Great Lent is the greatest fasting period in the church year in Eastern Christianity, which prepares Christians for the greatest feast of the church year, Easter (or "Holy Pasch"). Although it is in many ways similar to Lent in Western Christianity, there are important differences in the timing of Lent (besides calculating the date of Easter), the underlying theology, and how it is practiced, both liturgically in the church and personally.
Before Great Lent itself, there is a Pre-Lent season to prepare for Lent. (Ash Wednesday is not observed in Eastern Christianity.) On three successive Sundays, Zacchaeus, the Publican and Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son are commemorated. Next comes Meatfare Sunday, the last day to eat meat before Great Lent and remembering the Last Judgment. It is followed by Cheesefare Sunday, the last day to eat dairy products before Great Lent; this is also Forgiveness Sunday, when Eastern Christians identify with Adam and Eve, and forgive each other in order to obtain forgiveness from God, typically in a Forgiveness Vespers service that Sunday evening.
Observance of Great Lent is characterized by abstention from many foods, intesified private and public prayer, and almsgiving. The foods traditionally abstained from are meat and dairy products, fish, wine and oil. (According to some traditions, only olive oil is abstained from; in others, all vegetable oils.) Since strict fasting is canonically forbidden on the Sabbath and the Lord's Day, wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. If the Feast of the Annunciation falls during Great Lent, then fish, wine and oil are permitted on that day.
Besides the additional liturgical celebrations described below, Orthodox Christians are expected to pay closer attention to their private prayers and to say more of them more often. The Fathers have referred to fasting without prayer as "the fast of the demons" since the demons do not eat according to their incorporeal nature, but neither do they pray.
The each of the five Sundays of Great Lent has its own special commemoration. The first Sunday is the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy , which commemorates the restoration of the veneration of icons after the Iconoclast controversy. The second Sunday is kept in memory of Gregory Palamas. The Veneration of the Cross is celebrated on the third Sunday. John Climacus is remembered on the fourth Sunday, and Mary of Egypt on the fifth Sunday.
During the weekdays of Great Lent, there is a liturgical fast when the eucharistic Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. However, since it is considered especially important to receive the Holy Mysteries during this season the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, also called the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Dialogist, may be celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays. At this vesperal service some of the Body and Blood of Christ reserved the previous Sunday is distributed. On Saturday and Sunday the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated as usual, although on Sundays the more solemn Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is used in place of that of St. John Chrysostom.
One prayer that is said often, accompanied by great reverences, is the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. One translation of it is:
- O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.
- But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.
- Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
One book commonly read during Great Lent, particularly by monastics, is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which was written in about the seventh century by St. John of the Ladder at St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai.
Like Western Lent, Great Lent itself lasts for forty days, but unlike the West both Saturdays and Sundays are included in the count. It officially concludes on the eve of Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday. However, fasting continues for the following week, known as Passion Week or Holy Week, up until Pascha or Easter Sunday.
Sundays of Great Lent