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Cheesefare week: Transitioning into Great Lent

What does "Cheesefare Week" mean to Orthodox Christians? Amelia explains how a week full of cheese-filled crepes (and other rich delicacies) is meant to help transition our focus from worldly things to spiritual.
Cheesefare Monday, 2012

In the Orthodox Church, today is the first day of Cheesefare week. It's also called Butter week. What in the world do cheese and butter have to do with Christianity?

Not much, actually. But the week isn't dedicated to cheese, butter, or any other kind of food. Cheesefare week is all about preparing ourselves for Great Lent, which will begin this coming Sunday at Vespers.

When Great Lent arrives, we enter into a strict fast. There's no eating meat or dairy. From what we are allowed to eat, there's no indulging—we eat only what we need in order to get through our days. There's no partying. There's no dancing. There's no listening to secular music. On the other hand, there's an increase in the amount of time we spend praying, an increase in the number of church services we attend, and our focus shifts from worldly things to spiritual things as much as possible. In other words, we take our attention off of work, school, and socializing as much as possible, and we redirect it toward God and our spiritual health.

Fasting isn't meant to make us miserable, but the sudden change in diet and lifestyle can be difficult to get used to, especially at first. And that's why we have Cheesefare week …

Technically, the period of fasting has already begun. We're not in Great Lent yet, but there won't be any more non-fasting days until we celebrate the resurrection in approximately two months. During Cheesefare week, though, the fast is modified. We can still eat dairy products (hence, the words cheese or butter in the name) and eggs this week, just not meat. Physically speaking, the modified restrictions on food will help us transition into the full fast that's coming next week.

This week's transition is also meant to be spiritual. In church, the services start to resemble Lenten ones. And although Cheesefare week is mostly associated with the idea of getting together with friends and family and eating rich, delicious foods, it's not exactly a party week. It's not meant to be a last hurrah before Great Lent begins. It's an opportunity to repair anything that needs repairing in our relationships, and to ask forgiveness of our friends, our family, and even our enemies.

It's easy to forgive and desire to be forgiven when the atmosphere is friendly and joyous—when people are gathered together, breaking bread, and eating warm, cheese-filled crepes.

Cheese aside, Christian love is what this week is really supposed to be about.

Are you angry with anyone? If you are, ask God to help you put aside your anger. If possible, let that person know that you forgive and love him or her. Is someone angry with you? Ask God to help you apologize and ask that person for forgiveness. And make sure you're truly sorry for whatever you did or said, or else it doesn't count. Is there someone who died, or moved away, or fell out of touch, someone with whom you wish you could exchange love and forgiveness but you don't know how? Ask God for help. He's very good at getting messages through.

Then, break out the blini!