The Great Lent


There are institutes and symbols adopted by nations, churches or groups of men which represent certain ideals accumulated in the past. These institutes, that is precepts recognized as authoritative, and symbols represent the thoughts and feelings of those who created or adopted them and put in them all the experience of the past, often through struggle and sacrifice. A few feet of ribbon for instance, red, blue and white in color, have little value as is. But if one puts them in a certain pattern of stripes and stars, they become the flag of the United States and represent the ideals and unity of the people of America. The flag reminds us of the people's struggle for liberty. It represents the national unity which attained for them their rights as a people. The same could be said for the institutes of a nation, army or any group of people. These institutes are created by the people and are used by them in certain ways for certain aims. Some of these institutes are the means for achieving certain values and ideals. In the life of the Church of Christ there are many institutes created and maintained to meet the needs of the people - the Ecclesia. Among these is the Great Lent which falls within the year-cycle of the life of the Church before Pascha-Easter. Lent is the period of time for self-examination by the believer; of putting on the spiritual armor of the Militant Church; of applying the riches of prayers and almsgiving; of adopting deeply the meaning of repentance; of atonement and reconciliation with God Almighty.

This great period of Lent before Easter is called by the Orthodox Church, Tessaracoste (Quadragesimal), which comes from the word forty (the 40 days of "fasting"). This Institute of the 40. days of Lent precedes the Resurrection of Christ. The celebration of the Resurrection of Christ does not fall on the same date each year, but according to the determination of the position of the moon and spring equinox, which is based on the original setting during the last Events of the life of Christ on earth. This 40-day period of Lent is a period of "abstinence" from foods, but primarily from personal iniquities. Abstinence from foods (fasting) alone is a means of attaining virtue; it is not an end in itself. During the period of fasting one makes a special attempt to evaluate his calling as a Christian; to listen to the voice of the Gospel and heed its commandments; to accept the constant invitation to enter Christ's Kingdom. It is an open invitation to everyone willing to enter; who believes in Christ and repents his iniquities; who makes an "about face" directly to Christ. To accomplish this - Which is a year-round concern - the Christian Church, dating back many years, out of experience and according to the nature of man instituted certain days of prayer and fasting as steps in a ladder to help those who need guidance to reach this spiritual plateau. All of these steps must have genuine personal meaning to avoid becoming merely a habit and routine. Fasting encompasses the entire pious life of the Christian, as Christ proclaimed, that symbolizes a deep acceptance of His admonition to "repent". This can be achieved not so much in terms of time, but in deeds in love of God and one's fellow man.

During the period of the Great Lent the awakening of the spirit of man comes about through inspiration from the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. It is a time of self-examination and preparation, and of taking an inventory of one's inner life. He and Christ know his exact condition. At this time one sees himself in the mirror of the Gospel - how he looks. One finds the means and ways to correct and improve himself. Lent is a period of time when one delves into himself with the light of the Holy Spirit in order to rid himself of the impediments which hold him back. It is a period when one strengthens his faith by more prayer and devotional life.

Let us then examine the meaning of fasting, which became an Institute of the Church. Fasting means the total abstinence from foods, as the original Greek word in the Bible, nesteia, literally means. The word fasting today is used for selection of foods and a limiting of their quantity. Fasting also can mean eating once a day bread, salt and water, after sunset. Although the period of Lent appeals to the function of man as a whole in repentance, self-examination, almsgiving, relationship with people with whom one is at odds, attitudes toward life, the abstinence from foods plays a vital role in the life of the Christian. The quantity and kinds of foods selected for this period of Lent help control carnal desires and develop discipline and a pious life. Fasting from foods is not a virtuous activity in itself, but a means for its achievement. But it has a distinct place in the life of the Christian, especially during the Great Lent.



One may ask how the Institute of fasting originated. Was it a tradition handed down by the Apostles? Was it determined as such by the early Church? Was the duration of fasting established from the beginning? These and similar questions require an answer.

Fasting before Easter was not determined by the early Church as such either in specific days or for certain foods. In the New Testament the word for fasting, nesteia, means abstinence from food entirely, and was originally a Jewish custom reluctantly practiced by the Jews, although it was not an official requirement. Bishop Irenaios of Lyon (192) wrote a letter to the Bishop of Rome that there is a great difference about the duration of fasting before Easter. Some people, he wrote, fast one day, others two, still others more days. Some of them fast 40 hours continuously, day and night, from all foods (Eusebuis, Ecclesiastical History, 524,12). Tertuuian, an ecclesiastical writer of the 3rd century, refers to abstinence from foods as being two days, Friday and Saturday. Some of the early Christians abstained from foods the whole day and ate only in the evenings, while others ate not at all, day or night, as did those who were fasting for 40 hours. Other Christians extended the period of fasting beyond the two days to one week (during the mid-third century),'but everyone was allowed to extend the duration of fasting as long as he wanted. Thus, these Christians added hours and days of fasting at their own will, beyond the customary duration of time (Dionysios, Bishop of Alexandria, P. G. Migne 10, 1278).



Over the years, the days of fasting increased to seven before Easter. These Christians ate in the evenings, and then only bread, salt and water, as recorded by Epiphanios in 403. The difference in counting the hours of fasting resulted from the different calculations of the time of the Resurrection of Christ in the Gospels (Matthew 28:1, before midnight; John 20:1, after midnight; Mark 16:2, at sunrise). The period of fasting before Easter was extended to 40 days without substantial evidence of any authoritative determination. The fact is that the 40 days of fasting was known to the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Synod (325). St. Augustine during the fifth century attributes the lengthy period of 40 days to the persecutions, 306-323. Others refer to the example of Christ fasting 40 days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2); or to Moses (Exodus 34:28), or to Prophet Elias (1 Kings 19:8 - III Vasilion LXX) Probably the 40-day fasting period among the people was started during the persecutions, because the people took refuge in monasteries and followed the order of abstinence of the monks, which was very strict. Also hermits and other pious people of sobriety kept a fasting period of 40 days during the mid-third century, and this was handed down to the people. In reality, the 40-day practice for fasting before Easter was not a simultaneous practice in all the Christian lands, but a gradual process. Fasting as such was practiced by the people at the, very beginning for only two or three days per week, Wednesday and Friday and in some places Saturday (in the West).

