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(March 2017)

The Holy and Great Fast
The Great Fast’s Historical Development

Source: “The Lenten Triodion,” St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press (2001), pp. 28-34.

Lent, as it exists today in the Orthodox Church, is the result of a long historical development, of which no more than a brief summary is offered in this article. The portion of the Church’s Year covered by the Lenten Triodion falls into three periods:

1. The Pre-Lenten Period: three preparatory Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee; the Prodigal Son ; the Last Judgement), followed by a preliminary week of partial fasting, ending with the Sunday of Forgiveness.

2. The Forty Days of the Great Fast: beginning on Monday in the first week (or, more exactly, at Sunday Vespers on the evening before), and ending with the Ninth Hour on Friday in the sixth week.

3. Holy and Great Week, preceded by the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday.

The third of these three periods, the Paschal fast of Holy Week, is the most ancient, for it was already in existence during the second and third centuries. The fast of forty days is mentioned in sources from the first half of the fourth century onwards. The pre-Lenten period developed latest of all: the earliest references to a preliminary week of partial fasting are in the sixth or seventh century, but the observance of the other three preparatory Sundays did not become universal in the Greek East until the tenth or eleventh century.

The Paschal Fast in the Second and Third Centuries

In the second century it was the custom for Christians in both East and West to observe, immediately before Easter Sunday, a short fast of one or two days, either on Saturday only or on Friday and Saturday together. This was specifically a Paschal fast in preparation for the service of Easter night. It was a fast of sorrow at the absence of the Bridegroom, in fulfillment of Christ’s own words: But the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. (Mk 2:20). The fast, whether of one or two days, was in principle a total one, without any food or drink being taken at all.

By the middle of the third century, this Paschal fast had in many places been extended to embrace the entire week from Monday to Saturday. There was, however, no uniformity of practice, and some Christians fasted for less than the full six days. Only a few managed to keep a total fast throughout the whole period. In some places it was the practice to eat bread and salt, with water, at the ninth hour (3 p.m.) on the four days from Monday until Thursday, and then to keep, if possible, a total fast on Friday and Saturday; but not all the faithful were as strict as this.

In this six-day Paschal fast may be seen the distant origins of Holy Week; but the developed ritual to which we are accustomed, with special commemorations on each day of the week, is not found until the late fourth century. During the pre-Nicene period, there seems to have been a unitary celebration of Christ’s death and rising, considered as a single mystery, at the Paschal vigil lasting from Saturday evening until Easter Sunday morning. Friday was kept as a fast in preparation for this vigil, but it had not yet become a distinct and specific commemoration of the Crucifixion; the Cross and the Resurrection were celebrated together during Easter night.

The Fast of Forty Days

There is no evidence of a forty-day fast in the pre-Nicene period. The first explicit reference to such a fast is in Canon 5 of the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), where it is treated as something familiar and established, not as an innovation on the part of the Council. By the end of the fourth century the observance of a forty-day fast seems to have been the standard practice in most parts of Christendom, but in some places—possibly including Rome—a shorter fast may have been kept.

This forty-day fast, found in evidence from the fourth century onwards, differs somewhat in scope and character from the one-week fast of the pre-Nicene period, and the precise relationship between the two is not easy to determine. It has been suggested that the forty-day fast was originally connected with Epiphany rather than Easter; but the evidence for this seems inconclusive. It is, however, clear that whereas the pre-Nicene fast was specifically a Paschal observance in preparation for Easter, the forty-day fast was connected more particularly with the final preparation of the catechumens for the sacrament of Baptism or illumination. In the weeks before their baptismal initiation, the candidates underwent a period of intensive training, with daily instruction, special services and fasting. The existing members of the church community were encouraged to share with the catechumens in this prayer and abstinence, thus renewing year by year their baptismal dedication to Christ. Therefore, the forty-day fast came to involve the whole body of the faithful, and not just those preparing for Baptism.

Lent, as we know it, is thus the result of a convergence between these two elements—between the six-day pre-Nicene fast, which was directly in preparation for Easter, and the forty-day post-Nicene fast, which originally formed part of the training of candidates for Baptism. It was natural that these two elements should become fused into a single observance, for they both have the same endpoint—the night of Holy Saturday. The Paschal vigil on this night, in celebration of the death, burial and rising of Christ, was for obvious reasons chosen as the occasion for administering Baptism; for this sacrament is precisely an initiation into the Lord’s Cross and His Resurrection. (see Rom 6:3-4).
Today in most parts of the Church there is no organized catechumenate, and it is customary to administer Baptism on many other occasions besides the night of Holy Saturday; yet the baptismal significance of Lent has still a living importance. For every member of the Christian community, Lent is a time of spiritual training and renewed illumination. It is a time to realize afresh that, by virtue of our baptismal initiation, we are crucified, buried and risen with Christ; it is a time to reapply to ourselves the words of St. Paul, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20). It is a time for us to listen more closely to the voice of the Spirit in whom we were sealed at our Chrismation, immediately after our “burial” in the baptismal waters.

