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It’s hard to believe that Lent is almost upon us. Ash Wednesday is February 14 this year, almost the earliest date possible for the beginning of Lent.
In the Christian East, many Churches begin Lent on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, and prepare for “the Great Fast” for a couple of Sundays before.
In the Syriac tradition, churches such as the Chaldean Catholic Church or the Assyrian Church of the East prepare for Lent with a fast – the Nineveh Fast – a three-day discipline that is meant to remind the faithful of Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish, an Old Testament “type” of Christ’s death and resurrection. The fast also commemorates the repentance of the ancient Ninevites after Jonah’s warning.
The Nineveh Fast, also called the Petition of the Ninevites, normally takes place a week before Lent. From Sunday at midnight to Wednesday at noon, participants usually abstain from all dairy foods and meat products. Some people abstain from food and drink altogether until Mass – called Holy Qurbana in the Syriac tradition – on Wednesday morning.
This year’s intention
This year, Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako is asking Iraq’s Christians to offer the fast “for peace and stability in Iraq, the Holy Land, Ukraine, and the world.”
According to Vatican News, most Syriac Christians this year are observing the fast January 22-24. Cardinal Sako called on believers to “fervently pray to God Almighty to inspire world leaders to seek peace and not war … and to achieve fruitful progress towards reconciliation, fraternal relations, love, and tolerance for the good of humanity.”
In the past, Cardinal Sako has urged his flock to abide by the fast as a way of praying for Christians being persecuted by the Islamic State group. Most of them lived in northern Iraq, particularly the area known as the Nineveh Plain. It’s appropriate, then, that they would be praying the “Petition of the Ninevites.”
The Christians of Iraq – diminished in numbers significantly from the time before the Gulf Wars – are still rebuilding after ISIS. Cardinal Sako recently called on the Baghdad government to ensure justice for Christians in the Muslim-majority country.
The government in Baghdad must “assume its national and legal responsibilities by adopting practical and clear measures to ensure justice for Christians,” Sako said in a speech, adding that political leaders have not done much for Christans since the jihadists were defeated on the battlefield.
Vatican News noted that Syriac Christian communities, which draw from theological and liturgical traditions in the Syriac language rather than in Latin or Greek, date back to the earliest days of Christianity.
“Devastated by war and instability, they maintain a tenuous foothold in the Middle East,” Vatican News said, noting that there are also “large communities in southwestern India,” referring to the Syro-Malabar Church.
Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, which was once spoken across the region, and is considered the language Jesus spoke.