The Great Fast
The Great Fast (Great Lent), is the most important fasting season in the church year which prepares Orthodox Christians for the greatest feast of the church year, Pascha (The Resurrection). It is preceded by a four week PreLenten period of Preparation which concludes on Cheesefare Sunday, the final day before the Fast begins. It officially begins the next day which we call Pure Monday, seven weeks before Pascha, and runs for 40 days concluding on Friday of the Sixth Week. The next day is called Lazarus Saturday, the day before Flowery (Palm) Sunday. The Great Fast is concluded, but fasting continues throughout the following week, known as Great, Passion and Holy Week, and does not end until after the Paschal Divine Liturgy on Sunday.
The Great Fast prepares us to not only commemorate, but to relive the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. Everything centers around the Feast of Feasts, the Holy Third-Day Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Believers rededicate their lives to the teachings of the Gospel. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving intensifies our faith in our lives. They all three must work together. Fasting moves us to prayer and contemplation which then moves us to action. Fasting without prayer and contemplation is nothing more than dieting.
The strict fasting rules are challenging, but are not to be seen as a burden, but as an ideal to help us reach purity of heart. True repentance should be seen as a very positive time for it is an attempt to recapture our true state as it was for Adam and Eve before the fall.
The basic strict fast is abstention from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products and alcoholic beverages, and eating only one meal a day Monday to Friday. There are variations and days when the rules are relaxed. One can eat during the day on Saturday and Sunday, but the rules for abstention stay in place. Additional and longer liturgical celebrations are prescribed and we are expected to pay more privately, especially saying the Prayer of St. Ephraim with the accompanying prostrations, Prayer and fasting go hand in hand. Many Church Fathers referred to fasting without prayer as "the fast of the demons" since the demons do not eat for they are bodiless, and neither
do they pray. (See Strict Fasting Rules)
Each Sunday has its own special commemoration. Every weekday of the Fast, private prayers and the conclusion of every service includes the Prayer of St. Ephraim. The first week is called Pure Week. Fasting is especially severe this week in order to kick start the spiritual cleansing through fasting, prayer, repentance, reception of the Holy Mysteries and begging forgiveness of his neighbor. Those who have the strength are encouraged to fast completely, eating only on Wednesday and Friday evenings. Those who are unable to keep such a strict fast are encouraged to eat only a little, and then only once a day. On Monday, no food should be eaten at all and only uncooked food on Tuesday and Thursday. Meals are served on Saturday and Sunday, but these are fasting meals at which meat, dairy products and fish are forbidden.
Fasting, It Becomes A New Lifestyle
In addition to the fasting from food, additional ascetical practices, such as special elongated services and penitential prayers are added. In addition, Old Testament Readings for each weekday of the Great Fast are
prescribed (See Lenten Old Testament Readings). These date back from the fourth century, but take us through the foundational Old Testament books of Genesis, Proverbs and the Prophecies in the Book of Isaiah.
The Prayer of the Great Fast
The Prayer of St. Ephraim can be described as the Prayer of the Fasts, especially the Great Fast. This prayer enumerates the most important and vital elements of our spiritual lives. It begins with the negative elements in the exercise of repentance for true repentance means a change of our hearts and minds, turning them to God and neighbor. The second part of the prayer identifies the corresponding virtues that should be cultivated to replace the vices mentioned in the first part of the prayer. The true road to repentance is our striving to rid ourselves of certain basic vices which undermine our entire being, and replacing them with the corresponding virtues which are a reflection of the Divine Will for humanity. This prayer can serve as a meditation for our spiritual lives not only during the various fasts, but all during the year and all throughout our lives.
Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. Prostration
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant. Prostration
Yes, Lord and King, grant that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my neighbor, for You are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen. Prostration
Then the following is repeated four times to make a total of twelve with deep bows are made as we say:
God, be merciful to me, a sinner. (+ Bow)
God, cleanse my sins and have mercy on me. (+ Bow)
Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number. (+ Bow)
Then the prayer of St. Ephraim is said again; One prostration is made at the end. May you all have a blessed Fast.
The themes of each Sunday will be posted separately in the Upcoming Weeks.