Lent - The Meaning of the Great Fast

from The Lenten Triodion by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, 1977, pp.13-37

The True Nature of Fasting:
Fast (nhsteiva)- a balance must be kept between the outward and the inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence, a full and true fast cannot be kept. Yet, the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves. Neither should we over-emphasize the external rules about food, nor should we scorn these rules as outdated. We are a unity of body and soul. But some, because of their heretical attitude towards human nature, create a false 'spiritualism' which rejects or ignores the body and view man solely in terms of his reasoning brain. This has caused a general decline in fasting. As to the argument that fasting rules are to difficult to follow in today's world, it can be said that fasting traditionally practiced in the Church has always been difficult and always involved hardship.

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. The purpose of its difficulty and hardship is to lead us into a sense of inward brokeness and contrition. On the other hand, abstinence/fasting leads us to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even though it might be debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. As many doctors acknowledge, periodical fasts contribute to bodily hygiene.
St. John Chrysostom says the fast is "abstinence not only from food but from sins. The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all members of the body."
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are central to the Lenten season. Divorced from prayer and from the reception of the holy sacraments, unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes pharisaical or even demonic. Fasting, then, is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer. In the Gospels the devil is cast out, not by fasting alone, but by "prayer and fasting" (Matt. 17.21; Mark 9.29). Prayer and fasting should in turn be accompanied by almsgiving- the love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness.

Always in our acts of abstinence we should keep in mind St. Paul's admonition not to condemn others who fast less strictly.

Five misconceptions answered: 1) The Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined by all Orthodox Christians. 2) The Triodion should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense. Our progress in the fast does not depend solely upon the exertion of our own will. On the contrary, whatever we achieve is to be regarded as a free gift of God. 3) Our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient. Do not try to invent special rules for fasting, we should follow as faithfully as possible the accepted pattern set before us by Holy Tradition. If our fasting becomes willful and proud, it may assume a diabolical character, bringing us not closer to God, but to Satan. This is because fasting renders us sensitive to the realities of a spiritual world which can be dangerously ambivalent- for there are evil spirits as well as good. 4) Lent is a time for joyfulness, not gloom. John Climacus says it can bring us a "joy-creating sorrow." The season of Lent falls not in midwinter when the countryside is frozen and dead, but in spring when all things are returning to life. The English word "Lent" originally had the meaning "springtime." 5) Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation. During the fast we deny our bodily impulses- for example, our spontaneous appetite for food and drink- not because these impulses are in themselves evil, but because they have been disordered by sin and require purification through self-discipline. St. Paul's usage of the word "flesh" denotes the totality of man, soul and body together.

The Historical Development of the Great Fast:
Three main components to the Great Fast- 1) Holy and Great Week- preceded by the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday. Started in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by observing a brief fast of one or two days before Easter. By middle 3rd cent. the Paschal fast had in many places extended to embrace the entire week prior to Easter. The developed Holy Week ritual which we have today is not found until the late 4th cent.

2) The Forty Days of the Great Fast- beginning on Monday in the first week. No evidence of this in the pre-Nicean period. First evidence is from Canon 5 of the Council of Nicea (325) which probably recognized an existing practice. By the end of the 4th cent. the 40 Day Fast had become standard practice. Evidence strongly suggests that the 40 Day fast originated in the practice of the final preparation of catechumens for the sacrament of Baptism or 'illumination.' Candidates underwent intensive training and instruction, and existing members of the church community were encouraged to share in their prayer and abstinence, thus renewing their own baptismal dedication to Christ. Why choose Easter as the time for baptizing catechumens? This sacrament is precisely an initiation into the Lord's Cross and His Resurrection (see Rom. 6.3-4).

Biblical precedents for a 40 day fast: People of Israel in wilderness for 40 years (Ex. 16.35); Moses remained fasting forty days on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34.28); Elijah abstained from all food for 40 days as he journeyed to Mt. Horeb (3 Kings 19.8); Most important of all, Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness tempted by the devil (Matt. 4.1).

Questions? Is Holy Week included in the 40 days, or treated as a distinct and additional period? Is Saturday regarded as a day of fasting? How are the 40 days calculated/reconciled? In the West, a six-week fast of six days each week (Sunday excluded) gives 36 days, add four days to start on Ash Wednesday. In the East, a seven-week fast of five days each week giving 35 days plus Holy Saturday = 36 days (Holy Week included). Or count continuously 40 days from Clean Monday to Friday of Sixth week, then Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Significance of 36 days? Just as the Israelites dedicated to God a tithe or tenth of their produce, so Christians dedicate the season of Lent to God as a tithe or tenth of the year.

3) Pre-Lenten Period- During the 6th - 11th centuries, the season of Pre-Lenten preparation was expanded to include three other Sundays (besides Cheese Week- Sunday of Forgiveness). These preparatory Sundays are: Publican and the Pharisee, Prodigal Son, and Last Judgment. They are followed by a preliminary week of partial fasting, ending with the Sunday of Forgiveness.

