrated at the end of Vespers on Cheesefare Sunday, the service that marks the beginning of the Great Fast.

This Vespers service, like the ones on the next five Sundays during the Great Fast, is a special service that marks the transition from Sunday to the rigors of Lent. In the Pittsburgh area, it is celebrated on Cheesefare Sunday in most parishes, and on the five following Sundays in a different parish each Sunday, at which the faithful can attend.

The next two episodes of Chant Notes will look at the service of Vespers on Sunday evenings or afternoons in the Great Fast, and in particular at the proper hymns for the Vespers of Forgiveness.

Please note that on Thursday, February 11, there will be an evening class on music of the Great Fast at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Munhall, Pensylvania from 7-9 PM.  All are invited; it will also be available via live streaming on the internet. See  the MCI website at for details.

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