Traditions of Great Lent
and Holy Week
Material prepared by Fr. Philaret Littlefield for inclusion in the St. George (Milwaukee) Melkite Sunday Bulletin
Fasting for the Eastern Catholic means there is no consumption of solid food from midnight until noon. Abstinence is refraining from eating meat, dairy products, eggs, alcohol, fish and olive oil. Three approaches to fasting and abstinence have developed. These might be called 1) the Law – that is required of us, 2) the Tradition – that which devout followers adhere to, and 3) the Compromise – that which is most widely accepted. The Holy Synod has permitted each eparch to ease the obligations of fasting while, at the some time, exhorting all of the faithful to fast according to the ancient tradition. The minimal obligations for the Eparchy of Newton is the approach referred to as the Law.
The Law – that which is required
- The first day of Great Lent and the last three days of Holy Week are days of fasting
- All Fridays of Great Lent are days of abstinence from meat
- Good Friday is a day of fast and abstinence
The Tradition – that which the devout follow
- Every day of Great Lent is a day of fast and abstinence
- On Saturday and Sunday fish, wine and olive oil are permitted.
- Saturday and Sunday are not Fast days – food may be taken at any time.
- Certain feast days are treated like Saturday and Sunday
- The First, Middle and Last weeks of Great Lent are kept strictly. The other weeks are relaxed.
- Abstinence from meat on all days of Lent.
- Abstinence from meat on all Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent.
The idea of “fasting and abstinence” is to gain self control, a simplification of life-style, a solidarity with the poor and hungry, and to return to Paradise. As such fasting and abstinence should always be focused towards making life simpler not more complicated. Additionally there is a liturgical fasting with no Divine Liturgy on weekdays. The practice of Orthros – or morning prayers is emphasized. Special services are offered on the various days of the week: Wednesday is the presanctified Liturgy, Fridays is the Akathist Hymn, and on Saturday we have the service for All Souls (all of the faithfully departed).
The character of the Divine Liturgy is that of a celebration, always connected with the Paschal Mystery of Christ, from which it flows. Thus, in the Eastern Church on the weekdays of Great Lent there is no Divine Liturgy (unless a special feast day occurs), because there is no “celebration.” This is not to deprive the faithful of the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, the Church usually provides more opportunities for receiving Communion (e.g. after Vespers in the presanctified liturgy, during the Typica service etc.). Yet this lack of celebration is a kind of spiritual “fasting.”
On Saturday, which is the Sabbath, the day on which the Lord rested after creation, and one which He descended into Hades spiritually, while His sacred Body rested in the tomb, the Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy. And on Sunday the Divine Liturgy is celebrated because every Sunday is the “Day of the Resurrection.” Saint John Chrysostom states that these two days are like wayside inns, which Gods provides for us as we journey the path of repentance during Lent.
English greeting “Christ is Risen!” Response “He is Truly Risen!”
Greek greeting “Christos Anesti!” Response “Alithos Anesti!”
Arabic greeting “Al Meseeh Kam!” Response “Hak’an Kam!”
The word “Easter” comes from Old English and refers to the Norse Goddess of Fertility, “Istra” – who was symbolized by a rabbit.
The word Pascha (“Fesakh” in Arabic) refers to the Passover – the greatest feast of the Old Testament. That feast referred to the time when God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery and bondage. He commanded them to offer the sacrifice of a spotless lamb and to sprinkle its blood upon their gateposts that the Angel of Death would pass over their houses.
The Christians, seeing the true fulfillment of the Old Law in the New Testament, realized that this ancient feast was but a foreshadowing of the destruction of death by Christ in His burial and Resurrection. The beautiful hymns of Resurrection Matins (sung on Saturday after the procession) frequently refer to Christ as the spotless Lamb, the true Savior, the Victor over sin and death, the Deliverer from bondage, and as the Author of the New creation.
Many popular Easter customs originated in the Christian East.
The coloring of “Easter eggs” originated from the pious legend that Mary Magdala was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Christ – This remains the tradition among observant Jews even in our own time – When Mary Magdala saw the Lord, the eggs in her basket turned brilliant red. Thus, the true meaning of dyeing Easter eggs is to show forth the miraculous transformation and re-creation of the whole world by the victorious resurrection of Christ.
The origin of the “Easter basket” The faithful, having fasted and abstained from meats, eggs, and dairy products throughout all of Great Lent, would bring baskets of these festive foods to church on Easter Sunday. There the priests would bless the baskets after Divine liturgy and the people would share their foods with one another and the poor in a true “break-fast.”
Even Spring cleaning is found in the tradition of the Eastern Churches. During the great week before Pascha the faithful would clean their homes with special care and attention so that no imperfection however slight would mar the purity of the Resurrection. In Eastern Europe all the contents of the house would be brought outside and the building would be scrubbed from top to bottom inside and out.
- On Monday
- we recall Blessed Joseph of the Old Testament who was beaten by his brethren, left for dead, and enslaved by foreigners. While his father, Jacob mourned for his son, Joseph was gloriously reigning as a lord of Egypt, and later saved his father and his people. This prefigures the salvation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was sold for 30 pieces of silver, arrested, condemned and suffered His bitter Passion for us . . . then rose gloriously having granted life to those in the tombs!