The Rules of Fasting:
Most Orthodox authorities agree on the following rules-

I.) During the week between the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and that of the Prodigal Son, there is a general dispensation from all fasting. Meat and animal products may be eaten even on Wednesday and Friday.

II.) In the following week, often termed the 'Week of Carnival', the usual fast is kept on Wed. and Fri. Otherwise there is no special fasting.

III.) In the Week before Lent, meat is forbidden, but eggs, cheese and other dairy products may be eaten on all days, including Wed. and Fri.

IV.) On weekdays during the seven weeks of Lent, there are restrictions both on the number of meals taken daily and on the types of food permitted; but when a meal is allowed, there is no fixed limitation on the quantity of food to be eaten.

a.) On weekdays of the first week, fasting is particularly severe. According to the strict observance, in the course of the five initial days of Lent, only two meals are eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, in both cases after the Presanctified Liturgy. On the other three days, those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those for whom this proves impracticable may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday), in the evening after Vespers, when they may take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit-juice, but not a cooked meal. It should be added at once that in practice today these rules are commonly relaxed. At the meals on Wednesday and Friday xerophagy is prescribed. Literally this means 'dry eating'. Strictly interpreted, it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, octopus and shell-fish are also allowed on days of xerophagy; likewise vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives. but the following categories of food are definitely excluded: i) meat; ii) animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard, dripping); iii) fish w/ backbones; iv) vegetable oil and wine (i.e. all alcoholic drinks).

b.) On weekdays in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks, one meal a day is permitted, to be taken in the afternoon following Vespers, and at this one meal xerophagy is to be observed.

c.) Holy Week. On the first three days there is one meal each day, with xerophagy; but some try to keep a complete fast on these days, or else they eat only uncooked food, as on the opening days of the first week. On Holy Thursday one meal is eaten, with wine and oil. On Great Friday those who have the strength follow the practice of the early Church and keep the total fast. Those unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, tea or fruit-juice, but not until sunset, or at any rate not until after the veneration of the Epitaphion at Vespers. On Holy Saturday there is in principle no meal, since according to the ancient practice after the end of the Liturgy of St. Basil the faithful remained in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit, with a cup of wine. If, as usually happens now, they return home for a meal, they may use wine but not oil; for on this one Saturday, alone among the Saturdays of the year, olive oil is not permitted.

d.) The rule of xerophagy is relaxed on the following days: i) On Saturdays and Sundays of Lent, with the exception of Holy Saturday, two main meals may be taken in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil; but meat, animal products and fish are not allowed. ii) On the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and Palm Sunday, fish is permitted as well as wine and oil, but meat and animal products are not allowed. If the Feast of the Annunciation falls on the first four days of Holy Week, wine and oil are permitted but not fish. If it falls on Great Friday or Holy Saturday, wine is permitted, but not fish or oil. iii) Wine and oil are permitted on the following days, if they fall on a weekday in the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth week: First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (February 24), Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (March 9), Forefeast of the Annunciation (March 24), Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel (March 26), Patronal festival of the Church or Monastery. iv) Wine and oil are also allowed on Wednesday and Thursday in the fifth week, because of the vigil for the Great Canon. Wine is allowed - and, according to some authorities, oil as well - on Friday in the same week, because of the vigil for the Akathistos Hymn.

It has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health. In present-day practice, even for those in good health, the full strictness of the fast is usually mitigated. Only a few Orthodox today attempt to keep a total fast on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday in the first week, or on the first three days of Holy Week. On weekdays- except perhaps during the first week or Holy Week- it is now common to eat two cooked meals daily instead of one. From the second until the sixth week, many Orthodox use wine, and perhaps oil also, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and less commonly on Mondays as well. Permission is often given to eat fish in these weeks. Personal factors need to be taken into account, as for example the situation isolated Orthodox living in the same household as non-Orthodox, or obliged to take factory or school canteen. In cases of uncertainty each should seek the advice of his or her spiritual father. At all times it is essential to bear in mind that 'you are not under the law but under grace' (Rom. 6.14), and that 'the letter kills, but the spirit gives life' (2Cor. 3.6) The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; 'for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Rom. 14.17).

• The Lenten Triodion translated by Mother Mary & Kallistos Ware, FaberFaber, London, 1977, pp. 699.
• The Lenten Spring- Readings For Great Lent, by Thomas Hopko, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1983, pp.162.
• Great Week And Pascha In The Greek Orthodox Church by Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Holy Cross Press, Brookline, MA, 1992, pp.145.
• Great Lent- Journey To Pascha, by Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1974, pp.140.
• Fasting- What The Bible Teaches by Jerry Falwell, Tyndale House Publ., Wheaton, IL, 1981, pp.55.
• Daily Lenten Meditations For Orthodox Christians, by Emily Harakas, Light & Life Publ. Co., Minneapolis, MN, 1983, pp.75.
• Fasting And Science, by Constantine Cavarnos, CTOS, Etna, CA, 1988, pp.21
• On Fasting by ?, Synaxis Press, Chilliwack, B.C., 1980, pp.27.