In the course of time, a gradual increase in the number of weeks also took place. However, between East and West the number of weeks of Lent differed, with seven weeks being established in the East and six in the West by the mid-sixth century. The reason for the difference in the number of weeks between East and West was because in the West Saturday was a fast day along with Wednesday and Friday, while in the East Saturday was not a fast day except the Saturday of Holy Week, according to the Canons of the Church (Canon 66, Apostolic Fathers; Canon 55A Sixth Ecumenical Synod in 692 - Canon 18, Gangra Synod in 340-370). The adding of Saturday by the Church in the West as a fast day was related to the thought that the Body of Christ was in the tomb on this day. This innovation of fasting on Saturday was fought by Tertullian, Hippolytos (Ecclesiastical writer) and Bishop Jerome.

However, Bishop Inocentios of Rome (401-417) ratified the Saturday fast, and gradually this day became a fixed day in the West. In rebuke of this practice in the West, Bishop Ignatios of Antioch in a letter denounced this Saturday fast (ch. 13). During the seventh century, Bishop Gregory I of Rome added four days before the beginning of the six weeks of Lent, starting with Wednesday, known as Ash Wednesday. The Church in the East, on the other hand, added an additional week before the seven weeks, known as Cheese Week, to complete the 40 days of fasting in Lent before Easter, excluding the seven Saturdays and eight Sundays, which are non-fast days. The reason for the number of 40 days of fasting during the Great Lent is obscure. The famous canonist of the twelfth century, Balsamon, writes, "There is but a forty day abstinence, that of the Pascha, but if one also likes to keep the weekly fast for other feasts ... he is not to be disgraced" (Migne PG 138,1001).

Fasting from foods is relevant to the condition of the health of the Christian, however. Fasting is not for the sake of fasting alone:

"Fasting was devised in order to humble the body. If, therefore, the body is already in a state of humbleness and illness or weakness, the person ought to partake of as much as he or she may wish and be able to get along with food and drink" (Canon 8 of St. Timothy of Alexandria, 381).


Great Lent is a period of time when the people are more conscious of their spiritual character. The passages of the Gospels and the Epistles, the hymnology and prayers, the spirit of the Church - all endeavor to help the Christian cleanse himself spiritually through repentance. "Repent" is the first word Jesus Christ spoke in His proclamation to the people, as the epitome of His Gospel. Repentance is the main motivation of the Christian which acts to free him from sin. One's recognition of his sin, his contrition over it and lastly his decision to make an about-face change of his attitude are the steps of repentance. For one can learn to recognize iniquities from the Bible and the teachings of the Church. During the period of Lent the Christian is called to self-examination and self-control by the radiance of the Event of the Resurrection of Christ. This is why the Church designated such a period of time be observed before this great feast day.

Fasting in its religious setting is abstinence from food, always in relation to a religious event or feast. Fasting in itself has no meaning in the Christian Church, but has a role the attainment of Christian virtues. It is not to be accepted as a mere custom without a spiritual purpose. Fasting is understood as a means of temperance and sobriety, especially in relation to prayer, devotion and purity. It is also understood to be related to giving alms to the poor. The roots of fasting in the Christian Church are to be found in the Old Testament and the Jewish religion, both for certain days and certain foods. As a general rule, fasting precedes a religious feast. Many verses in the Old Testament refer to this:

"Thus says the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore, love, truth and peace", Zechariah 8:18-19.

In continuation of the practice of fasting, the Christian Church determined the period of Lent to depend upon the great Feast of Easter, as set forth by the First Ecumenical Synod in 325. The Church determined the day on which the Resurrection of Christ would be celebrated, according to the conditions that existed at the time of this Event. Thus, the Synod set forth that the great Feast of Easter would be celebrated on: the first Sunday, after the full moon, after the Spring Equinox (March 21), and always after the Jewish Passover. Thus, this great Feast is a moveable date in the calendar. Therefore, Great Lent, which depends upon the date of Easter, also is moveable, each year being celebrated on a different date, (Sunday), depending on the above conditions.

The four weeks which precede Great Lent are considered preparatory, a forerunner to Lent. These four weeks, along with the eight weeks of Lent, are characterized by the Church as Triodion, meaning "thrice-hymns", a name which has no bearing on the substance of Lent itself:

* The four weeks preceding Lent are known as:
1. Sunday of the Tax Collector and Pharisee (from the Parable),
2. Sunday of the Prodigal Son (from the Parable),
3. Sunday of Meat (the Final Judgment),
4. Sunday of Cheese (Adam's expulsion from Paradise);

* The eight weeks of the Great Lent are:
1. First Sunday (Sunday of Orthodoxy),
2. Second Sunday (St. Gregory Palamas),
3. Third Sunday (Adoration of Cross),
4. Fourth Sunday (St. John of Climax),
5. Fifth Sunday (St. Mary of Egypt),
6. Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

* During Great Lent:
1. Every day the Great Compline is read,
2. Every Wednesday and Friday the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is officiated.
3. On four Friday evenings a fourth of the Akathist Hymn is read, with the entire Hymn read the fifth Friday.