By Sergei V. Bulgakov
The most ancient Christian writers unanimously testify that the Holy Forty Day Fast was established by the apostles in imitation of the forty-day fast of Moses (Exodus 34), Elijah (3 Kings 19), and mainly by the example of Jesus Christ fasting for forty days (Mt. 4: 2). Ancient Christians have observed the time of the Holy Forty Days as the season of the commemoration of the Suffering of the Savior on the Cross, anticipating the days of this commemoration, so that, strongly imitating His self-renunciation and His self-denial, these ascetical feats would show the living participation and love on the part of the Savior, who suffers for the world, and that before all this to be morally cleansed for the time of the solemn commemoration of the passion of Christ and His glorious resurrection.
The very name of the Holy Forty Days is met rather frequently in the most ancient written monuments with the indication of the purpose of its establishment. "Do not neglect the Forty Days", wrote St. Ignatius the God-bearer in his epistle to Philippians: "for it establishes the imitation of the life in Christ". St. Ambrose of Milan spoke even more clearly: "The Lord has blessed us with the Forty Day Fast. He created it for your salvation to teach us to fast not in words only, but also by example". Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa assert that the Holy Forty Day Fast existed everywhere during their time. According to the Apostolic Canons (Canon 69) the Holy Forty Day Fast is considered obligatory and its observance is protected by strict punishment. St. Hippolytus (3rd century) serves as the indisputable witness of the antiquity of this fast and the paschal cycle traced to his see, containing the instruction from antiquity of the custom to stop the Holy Forty Days Fast on Sundays.
On the basis of all traditions of the Holy Apostles, our Holy Church, on behalf of its representatives, fathers and teachers, always considered the Holy Forty Day Fast an apostolic establishment. Yet the Blessed Jerome on behalf of all Christians in his time said: "We fast for the Forty Days according to the apostolic tradition". St. Cyril of Alexandria repeatedly reminds us in his writings, that it is necessary to piously observe the Holy Forty Day Fast, according to the apostolic and gospel traditions. The Holy Forty Day Fast, continuing for forty days, was not observed however in the ancient Church at one and the same time, because that depends on the non-uniform number of the days of the fast and the days on which it was decided. Beginning from the Third, even from the Second Century, the Holy Fathers gave clear testimonies that the Holy Forty Day Fast depended upon forty days. St. Irenaeus wrote that Christians fasted for 40 days. Origen also confirms this in the Third Century. In the Fourth Century the eastern churches established the present order of the Holy Forty Day Fast from Monday after Cheese Fare Sunday until Great Saturday, understanding that this number includes Passion Week in the fast. The Holy Fathers: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Blessed Augustine, etc., all agree that the Holy Forty Days is a fast for forty days, and all see it as the common establishment of the Holy Church. The fast of the Holy Forty Days is called Great, not only because of the number of days but also because of its special significance and its value for the Orthodox Christian.
"The more days of the fast", teaches the blessed Augustine, "the better the healing. The longer the abstention, the more bountiful is the salvation. God, the Physician of our souls, established the proper time for the pious to give praise, for the sinners to pray, for the ones to seek rest, for others to ask forgiveness. The time of the Holy Forty Days is proper, neither too short for giving praise, nor too long for seeking mercy. Holy and saving is the course of the Holy Forty Days by which the sinner is led through repentance in charity, and the pious to rest. During its days the Deity is mainly propitious, needs are filled, piety is rewarded".
According to the teaching of St. Asterius of Amasea, the Holy Forty Day Fast is "a teacher of temperance, the mother of virtue, the educator of the children of God, the guide through chaos, the serenity of souls, the staff of life, lasting and serene peace. Its strictness and importance calms the passions, dampens anger and fury, cools and calms all kinds of excitement, and slakes the appetite". "The holy fathers", teaches St. John Chrysostom, "appointed forty days of fast in order that during these days the people, having been carefully cleansed through prayer, fasting and confession of sins, will approach holy communion with a pure conscience".
According to the teaching of the Ven. Dorotheus, "God has given these holy days (the Forty Holy Days) so that those who will try, with attention and wise humility, to take care of themselves and repent their sins, will be cleansed of the sins which were made during the whole year. Then their souls will be released from the burden, and in such a way cleansed will attain the holy day of the Resurrection and without condemnation to receive the Holy Mysteries, having become a new person through repentance in this holy fast".
