The Great Fast
The Great Fast (Slavonic Velikij Post', or Svjata Chetyredesjatnica, "holy forty days") is our annual preparation for the feast of Pascha. In English, it is often referred to as Holy Lent, from the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, Lencten.
The Church's hymns and prayers for the Great Fast, as well as for the preparatory weeks leading up to it, are found in the liturgical book called the Triodion. Thus, the Great Fast and the weeks before it are sometimes called the Time of the Triodion.
The Great Fast begins on Monday of the seventh week before Pascha; it lasts for forty days, ending on Friday of the sixth week of the Fast. (The forty days of the Fast are shown in light purple in the table below.) The following eight days (Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and the days of Great Holy Week) are not counted as part of the Great Fast.
|Cheesefare Sunday||Pure or Clean Monday||Tue||Wed||Thu||Fri||Sat|
|5th Sunday||Mon||Tue||Wed||Thu||Fri||Lazarus Saturday|
|Palm Sunday||Great and Holy Week|
Historical note: The 40-day fast was originally "counted back" from the Friday before Pascha (Great and Holy Friday), since the following day (Great and Holy Saturday) was the day for solemn baptism. In Constantinople, the home of the Byzantine Rite, the usual date for solemn baptism was moved a week earlier, to Lazarus Saturday, and the Fast was also moved a week earlier, to its present position in the calendar.
The Great Fast as our annual renewal
In the early Church, baptism of new believers was celebrated solemnly on certain days of the year; the time leading up to these baptismal days was used for the instruction and spiritual preparation of the candidates for baptism, who were called catechumens. In the second century, Saint Justin Martyr wrote:
Those who believe in the truth of our teaching, first of all, promise to live according to that teaching. Then we teach them how to pray and entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins; and we (the faithful) pray and fast with them, too. (I Apology, 61).
This preliminary fasting lasted for a few days, or a week, but was fixed at forty days by the fourth century AD.
Renewing our baptismal commitment
In both the Old and New Testaments, the number forty has important associations of purification and preparation:
- In the time of Noah, the Lord sent forty days of rain to wash away the wickedness that had entered the world (Genesis 7:11-12).
- The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness, being prepared by God to enter the Promised Land, and Moses went up Mount Sinai for forty days, "without eating or drinking", to be given the details of the Covenant (Exodus 34:28).
- The prophet Elijah walked for forty days, fasting, to Mount Horeb, in order to come before God (1 Kings 19:8).
- Our Lord fasted in the wilderness for forty days beween his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4:2).
Al these make a forty-day fast eminently suitable for a time of preparation for baptism - and for those already baptized to reflect on and renew the commitment to their baptismal covenant with God.
Renewing our understanding of the Old Testament
During the forty days before baptism, the catechumens received daily instruction in the Faith - particularly readings from the Old Testament, with an explanation of God's works among the Jewish people, their expectation of a Messiah, and how this expectation was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. They were taught how to pray, and how to conduct themselves according to Christian ideals. The rest of the faithful were encouraged to take part in these spiritual exercises as well.
This is why the the Great Fast is not only a renewal of our respect for baptism, but also of our connection with the Old Testament. Each day, at Vespers, we hear lessons from the historical and wisdom books of the Old Testament (particularly Genesis, Exodus, and Proverbs). At the Sixth Hour (noonday prayer), we listen to prophecies of the Messiah (from Isaiah and Job) and his suffering and eventual glorification. During Holy Week, the Church will show us more ways in which our Lord's suffering, death and Resurrection are the fulfillment of the plan of salvation begun under the Old Covenant.
The three aspects of the Fast
According to Byzantine tradition, the discipline of the fast consists of three parts:
- Corporal (bodily) fast, by which we give up certain foods, drinks and amusements, in order to break the hold that such things may have over us. See Fasting.
- Spiritual or internal fast, by which we seek to turn from any sin, wickedness or evil habits in our lives, so that we may come into God's presence well-prepared to celebrate our Lord's Resurrection and our redemption.
- Spiritual renewal, by which we seek a greater practice of the virtues, a deeper life of prayer, repentance for our sins, and a greater conversion (metanoia) of heart, which manifests itself in good works. All of these are oriented to a deeper union with God - theosis.
The Lenten discipline is summarized in the Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, which is recited by the clergy and faithful at the weekday services in the Church's fasts, including the Great Fast:
Lord and Master of my life,
spare me from the spirit of indifference, despair,
lust for power, and idle chatter.
Instead, bestow on me, your servant,
the spirit of integrity, humility, patience, and love.
Yes, O Lord and King, let me see my own sins
and not judge my brothers and sisters;
for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.
This prayer is often accompanied by prostrations - deep bows to the ground, made after each section of the Prayer of Saint Ephrem, or once at the end.
