Introduction to the Great Lent

Great Lent is considered the holiest fast since our Lord ‎Jesus Christ Himself had fasted it. Therefore, during Great Lent we ‎follow the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who fasted on ‎our behalf forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4: 2). Also during ‎Holy Week, which comes after the 40 days, we live the Passion of ‎Christ day by day and hour by hour. Because of the significance ‎and holiness of Great Lent, the Church designated a week of ‎preparation to precede the 40 days.

The Church is teaching us to ‎prepare for Great Lent in a spiritual manner. We fast to prepare ‎ourselves for the 40 holy days. In fact, the preparatory week is not ‎the only fast which the Church designated to get us ready for Great ‎Lent and Holy Week. Two weeks prior to Great Lent there is ‎Jonah’s Fast, also known as Nineveh’s Fast. It is a short fast, only ‎three days, and it is a fast of repentance. During this fast, we live ‎with Jonah his fasting and repentance in the whale’s belly. We also ‎live with the Ninevites their fasting and repentance. Just as the ‎fasting accompanied by repentance saved Jonah and the Ninevites ‎from perdition, also our fasting accompanied by repentance will ‎save us from eternal destruction and death due to sin. ‎

The Great Lent is an Apostolic Fast

It is mentioned in the Didascalia (chapter 18) the following: ‎‎“Great Lent should be honored before Holy Week. It starts on the ‎Monday following the Saturday and is completed on the Friday ‎preceding Holy Week. After it, you must pay great attention to ‎Holy Week and fast it with fear and piety.” ‎

In Canon 69 from the Canons of our Fathers the Apostles, ‎the following is mentioned: “Any bishop, priest, deacon, reader, ‎or chanter who does not fast Great Lent or Wednesdays and ‎Fridays shall be excommunicated, unless he has a physical ‎ailment. As for a lay person, he shall be excluded.”‎


The Great Lent is an Ascetical Fast.

The Church teaches us to fast until sunset. Fish is not ‎allowed during this period. Also married couples should refrain ‎from physical relations to give themselves time for fasting and ‎prayer (1 Cor. 7:5). We would like to emphasize the importance of ‎the period of strict abstention during fasting. It is refraining from ‎eating and drinking for a period of time, followed by eating ‎vegetarian food. Some people practice fasting by abstaining from ‎meat and they eat vegetarian food, disregarding the period of strict ‎abstention. These people should actually be regarded as ‎vegetarians and not as fasting. A vegetarian eats only vegetarian ‎food, but is not considered a fasting person. True fasting must be ‎accompanied by abstention from food and drink until sunset as ‎designated by the Church. However, due to variations in people’s ‎physical and spiritual abilities, the Church gave the father of ‎confession the authority to designate to his children the length of ‎their strict abstinence. He determines what is suitable for their ‎spiritual benefit according to the nature of their work, as well as ‎their physical ability to endure fasting.


The Great Lent is a Period of Prayer.

The period of Great Lent is distinctive for its many ‎Liturgies. They become the spiritual treasure for the fasting person ‎to help him throughout the rest of the year. In addition to the ‎Divine Liturgy on Sundays, which have specific readings, hymns, ‎and tunes, the Church also arranged special readings for the daily ‎Liturgies during Great Lent. Also, during the weekdays, there are ‎special hymns. ‎ The Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy almost daily ‎during Great Lent. It is preferred that these Liturgies start late in ‎the day to offer those fasting the opportunity to practice strict ‎abstinence. It is not permitted to have the Divine Liturgy on ‎weekdays early in the morning, since we pray the hours until the ‎Compline Prayer. How can we pray the psalms of the Compline ‎Prayer at 5:00 A.M.? Also, having an early morning Liturgy means ‎there will not be abstention from food, since we can not abstain ‎from food following the Divine Liturgy. The proper time to end the ‎Divine Liturgy during the weekdays of Great Lent is at sunset.‎Due to the inability of the elderly and the sick, it is permitted to ‎have it end earlier, but not before noon. That way everyone may ‎receive the blessing of Holy Communion, while benefiting from ‎abstention. We hope that the fathers of confession will take great ‎care in guiding their children as to the importance of strict ‎abstinence and how to struggle to keep it for as long as they can. ‎


The Great Lent is a Period of Repentance

Fasting without repentance and changing one’s life ‎becomes useless. Unless the fasting person changes his life during ‎fasting, he will only be hungry and exhausted without gaining ‎anything else. Therefore, the Church constantly reminds us of the ‎importance of repentance during fasting. Before Great Lent, we ‎fast Jonah’s Fast and we live the story of Jonah and the Ninevites’ ‎repentance.

