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Great Lent and Lenten Fasting

from The Orthodox Faith, Volume 2, "Worship"

by Father Thomas Hopko

The season of Great Lent is the time of preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ.  It is the living symbol of man’s entire life which is to be fulfilled in his own resurrection from the dead with Christ.   It is a time of renewed devotion:  of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.   It is a time of repentance, a real renewal of our minds, hearts and deeds in conformity with Christ and his teachings. It is the time, most of all, of our return to the great commandments of loving God and our neighbor.

In the Orthodox Church, 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 this 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.

Thy grace has arisen upon us, O Lord, the illumination of our souls has shown forth; behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the time of repentance”  (Vespers Hymns).

A special word must be said about fasting during Lent.  Generally speaking, fasting is an essential element of the Christian life.   Christ fasted and taught us to fast.   Blessed fasting is done in secret, without ostentation or accusation of others [Matthew 6.16; Romans 14].   It has as its goal the purification of our lives, the liberation of our souls and bodies from sin, the strengthening of our human powers of love for God and man, the enlisting of our entire being for communion with the Blessed Trinity.

The Orthodox rules for Lenten fasting are monastic rules.   No meat is allowed after Meatfare Sunday, and eggs or dairy products after Cheesefare Sunday.  These rules exist not as a Pharisaic “burden too hard to bear” [Luke 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 Hymn of the First Week of Lent).

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 Pascha, 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 or her best in the light of the given ideal.

In addition to the ascetic fasting of the Lenten Season, the Orthodox alone among Christians also practice what is known as Eucharistic or liturgical fasting.  This fasting does not refer to the normal abstinence in preparation for receiving the Holy Eucharist; it means fasting from the Holy Eucharist itself.

During the week days of Great Lent the regular Eucharistic Divine Liturgy is not celebrated in Orthodox churches 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.

Even during Great Lent, Saturday (the Sabbath Day) and Sunday (the Lord’s Day) remain Eucharistic days, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated.   On Saturdays, it is the normal Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, usually with the prayers for the dead.  On Sundays, it is the longer Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great.

The well-known teaching that Saturdays and Sundays are never days of fasting in the Orthodox Church, an issue emphasized centuries ago when controversy arose with the Latin Church, refers only to this Eucharistic-liturgical fast.  During Great Lent, even though the Eucharistic fast is broken on Saturdays and Sundays, the ascetical fast continues through the weekends since this fasting is an extended effort made from Meatfare Sunday to Pascha itself. 

The weekday services of Great Lent are characterized by special Lenten melodies of a penitential character.   The Royal Doors to the altar area remain closed to signify man’s separation through sin from the Kingdom of God.   The church vesting is of a sober color, usually purple.  The daily troparia are also of an intercessory character, entreating God through his saints to have mercy on us sinners.