The Great Fast/Lent
from Clean Monday to the day before Lazarus Saturday
In the East we begin the Great Fast, or Lent, on Clean Monday, in the 7th week before Pascha. Clean Monday falls two days before the Western Ash Wednesday.
Fasting is one of the oldest and most venerable practices in the Church which came to us through an ” interrupted tradition.” (St. Basil, Hom. on Fast I, 5)
It is necessary that, while fasting, we change our whole life and practice virtue.” - St. John Chrysostom (cf. Hom. on Statues 111, 19)
"The first mention of the Forty Days Fast is made in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicaea (325). From that time, the Forty Days Fast is discussed by many Church Fathers and St. Athanasius (d. 373) does not hesitate to say: 'Anyone who neglects to observe the Forty Days Fast is not worthy to celebrate the Easter Festival.' (cf. Festal Letters XIX, 9)
The Synod of Laodicaea (about 360) imposed the strict obligation of fasting for forty days before Easter for the first time."1
"Great Lent is not a season of morbidity and gloominess. On the contrary, it is a time of joyfulness and purification. We are called to “anoint our faces” and to “cleanse our bodies as we cleanse our souls.” The very first hymns of the very first service of Great Lent set the proper tone of the season:
Let us begin the lenten time with delight . . . let us fast from passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the Spirit, that we may be granted to see the holy passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, spiritually rejoicing...
It is our repentance that God desires, not our remorse. We sorrow for our sins, but we do so in the joy of God’s mercy. We mortify our flesh, but we do so in the joy of our resurrection into life everlasting. We make ready for the resurrection during Great Lent, both Christ’s Resurrection and our own."2
We hang the Prayer of St. Ephrem on the inside of our front door & try to pray it whenever we are leaving the house.
This prayer sums up the spirit of Great Lent & is used in all Lenten weekday services.
O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference & discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter.
Instead, grant to me, your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience and love.
O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brothers and sisters; for you are blessed, now and ever and forever. Amen
Oh God be merciful to me a sinner; Oh God, cleanse me of my sin and have mercy on me; Oh Lord, forgive me for I have sinned without number
Why Forty days?
- “We submit ourselves to the forty days exercise as a preparation for the Easter Festival in imitation of SS. Moses and Elijah.” (ct. Pasch. Solemn. 4)
- the example of our Savior Who spent forty days fasting in the desert (M1. 4, 1-11) as suggested by the fourth century document: “The forty-days fast is to be observed as a memorial of Our Lord’s way of lite and His legislation.” (cf. Apost. Const. V, 13)1
What are the requirements of the Fast?
"According to Byzantine tradition, the Lenten discipline consists of three separate parts; 1. Corporal or External Fast, including the abstinence from certain foods, drink and amusements; 2. Spiritual or Internal Fast which consists of abstinence from ” all evil”-sin; 3. Spiritual Renewal achieved by the practice of the virtues and good works."1
The Corporeal Fast
Traditionally, the fast has required a strenuous corporeal practice; in modern times, the regulations of our Catholic Church "prescribe only a token of fasting."1
Some believe that this is accordance with the advice of St. Theodore Studite: ” Concerning the quantity and quality of food, you should fast as much as your body can endure.” (cf. Epistolary, 1. II , ep. 135), but he himself practiced a rigorous fast:
“During the Great Fast, we eat only once at about the ninth hour (i.e. 3 :00 P.M.) taking only dry food and vegetables without oil ; we do not drink wine, either, except on Saturday and Sunday, when we are also permitted to eat fish.
During the Great (Holy) Week we observe, as much as possible, a complete fast without wine and oil until (Holy) Saturday night.” (cf. Chron. Catech. 9)
The strict Eastern Tradition (which is derived from the monastic tradition, but intended for laymen as well) gives the following guidelines for the fast:
Week before Lent ("Cheesefare Week"): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.
First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).
Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.
Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.
Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil's Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Wine and oil are permitted on major feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.
Modern requirements are far less strenuous:
Clean Monday & Great and Holy Friday: days of strict fasting and abstinence
Wednesdays, Fridays, and Great & Holy Saturday: simple abstinence from meat 3
The Spiritual Fast
"St. John Chrysostom decries the folly of those Christians who 'abstain all day long from food but fail to abstain from sin.'(cf. Hom. on Gen. VI , 6)"1 This is the most important part of the fast, without which your corporeal fast, no matter how severe, is meaningless. St. John Chrysostom also tells us that the ” value of fasting consists not so much in abstinence from food but rather in withdrawal from sinful practices.” (cf. Hom. on Statutes III, 11). St. Basil the Great further clarifies, “Turning away from all wickedness means keeping our tongue in check, restraining our anger, supressing evil desires, and avoiding all gossip, lying and swearing. To abstain from these things-herein lies the true value of fast!” (cf. Hom. on Fast II , 7)
It is clear to me that this is the far more challenging part of the fast as well. It may be difficult to sacrifice cheese and butter for seven weeks, but I know that I can do it. To repress my anger when I am upset is far harder. The official guidelines may have been relaxed, but I think the difficulty of the spiritual fast is why keeping the strict corporeal fast is all the more significant; the synthesis between body and soul that has been embraced in the East reminds me that when I am able to face and conquer physical challenges, I will be better prepared to conquer spiritual ones.
” Accept the fast as an experienced educator by whom the Church teaches us piety.” - St. Basil the Great (cf. Hom. on Fast II , 3)
"A sincere fast will include increased prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and may include resolutions to set aside other aspects of our day-to-day life (such as caffeine or television), or to take up practices such as visiting the sick."3 A true conversion of heart is the ultimate objective of the fast, and this is assisted through several practices prescribed by the Church:
- Go to as many liturgical services as possible & commune with Christ; these services are rich with hymns, penitential prayers and prostrations
- Receive the Eucharist as often as it is available
- Practice virtue
- Do good works
After all, as St. John Chrysostom tells us, “The fast has no advantage for us unless it brings about our spiritual renewaL” (cf. Hom. on Gen. XI, 3).
