Great Lent

Orthodox church in the Czech Republic vested in lenten colors.
Great Lent in March/April 2011, with days labelled. Precise dates vary each year. See Lent for Lent in Western Christianity.

Great Lent, or the Great Fast, (Greek: Μεγάλη Τεσσαρακοστή or Μεγάλη Νηστεία, meaning "Great 40 Days," and "Great Fast," respectively) is the most important fasting season in the church year in the Byzantine Rite of the Eastern Orthodox Church (including Western Rite Orthodoxy) and the Eastern Catholic Churches, which prepares Christians for the greatest feast of the church year, Pascha (Easter).

In many ways Great Lent is similar to Lent in Western Christianity. There are some differences in the timing of Lent (besides calculating the date of Easter) and how it is practiced, both liturgically in the public worship of the church and individually.

One difference between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity is the calculation of the date of Easter (see Computus). Most years, the Eastern Pascha falls after the Western Easter, and it may be as much as five weeks later; occasionally, the two dates coincide. Like Western Lent, Great Lent itself lasts for forty days, but in contrast to the West, Sundays are included in the count.

Great Lent officially begins on Clean Monday, seven weeks before Pascha (Ash Wednesday is not observed in Eastern Christianity) and runs for 40 contiguous days, concluding with the Presanctified Liturgy on Friday of the Sixth Week. The next day is called Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday. (Thus, in case the Easter dates coincide, Clean Monday is two days before Ash Wednesday.)

Fasting continues throughout the following week, known as Passion Week or Holy Week, and does not end until after the Paschal Vigil early in the morning of Pascha (Easter Sunday).

Purpose

The Crucifixion. Icon by Theophanes the Cretan (16th century, Stavronikita monastery, Mount Athos).

The purpose of Great Lent is to prepare the faithful to not only commemorate, but to enter into the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. The totality of the Byzantine Rite life centers around the Resurrection.[1] Great Lent is intended to be a "workshop" where the character of the believer is spiritually uplifted and strengthened; where his life is rededicated to the principles and ideals of the Gospel; where fasting and prayer culminate in deep conviction of life; where apathy and disinterest turn into vigorous activities of faith and good works.

Lent is not for the sake of Lent itself, as fasting is not for the sake of fasting. Rather, these are means by which and for which the individual believer prepares himself to reach for, accept and attain the calling of his Savior. Therefore, the significance of Great Lent is highly appraised, not only by the monks who gradually increased the length of time of the Lent, but also by the lay people themselves. The Orthodox lenten rules are the monastic rules. These rules exist not as a Pharisaic law, “burdens grievous to be borne” Luke 11:46, but as an ideal to be striven for; not as an end in themselves, but as a means to the purification of heart, the enlightening of mind, the liberation of soul and body from sin, and the spiritual perfection crowned in the virtue of love towards God and man.

In the Byzantine Rite, asceticism is not exclusively for the "professional" religious, but for each layperson as well, according to their strength. As such, Great Lent is a sacred Institute of the Church to serve the individual believer in participating as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. It provides each person an annual opportunity for self-examination and improving the standards of faith and morals in his Christian life. The deep intent of the believer during Great Lent is encapsulated in the words of Saint Paul: "forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).

Through spending more time than usual in prayer and meditation on the Holy Scripture and the Holy Traditions of the Church, the believer in Christ becomes through the grace of God more godlike. The attitude towards this period is very positive, it is not so much a period of repentance, as the "West" think of it, as an attempt to recapture our true state as it was for Adam and Eve before the fall - to live pure lives.

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