- On Tuesday
- we recall the Lord’s parable regarding the wise and foolish virgins. The wise virgins continually awaited the coming of their Master with alertness, their lamps burning through the darkness. The foolish ones went to sleep, assuming they would have enough time to prepare at the last minute. But the Bridegroom came in the midst of the night, rewarding those who kept watch for Him and casting out those who wasted the opportunity to prepare to meet him.
- On Wednesday
- the Church gives us the example of the adulteress who, once she met the Lord, realized the gravity of her sins, fell down before Him and washed His feet with her tears and precious perfumes. The hymns this morning urge us to imitate the sinful women by confessing our sins and turning away from them. Holy Anointing in remembrance of this tremendous act of love brought about by one who was sinful, the Church brings forth for us on this night the holy oils, and celebrates the Sacrament of Anointing for health of body, mind and spirit.
- On Thursday
- Divine Liturgy of the Lords Supper. On this day we recall how Our Lord, preparing to offer Himself as Priest and Victim, revealed to His holy apostles the Sacred Mysteries: His Body and Blood, broken and poured out for the life of he world. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated in conjunction with Vespers, with special prayerful remembrance for the gift of the holy priesthood.
- On Friday
- the Office of the Holy Passion is the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday. During this service the full account of the Passion and Death of Our Lord is read solemnly and the holy cross is brought our for the veneration of the faithful. The Burial of Christ is the night office during which the Lamentations are sung at the tomb of the Lord and the holy epitaphios (Shroud) is carried in procession and venerated by the faithful
The proper posture of prayer for Christians is standing. Standing signifies our dignity as children of God, and is a posture of attention During Lent we kneel at certain prayers and touch our forehead to the ground as a sign of sorrow for sins, penance, humility, in imitation of the publican who “dared not life his eyes to heaven” and sent home justified.
Prostrations are made during all the services at the prayer of St. Ephraim, after each petition. Then twelve deep bows represent the twelve hours of the day, and our awareness of the sins and shortcomings we suffer throughout each day of our life.
Why is it called “Great Lent?”
In the Eastern Church this season is called “GREAT” Lent to distinguish it from the other three Lenten seasons: the Fast of the Nativity, the Fast of the Theotokos and the Fast of the Apostles.
It is called “Great” because it is lengthier than the other fasting periods and it is more intense. For Christians, Great Lent is a season to be taken seriously. The time of repentance should effect all aspects of our life: our diet, our prayer life, our daily schedule, our daily attitude.
Regardless of how strictly we choose to fast, every Christian’s eating habits should be remarkably different during this season. The message is to simplify our life-style, to get away from being creatures of habit, always “giving in” to our cravings, to consider those in our midst who have no choice but who nee to fact on a constant basis due to poverty, etc.
The Church challenges us to be more than “Sunday Catholics”: to turn to prayer – hence the many opportunities offered us: daily Orthros, the Eucharist received at Presanctified Liturgy, the weekly Hymn to the Mother of God, the special aspect of each Sunday’s Liturgy – which is accentuated in the Sunday formation talks on Lenten themes.
Make use of this golden opportunity to enrich ourselves!
In the Melkite Church there are four major periods of fast & abstinence: The Great Fast (or Lent) which precedes the Pascha of the Lord, the Fast of the Holy Apostles after the feast of the Ascension, the Fast of the Theotokos during the first 2 weeks of August, and the Pre-Christmas Fast.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God clearly reveals to His people the need for fasting. Jesus Our Lord, in the Gospel, taught that after He would ascend into heaven, His disciples must fast. The Holy Apostles clearly kept every Wednesday and Friday as days of fast and abstinence, as mentioned in the book of Acts.
Fasting is not extraordinary – for the Christian it is a regular aspect of the spiritual life.
Fasting is depriving the body of food from midnight till noon. For the Christian the hunger that results is a real call to be mindful of our thirst for God. It is a call to identify with the poor, whom God loves especially. It is a way for us, as mature men and women to take charge of our body and of our needs, rather than to allow the body, its needs and passions to rule over our life.
Fasting is also a beautiful opportunity to express our solidarity and communion with Christians all over the world. There are many deeply moving stories of our brothers and sisters who observed the periods of fasting during harsh famines and wars. Imagine the power and the grace that is filling the world during this time of darkness and cold, as men, women and children, rich and poor, virtuous and sinful alike, together offer up penance for the sins of the world and in anticipation of the Coming of Christ!
Abstinence refers to the practice of foregoing all foods that come from animals (meats, poultry, dairy products, eggs).
From the creation of our Parents in Paradise to the time after the great flood, people ate only fruits, grains and vegetables. This is the food of paradise! The practice of abstinence reminds us of our high calling to manage all creation in the Name of the Lord. Our hunger for meat and other rich food serves as a reminder of the enmity that exists in creation as a result of sin. Especially during this holy season when the liturgy reminds us of the role that the stars, the angels, the earth itself, the beasts of the field, the ox and the ass all played in receiving the Savior of the world, abstinence calls us to set aside our enmity even with the animals in order to restore peace on earth.
Thus, we fast to experience hunger and, realizing our emptiness and dependence, to seek the One who alone satisfies our needs.
We abstain in order to strive for peace, to cleanse ourselves body and soul to worthily receive Our Lord.
the Church does not impose. Rather, as a loving Mother, She proposes.