Preparation for the Great Fast
The Church seldom starts us on a path without providing some preliminary orientation and preparation; and the Great Fast is no exception. The four weeks leading up to the Fast (five Sundays, and the weekdays in between) remind us of our need for a "Lenten springime", and of the spiritual pitfalls that can divert us from our goal of communion with God.
The pre-Fast preparations begin with the fifth Sunday before the start of the Fast, the Sunday of Zacchaeus. On this Sunday, we hear of the tax-collector Zacchaeus, his ardent desire to see Jesus, and how this desire was fulfilled beyond his expectations.
The next Sunday is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Sunday Gospel reminds us of the dangers of hypocrisy and the need for true humility in order to come close to God. Penitential hymns (stichera) are added at Sunday Matins, and we these every Sunday from now till the end of the Fast.
During the following week, there is no fasting or abstinence, even on the ordinary meatless days of Wednesday and Friday. (This is one of four such weeks in the course of the year.)
The following Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, on which we are shown a story of repentence and acceptance. The Prodigal Son is an image of each of us, as we "remember ourselves" and resolve to break with our sins, return from exile, and start a new life. On this Sunday and the two Sundays that follow, we sing Psalm 137 ("By the waters of Babylon") at Matins. This song of the Israelite captivity expresses our situation as exiles in a foreign land. Unlike the Israelites - but like the prodigal son - we can choose to return home.
With the next Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we are only eight days from the start of the Great Fast. At the Divine Liturgy, we hear the Gospel account of the second coming of the Lord in glory, and of the final judgment. To prepare us for the rigors of the Fast, the Church's traditional fasting rules call on the faithful to fast from flesh-meats for the final week before the Fast. That is why the Sunday of the Last Judgment is also called the Sunday of Meat-fare (that is, the Sunday of meat-eating).
During the final week before the Fast, called Cheesefare Week, the traditional fasting rules continue to allow the eating of eggs and dairy products.
Finally, on Cheesefare Sunday, we have come to the very brink of the fast. At the Divine Liturgy, our Lord's words in the Gospel speak of forgiveness: "If you forgive men their trespasses, then your heavenly Father will forgive you." For this reason, the day is also called Forgiveness Sunday. The service of Vespers on this day is especially solemn, and also followed by a ceremony of mutual forgiveness between priest and people.
The Weeks of the Great Fast
The Great Fast begins on the Monday after Cheesefare or Forgiveness Sunday. For this reason, the "weeks of the Fast" are counted somewhat differently from other times of the year. The first Sunday of the Fast comes at the end of the first week of the Fast, and the same with the remaing weeks:
|Cheesefare Sunday||First Week of the Great Fast|
|1st Sunday||Second Week of the Great Fast|
|2nd Sunday||Third Week of the Great Fast|
|3rd Sunday||Fourth Week of the Great Fast|
|4th Sunday||Fifth Week of the Great Fast|
|5th Sunday||Sixth Week of the Great Fast||Lazarus Saturday|
|Palm Sunday||Great and Holy Week|
Each Sunday of the Great Fast has a particular commemoration:
- First Sunday - the restoration of icons to the Church in the 9th century
- Second Sunday - Saint Gregory Palamas, a noted 14th century theologian
- Third Sunday - the veneration of the Holy Cross as we reach the midpoint of the Fast
- Fourth Sunday - Saint John Climacus, a 5th century abbot, whose book "The Ladder" is a masterpiece of monastic spiritual writing
- Fifth Sunday - Saint Mary of Egypt, a great penitent saint of the 4th century
The Saturdays of the Great Fast also have commemortions associated with them:
- First Saturday - the miracle of Saint Theodore, in which the faithful were saved from being forced to eat meat which had been sacrificed to idols
- Second, Third and Fourth Saturdays - commemorations of the faithful departed
- Fifth Saturday - commemorating the protection of faithful by the Mother of God, with the singing of the Akathist Hymn
Finally, certain weekdays are of note:
- The first day of the Fast, called Clean or Pure Monday, is a day of exceptionally strict fasting.
- On Thursday in the Fifth Week, we sing the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete - the Church's great hymn of repentence.
The Services of the Great Fast
In the Byzantine Rite, the Eucharistic Divine Liturgy, at which bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, to be consumed by the faithful, is essentially joyful. For this reason, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on days of strict fasting, such as the weekdays of the Great Fast.
During the Greaty Fast, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays; that is why each of these days has special commemorations in the Triodion. On Saturday, the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is used; on Sundays, we celebrate the older Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, which recounts more completely the course of the history of salvation. Other days of the Fast are aliturgical days - that is, days on which the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated except on the occasion of a very great feast.