During the third Sunday of Lent, the Holy Church offers us ‎the Gospel reading of the Prodigal Son as a model of repentance, ‎which requires an awakening, confession of sins, leaving the place ‎of sin, and returning to the Heavenly Father with confidence in His ‎mercies and acceptance. This parable reveals to us the depth of ‎God’s love for sinners and how He accepts them no matter how ‎horrendous their sin is. ‎Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “the one who comes to Me I ‎will by no means cast out.” (John 6: 37) Christ “has come to save ‎that which was lost.” (Matt. 18:11) God desires that all men be ‎saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1 Tim. 2:4). Christ is ‎the True Physician who is needed by those who are ill by sin. He ‎did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark ‎‎2:17). Repentance is a result of divine action; it is the Spirit of ‎God, Who moves the hearts of sinners to repent. It is written in the ‎Holy Bible, “For it is God who works in you both to will and do ‎for His good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13) ‎God’s pleasure is in the return of a sinner so that he will not ‎die in his sin. When God sees his sinful child returning to Him, He ‎has compassion and goes to him, kissing him, and welcomes his ‎return by saying, “It is right that we should make merry and be ‎glad.” (Luke 15:32) The return of a sinner and his repentance ‎results in joy to God, as well as all those in heaven, because, ‎‎“there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents ‎than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” ‎‎(Luke 15:7)

During Great Lent, we praise God for His many mercies. ‎The Doxology of Great Lent presents to us a magnificent hymn in ‎praising God on His mercies, as well as asking for His mercies. ‎The first Doxology of the Sundays of Great Lent starts with the ‎following:‎

‎“I will praise you, O Lord, for Your mercies are forever. ‎From generation to generation, my mouth shall declare Your ‎truth.”‎

In this beautiful doxology, we praise God for His mercies. ‎Then the chanter remembers his many sins and transgressions by ‎saying, “My sins are heavy over my head.” As his sins are ‎revealed in front of him, he then remembers the stories of those ‎who repented and were accepted by God, so he won’t lose hope. ‎Therefore, he remembers the publican, the adulteress, and the thief ‎and asks God to make him like any one of them. Again, he recalls ‎God’s attributes by saying, “I know You are good, kind and ‎merciful. Remember me in Your mercy forever.” God does not ‎wish the death of a sinner but that he should return and live. Then ‎the chanter remembers his sins once again and says:‎

I have sinned , O Jesus, my Lord,‎

I have sinned, O Jesus, my God,‎

O my King, do not count the sins I have committed.‎

He asks for God’s mercies and not to be punished like ‎Sodom and Gomorrah, but to have mercy on him like the ‎Ninevites. The chanter ends his praise by saying:‎

But absolve and forgive my many transgressions‎

As a Good and Lover of mankind

Have mercy on us according to Your great mercy.‎

This doxology is beautiful poetry, through which the ‎human soul expresses her feelings resulting from the heaviness of ‎her sins. At the same time, she shows her great hope in our kind ‎and merciful Lord, Who is happy with the return and repentance of ‎the sinner. Yet, He punishes the unrepentant sinners. Therefore, ‎repentance is the means by which we enjoy God’s great mercies.‎


Great Lent is a Period for Doing Mercy

The Church reminds us of the importance of doing merciful ‎acts during fasting. Therefore, during Great Lent we chant together ‎praising those who have mercy on the poor. The Holy Bible ‎teaches us that the fasting which is accepted by God is the one in ‎which we do acts of mercy to others. “Is this not the fast that I ‎have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy ‎burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every ‎yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you ‎bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the ‎naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from you own ‎flesh?”‎

Fasting is a beautiful period to do good deeds by helping ‎the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and taking care of ‎the needs of others. The person who fasts by not yielding to the ‎needs of the flesh, will feel the needs of others and his heart will be ‎moved to serve them. Also, the asceticism of fasting teaches us to ‎care for the heavenly and not be concerned with the earthly. Thus ‎it becomes easy to forsake our material possessions and offer them ‎to the needy


Great Lent is a Period of Reconciliation with Others

Fasting is an act of worship presented to God, and God ‎does not accept the offering and worship of a person who quarrels ‎with others. Instead, He asks him to go and make peace with his ‎brother before coming to worship and present offerings in front of ‎God’ altar. Fasting is an appropriate time to evaluate our ‎relationship with others. As we ask God to forgive us our sins, we ‎must also forgive those who have sinned against us.‎

May God grant us a blessed fast by which we can grow in a ‎life of prayer, asceticism, and repentance. May we always increase ‎in doing acts of mercy and living in peace with one another.‎

© 2018 St. Peter & St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church - Santa Monica, CA