The Great Fast or Great Lent is a time of preparation for the Feast of Pascha–the Resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Historically, the Fast was the final forty days of catechesis in preparation for Christian Initiation. The Church extended this season to all Christians as a time of renewal of our Baptism/Chrismation and of recommitment of our life to Christ. (See introductory article in the upcoming issue of SOPHIA). The focus of Great Lent is on Fasting, Prayer, and Almsgiving or Good Works. In regard to these things, the Clergy should ask parishioners to observe the minimum fast, but encourage them to do more.
The Traditional Fast
- No meat or dairy products are eaten for the entire season of Great Lent. (Although fish with a spine was originally considered meat according to the traditional fast, it has become a fasting food in our Melkite Church for hundreds of years).
- No food or drink is taken from midnight until noon (or until Vespers) on all the weekdays of Great Lent (i.e. Monday through Friday).
The Mitigated or Minimum Fast
- No meat is eaten on the following days: Monday, February 11, the first day of Lent; all Fridays of Lent (also strongly recommended on Wednesdays); Great and Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 28, 29, and 30.
- No food or drink is taken from midnight to noon on the following days: Monday, February 11, the first day of Lent; Great and Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 28, 29, and 30 (also recommended for each day of Lent).
The Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent (i.e. Mondays through Fridays), except on Monday, March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation.
Parishioners should be urged to augment their daily personal and family prayer life at home in their “domestic church” and to participate in the liturgical services in church during the week. For example, at home they can pray some of the Little Hours each day, and the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete on the first four days of Lent and on Repentance Thursday of the Fifth Week (available in the Publicans Prayer Book, Sophia Press).
In addition, the following liturgical services should be served in every church each week of the Fast: Great Compline, Presanctified Liturgy, and the Akathist Hymn. The schedule of services should be published in the church bulletin each week.
Parishioners should be encouraged to read and reflect on a passage from the Bible each day. The readings noted for every day of Lent on our eparchial calendar (from Isaiah, Genesis, and Proverbs) are recommended. Other spiritual reading, for example, the classic, Great Lent, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Way of a Pilgrim, or more recently published, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey through the Canon of St. Andrew, by Frederica Mathewes-Green, or other books the Clergy may wish to recommend should be suggested in the parish bulletin.
Parishioners should be urged to become more aware of those in need in their communities. In addition to visiting shut-ins and the sick in hospital, serving the poor, and performing other works of mercy, parishioners should be encouraged to support the Shepherd’s Care collection. The money that is saved by fasting can be put in the mite-boxes every family should receive in all of our churches. After Pascha, I, as the Shepherd of the Eparchy, will distribute these offerings to those in need. I am forming a consolidated charities committee for consultation regarding the distribution of these sacrificial gifts.
Many parishes have the commendable customs of holding Lenten suppers to support charitable causes, as well as holding potluck Lenten meals prior to or following the weekday church services. If one is planned for the Presanctified Liturgy it should take place after the Liturgy and not before so that the Eucharistic Fast may be properly observed.
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is celebrated on the Sundays of the Great Fast: February 17, 24, and March 3, 10, and 17. If more than one Liturgy is celebrated during the weekend (e.g. Saturday evening vigil or two on Sunday), the Liturgy of St. Basil must be celebrated for each. In addition, the Anaphora Prayer of St. Basil is to be spoken or chanted aloud, just as in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
On the first three Sundays of the Great Fast three processions are called for: with icons, on February 17; with relics, on February 24; and with the Cross, on March 3. Traditionally, these processions take place during the Great Doxology at the end of Orthros, but, in practice, they are often moved to the end of the Divine Liturgy. As another option, the processions may also take place during the Little Entrance with the Gospel in this manner: upon reaching the solea, the priest and deacon remain at the tetrapod (small table), place the items carried in procession (i.e. icons, relics, Cross) upon the tetrapod, incense after the Isodikon, and then the troparia of the Sunday and Feast are sung. On the Sunday of the Cross, March 3, the Ekphonesis and “We bow in worship” are chanted while the priest and deacon remain at the tetrapod, bowing each time it is sung. They return to the sanctuary before the Epistle.
Parish Mission or Retreat
Each parish is asked to schedule a spiritual retreat or mission, during the time of Lent, generally at a convenient time, but not during Holy Week. This may take place on several evenings or on a full weekend (i.e. Friday evening, all day Saturday, concluding on Sunday). A retreat speaker from outside the parish is recommended, and preferably one from our own Eastern tradition or someone very familiar with it. To attract more participants, a light potluck Lenten supper can be offered. All the faithful are called to reflect upon the betterment of their life in Christ and their practice of the Faith.
To all our parishes and missions–to the priests, deacons, religious, subdeacons, readers, and laity, my prayers and best wishes for a happy, healthy and blessed Great Fast. This is the “springtime” for our souls and bodies. This is a time of joy as we strive to become more Christ-like.
I greet you all, as we greet one another after Forgiveness Vespers and on the first day of Great Lent: A blessed Fast! Saome Mubarak!
Eparchial Bishop of Newton