Sunday afternoon Vespers
In the past, in addition to Great Vespers on Saturday evening, it was customary to celebrate Vespers on Sunday afternoon or evening. (In the Byzantine Rite, this is actually the daily Vespers that begins the services of Monday.) This custom, which is still kept by the Orthodox Old Believers, marks the transition from Sunday "back" to ordinary time.
Although Greek Catholics in the United States have often dropped this service on ordinary Sundays, it is frequently kept during the Great Fast. The service of "Sunday afternoon (or evening) Vespers" allows an opportunity for prayer, instruction and fellowship at a time which does not conflict with "weekday" schedules. The service of Sunday evening Vespers on Cheesefare Sunday, to begin the fast, concludes with a ceremony of mutual forgiveness among priest and people, and is called Forgiveness Vespers.
In ancient times, meetings of the faithful were held twice daily during the Great Fast, in the morning and in the evening. The service of daily Matins during the Great Fast has some very ancient elements, such as the singing of Scriptural hymns called canticles as part of the Canon; the ordinary canon of 8 or 9 ones is supplemented with small 2-, 3-, or 4-ode Lenten canons called triodia. It is from these canons that the liturgical book, the Triodion, takes its name.
The daytime services of the Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours have special forms used during the Great Fast; like Matins and Vespers, they end with special Lenten prayers and the recitation of Prayer of Saint Ephrem, with prostrations. Some parishes take the Sixth Hour, or a combined version of the Third and Sixth Hours called Tersext, as a weekday noon service in the Great Fast.
Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts
In order to allow the faithful to receive Holy Communion during the Great Fast, even on those days when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, the Church instituted a combined service of Vespers with Holy Communion, called the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Here, "pre-sanctified" refers to the fact that the Holy Gifts distributed in Communion are those consecrated at a previous Divine Liturgy. This service is appointed to be celebrated on each Wednesday and Friday in the Great Fast, and is sometimes held on other days as well.
Other Lenten devotions
In some places, more recently composed services such as the Moleben to the Holy Cross are served on weekdays during the Great Fast. In some cases, these services are admirably in tune with the liturgical season; in others, they focus on the sufferings of Christ in a way more appropriate to Great and Holy Week.
The Akathist to the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary is in a class by itself; this long and beautiful hymn is appointed to be sung on Saturday in the fifth week of the Great Fast. It is often anticipated on Friday evening, and in some places is used as a Wednesday or Friday service throughout the Fast.
Feasts falling during the Fast
During the Great Fast, a feast which falls on a weekday is often "transferred" to a day on which the Divine Liturgy can be celebrated. (Some of the Sunday commemorations of saints are actually "transferred" from their original days in the calendar of saints when those fall during the Fast.)
However, if the feast of the Annunciation falls during the Great Fast, it is not transferred; neither is the Divine Liturgy of the feast celebrated during the morning on a weekday. Instead, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the evening of the feast day itself, preceded by Vespers. Thus, the Church celebrates the great feast of the Annunciation with full solemnity, but in such a way that the daily fast is not broken until the evening.
Keeping the Fast
To keep a good fast, we should begin with the things that the Church points out to us in the weeks that precede the Fast: a desire for God; humility before Him; a desire to return from the exile into which our sins have drawn us; a remembrance of the Last Judgment, and our Lord's words, "Whatsoever you have done for the least of my brothers, you did for me"; and a desire to forgive, and be forgiven.
The Church presents us with a required minimum of bodily fasting, and traditional recommendations that go beyond these. Any fasting, of course, is best done under the guidance of a spiritual father; it must take into account our own capacities, and must be done in a way than minimizes pride in our own "accomplishments", as well as any tendency to pay attention to what others do. We can also remove unnecessary distractions from our lives to "make room for God."
We can attend the Church's services, on weekdays as well as Sundays, listening to the readings and prayers. We can receive the Mystery of Repentance, and also take advantage of opportunities to be nourished with the Bread of Life in the mystery of Holy Communion.
Perhaps even more important, we can take time to foster our own personal prayer. We can learn what it is that God asks of us, and ask Him for the strength and courage to do it. Regular reading of the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, can be a great aid in this process.
Finally, by Lenten spiritual reading, through missions, homilies and sermons, and by paying attention to the Church's services as well as God's voice in our hearts and our lives, we can come to appreciate and make our own the "bright sadness" of the Lenten springtime of the Great Fast, which leads to Pascha.
- The Great Forty Days Fast (Great Lent) - A Traditional Custom of the Byzantine Rite. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 13. (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1979).
- Father Alexander Schmemann. Great Lent. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1969.)
- Father Basil Shereghy. The Liturgical Year of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
(Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1968.)
- A Monk of the Eastern Church (Father Lev Gilet). The Year of Grace of the Lord.
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001.)