What is Eucharistic or liturgical fasting?
This fasting does not refer to the normal abstinence in preparation for receiving the Holy Eucharist; it is fasting from the Holy Eucharist itself.
During the weekdays of Great Lent the regular Eucharistic Divine Liturgy is not celebrated since the Divine Liturgy is always a Paschal celebration of communion with the Risen Lord. "Because the lenten season is one of preparation for the Lord’s Resurrection through the remembrance of sin and separation from God, the liturgical order of the Church eliminates the Eucharistic service on the weekdays of lent. Instead the non-Eucharistic services are extended with additional scripture readings and hymnology of a lenten character. In order that the faithful would not be entirely deprived of Holy Communion on the lenten days, however, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated on Wednesday and Friday evenings."4
Saturday (the Sabbath Day) and Sunday (the Lord’s Day), however, remain Eucharistic days even during Great Lent, so the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. "On Saturdays it is the normal Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, usually with prayers for the dead. On Sundays it is the longer Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great."4
The idea that Saturdays and Sundays are not fasting days refers only to this eucharistic-liturgical fast; the ascetical fast continues through the weekends during the forty days of Great Lent (from Meatfare Lazarus Saturday), and during the Holy Week fast, ending only on Pascha itself.
On Clean Monday we put out our crown of thorns. When one of the children does an act of kindness, he or she gets to pull a thorn out of the crown, aiming to empty the crown of thorns by Pascha so it can become our crown of lilies.
We also begin to hang our Lenten tree ornaments; each day there is an ornament & a scripture reading that takes us through the life of Christ, from His Presentation in the Temple to His Resurrection.
Why Do We Fast?
- When practiced with prayer, repentance, and almsgiving, fasting - tempering the bodily desire for food - can help temper other passions as well
- the soul can orient more away from worldly needs and more towards spiritual needs
- one is better enabled to draw closer to Christ and become more Christ-like.
- fasting is practiced with the body, but emphasis is placed on the spiritual facet of the fast rather than mere physical deprivation. Eastern theology sees a synthesis between the body and the soul, so what happens to one can be used to have an effect on the other.
What if I try but fail to keep the Fast?
"These rules exist not as a Pharisaic “burden too hard to bear” (Lk 11.46), but as an ideal to be striven for; not as an end in themselves, but as a means to spiritual perfection crowned in love. The lenten services themselves continually remind us of this.
Let us fast with a fast pleasing to the Lord. This is the true fast: the casting off of evil, the bridling of the tongue, the cutting off of anger, the cessation of lusts, evil talking, lies and cursing. The stopping of these is the fast true and acceptable (Monday Vespers of the First Week).
The lenten services also make the undeniable point that we should not pride ourselves with external fasting since the devil also never eats!
The ascetic fast of Great Lent continues from Meatfare Sunday to Easter Sunday, and is broken only after the Paschal Divine Liturgy. Knowing the great effort to which they are called, Christians should make every effort to fast as well as they can, in secret, so that God would see and bless them openly with a holy life. Each person must do his best in the light of the given ideal."4
"Obviously, many [Christians] do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone's fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must "keep our eyes on our own plates."
Do not substitute the notion of "deciding what to give up for Lent" for the rule that the Church has given us. First, keep the Church's fasting rule as well as you are able, then decide on additional disciplines, in consultation with your priest.
We are always advised to fast according to our strength, and you may find from experience that you need to modify the fasting rule to fit your own strength and situation. But do not assume beforehand that the rule is too difficult for you. The Lord is our strength, and can uphold us in marvelous and unforeseen ways.
Those who attempt to keep the Church's traditional fast will find that, though the temptations to pride and legalism are real, the spiritual benefits are great. A return to more diligent fasting could play a large part in the spiritual renewal of our [Church]."3
What is the difference between Eastern & Western Lent?
"Originally, the forty day period was computed from Good Friday, the day the Pasch of Crucifixion was celebrated, and then extended to six weeks. In Constantinople, when they transferred the solemn Baptism from Easter to the Saturday of Lazarus, the Lenten season of preparation also had to be anticipated by one week. Thus, according to the Byzantine practice, the Great Fast began seven weeks before Easter and ended on the Friday before the Saturday of Lazarus. At the Vespers of Lazarus we sing : “We have concluded the beneficial Forty Days (Lent) and we implore You, 0 Lover of Mankind, make us see the Holy Week of Your Passion and praise Your work (of redemption) .” Liturgically, then, our Great Fast ends on the Friday before the Saturday of Lazarus and is exactly forty days long.
Holy Week, in the Byzantine Rite, is considered as a ” special week” and, strictly speaking, is not included in the Forty-Days Fast as St. John Chrysostom indicates: “At last we have arrived at the end of the Holy Forty Days and, with the help of God, we reached this Great (Holy) Week. Why do we call this week Great? Because of the great and indescribable benefits that have befallen us during this week.” (cf. Hom. on Gen. XXX, 1)
In the Roman Rite, Holy Week was included into the Lenten season and the Lenten season was of six week duration. But later, when the Sundays in Lent were exempt from fasting in the West, Lent became only thirty-six days long. This situation was remedied in the seventh century by adding four more days of fasting at the beginning of the Lenten season with the first day of Lent on Ash Wednesday. This is the reason for the difference in the first day of Lent between the Byzantine Rite and the Roman Rite."1
The corporeal fasting requirements in the Western Church are less rigorous, requiring the faithful to abstain from meat on all Fridays in Lent and observe a strict fast on Ash Wednesday & Good Friday.