Great Lent and the Fast in the Eastern Churches
What is Great Lent?
In the Western Church, Lent is name of the season of 40 days before the feast of Easter. However, in the Eastern Church, there are other Lenten periods of penance and fasting throughout the liturgical year. The Eastern Church also observes the Nativity Fast before the feast of the Nativity, the Apostles Fast between Pentecost and the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Fast of the Theotokos prior to the Feast of the Dormition of Mary. Great Lent is specifically the Lenten period of fasting and penance before the celebration of the Pascha. The word Easter is typically only used in the West; Pascha, from the Greek word for the Hebrew Passover, is the name used in the Eastern Catholic Church for the Easter feast. Great Lent is called ‘Great’ because this Lenten period is longer and more intense than the other Lenten periods and is the most important Lenten season as it is the time for preparing for the most important liturgical feast of the year, Pascha.
When is Great Lent?
In the West, Lent before Easter starts on Ash Wednesday and ends at the end of Holy Saturday, when the Easter Vigil begins. The Paschal cycle in the Eastern Church however, is more involved.
The Triodion: Before the great forty days, there is a pre-Lenten season named the Triodion, a time of preparing for Great Lent. The 10th Sunday before Pascha, the Gospel reading covers the Publican and the Pharisee, a reminder to not boast about fasting, and to act with humility and repentance. The 9th Sunday before Pascha focuses on the Prodigal Son, a parable which teaches about realization of one's sinfulness and the road to repentance and reconciliation. Meat fare week is the 8th Sunday before Pascha and the last day that meat may be taken; it is followed by Cheese fare week, the 7th Sunday before Pascha and the last day that dairy may be eaten.
Great Lent (Or the Great Forty Days): Great Lent actually begins on Clean Monday, 48 days before the feast of Pascha. The name Clean Monday is alluding to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes or behavior as well as non-fasting foods. Great Lent then continues for the next five Sundays: Triumph of Orthodoxy, Holy Relics and St. Gregory Palamas, Veneration of Holy Cross, Commemoration of our Holy Father John Climacus, and the Commemoration of our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt. Unlike in the West, Sundays are included in the 40 days of Lent. Also, in the Eastern Church, Holy Week is not a part of the 40 days but is considered as a separate entity from the rest of Great Lent.
Great and Holy Week: Holy Week, also called Great and Holy Week begins with Lazarus Saturday, 8 days before Pascha. It then continues with Palm Sunday (the entry of Christ into Jerusalem), Great and Holy Monday which remembers Joseph of the Old Testament who was sold into slavery, Holy Tuesday (the Parable of the ten virgins), Holy Wednesday, (the anointing of Jesus with myrrh by the woman in the house of Simon the Leper), Great and Holy Thursday (the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper), Great and Holy Friday (the Passion of Christ) and the last day before Pascha, Great and Holy Saturday.
In the West, in the Latin Rite Church, there are days of abstinence from meat and days of fasting when only a certain amount of food is to be taken. However in the Eastern Catholic Church, there are different fasting guidelines for different days and seasons. The fasting guidelines in the East maintain the Apostolic tradition from the very early Church, as taught by the Fathers and as outlined in the Didache
, the first catechism used in the Church and dating from the first century. During the Triodion, Great Lent, and Great and Holy Week, there are very specific fasting regulations:
The Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican: This is a feast week; there is no fasting permitted.
The Sunday of the Prodigal Son: During this week, the normal year-round routine of fasting on Wednesday and Friday resumes.
Third Sunday, Sunday of Meatfare: This Sunday is the last day meat is eaten until the feast of the Pascha. In this usage, meat refers to the flesh from a vertebrate, which is an animal with a spine/backbone and does include, aside from mammals and birds, fish. However, on certain days fish may be eaten. Essentially, at this point, Eastern Catholics are eating as vegetarians.
Fourth Sunday, Sunday of Cheesefare: This is the last day until Pascha that products from an animal with a vertebrate may be eaten. This includes foods such as such as milk, eggs, butter, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. From this point on the diet until Pascha is essentially vegan. This continues through Great Lent and Great and Holy Week until the fasting ends at Pascha.
Great Lent: The guidelines above continue, with regulations as to when meals are to be eaten. The first week of Lent, in the five weekdays only two meals are to be taken – on Wednesday and Friday. For Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, those who can are encouraged to fast completely; those who are unable to do so are to take bread and water (or tea or juice) after evening vespers. The remainder of Great Lent, one meal is taken each weekday. For Saturday and Sundays throughout Great Lent, two meals are taken each day, and wine and oil are allowed but meat and other animal products are not.
Great and Holy Week: During Great and Holy Week fasting in intensified. Monday through Thursday, one meal each day is taken, though faithful who are able to may fast completely. Many eat only uncooked food on these days. Traditionally, no meals are to be taken on Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. Those who are unable to keep this fast are once again to take bread and either water, tea or juice.