The choice of the number forty for the days of Lent has obvious Biblical precedents. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness (Exod 16:35); Moses remained fasting for forty days on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28); Elijah abstained from all food for forty days as he journeyed to Mount Horeb. (Kgs 19:8). Most important of all Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. (Mt 4:1).

However, how are the forty days to be computed? In the fourth and fifth centuries, the manner of reckoning varied. Some kept a fast of six weeks, some of seven or even eight. Three points arose:

(a) Is Holy Week included in the forty days, or treated as a distinct and additional period?

(b) Is Saturday regarded as a day of fasting?

(c) Are the forty days reckoned continuously, including Saturdays and Sundays? Or, is Sunday excluded from the calculation, and Saturday also, if this is considered not to be a day of fasting?

Divergent answers to these three questions account for present-day differences between the Western and the Orthodox Lent. At Rome Holy Week was included as part of the forty days, Saturday was regarded as a day of fasting, but in calculating the number forty all Sundays were excluded from the reckoning. This produced a six-week fast of six days in each week, constituting a total of thirty-six days. To make up the full measure of forty days, four further days of fasting were then added at the beginning, with the result that Lent in the West commences on a Wednesday.

At Constantinople, on the other hand, Holy Week—together with the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday—was not regarded as part of the forty-day fast in the strict sense. At Vespers on Friday evening in the sixth week, immediately preceding the Saturday of Lazarus, the distinction between the forty days and Holy Week is very clearly marked in the existing text of the Triodion:

Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our soul,
We beseech Thee in Thy love for man,
Grant us to behold the Holy Week of Thy Passion…

At Constantinople and in the East generally, Saturdays, with the one exception of Holy Saturday, were not considered days of fasting. However, in reckoning the number forty it was the custom to count continuously, including Saturdays and Sundays in the calculation. Thus the forty days began on the first Monday in Lent and ended on Friday in the sixth week; then came Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week, which, while distinct from the forty days, were treated as part of the Lenten Fast in the broader sense. In this way the forty days and Holy Week together constituted a fast of seven weeks. Therefore, it is that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday in Western Christendom, while commencing in the East two days earlier on Monday.

Christians in the Greek East, however, while as a rule counting the forty days continuously, have sometimes chosen to exclude Saturday and Sunday from the calculation. With Holy Week included in the reckoning, this resulted in a seven-week fast of five days in each week, adding up to thirty-five days. But since Holy Saturday is a day of fasting, this also was included, bringing the total number of days to thirty-six. As we have seen, the West before the addition of the four preliminary days likewise had a thirty-six day fast, although computed in a somewhat different manner. In both East and West this number of thirty-six has been given a symbolical meaning. 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. The part is offered in token of the whole by rendering back to God a tenth of what He has given to us, we call down His blessing upon the remainder and acknowledge that all material goods and all moments of time are a gift from His hand. This notion of Lent as a tithe or first-fruits of the year is not much emphasized in the existing text of the Triodion, but it is mentioned in the Synaxarion for the Sunday of Forgiveness.

The Completion of the Pattern

In Constantinople from the sixth or seventh century onwards, there arose the practice of adding, before the seven weeks of the fast, an eighth or preliminary week of modified fasting. In our translation of the Triodion, we have termed this the “Week before Lent”; it is often styled Cheese Week or the Week without Meat, because during these days meat is forbidden but cheese and other dairy products are permitted. This preliminary week was added, among other reasons, from the same motive as led to the addition of four extra days at the start of Western Lent: so as to make up the full number forty. In the West, a six-week fast of six days in each week left four days missing from the requisite total. At Constantinople, on the other hand, the days of Lent were (as we have seen) reckoned continuously and so there was no need of a further preliminary period to produce the total of forty days. But Christians in Palestine calculated in terms of eight weeks, with five days of fasting in each week (no special account being taken of Holy Saturday for the purposes of this reckoning); and so they needed an additional week at the beginning of Lent. The observance of Cheese Week in the existing Triodion represents a compromise between the Constantinopolitan and the Palestinian practice: for Cheese Week is to be considered part of the fast, and yet it is not fully within Lent.

During the sixth-eleventh centuries, the season of pre-Lenten preparation was gradually expanded to include three other preliminary Sundays: the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, ten weeks before Easter; following it, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son; and then the Sunday of the Last Judgement immediately before the beginning of Cheese Week. Together with the Sunday of Forgiveness at the end of Cheese Week, this makes four preliminary Sundays in all. In this way, the full pattern of the Lenten season was completed. The Triodion, as we now have it, opens with the latest Sunday to be added, that of the Publican and the Pharisee.