The Divine Services of Great Lent, on the one hand, presents to us the continuous prompting to fast and repent, and on the other hand, describes also the very condition of the soul, repenting and crying over sins. This general content of the Great Lent Divine Services also fully impacts his external image.
The Holy Church lays aside any pomp in the Divine Service. Before all she does not perform the most solemn Christian Divine Service, that is, the full Liturgy on the days of Great Lent, excluding Saturdays and Sundays. Instead she celebrates the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays and Fridays (Laod. 19, Trullo 52). The Holy Church changes the structure of the other church services in accordance with time. She almost stops singing as an expression of the joyful condition of spirit, and gives preference to reading. She also changes the choice of the readings themselves according to the season. Thus, the Holy Church deprives the faithful of the joyful proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, and offers readings from the Old Testament word of God. She uses the Psalter especially widely, which mainly induces a prayerful and repentant spirit. The entire Psalter is read twice each week. The terrible speech of the Prophet Isaiah is also read, accusing the lawless and encouraging the hope of repentance. The pericopes in which the creation and the fall of man as described in the book of Genesis are read, and on the one hand, the awful displays of the wrath of God on the impious are described, and on the other hand, His mercy on the righteous. Finally, lessons from the book of Proverbs are read, where the Wisdom of God calls us to true enlightenment, teaches us about heavenly wisdom. In all the church services the Holy Church leads us to the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, that God take away from us the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk, and that He grant us the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Also frequently repeated is the prayer of repentance of David: "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me", and the appeal of the reasonable thief: "Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy heavenly Kingdom". All Divine Services of Great Lent are done quietly, slowly and with the greatest reverence. Few candles are lit in the candle stands, the Royal Doors are rarely opened, the bells are seldom and minimally rung, those present in the temple are called to prostrate to the ground frequently, and to kneel often. By the appearance, the setting and the external character of the Divine Service, the Holy Church teaches us that there should not be a place for joy and pomp, but only humility and sorrow, and lamentation for our sins in the internal temple of our repenting soul. Finally, the Holy Church connects the daily church services, the third, the sixth, and the ninth hours with Vespers to indicate the length of time for the daily fast. Generally, the Holy Church with parental care wisely directs all of us to observe strict abstention from food, to devote all time "of the soul-pleasing Holy Forty Days" and the cares of our salvation to God, to be released whenever possible from the usual earthly cares and occupations, everyday efforts and entertainments, to give a rather larger part than ever of our time for self-examination, moral self-correction, divine thoughts and to the Divine Services of the church. That we use this time, as the most convenient one for the cleansing of all sins, laying as a heavy burden on our souls and darkening the Divine image in us, through the Sacrament of Repentance, and then, already with a cleansed conscience, unite ourselves with the Lord, the Source of all joy, happiness and eternal salvation, through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. That, finally, having worthily "completed the soul-pleasing Holy Forty Day Fast", in peace with God, with our neighbor and with our conscience, brightly and joyfully, with a pure soul and an open heart, wewill meet "the Holy Week" of the Passion of Christ and "the light of His Resurrection".
The paradigm of the observance of the Holy Forty Day Fast was determined from of old. Ancient Christians observed this lent with special strictness, abstaining even from the taste of water until the 9th hour (3 p.m. in the afternoon). They ate after the ninth hour of the day, using bread and vegetables and abstaining from meat and wine, and also cheese and eggs, even on Saturdays and Sundays. The exceptions to this order were only supposed in extreme need.
The strict keeping of the fast weakened on Saturdays and Sundays and on the feast of the Annunciation (when it came in the Holy Forty Day Fast) on which it is necessary to serve a full Liturgy, but it was not weakened when the feasts in honor of the saints fell on the weekdays of the Holy Forty Day Fast, likewise when the same feasts were celebrated on Saturdays and Sundays. The present Ustav (Rubrics, Typicon) commands:
"The strong may persevere fasting up to Friday". "On the first day of the first week (Monday) it is by any means not necessary to eat, and the same way in the second. On Wednesday after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the meal is placed, and we eat warm bread, and for food warm vegetables. Warm water with honey is given also. To keep the fast on the two days of the first week, the weaker eat bread and kvass after Vespers on Tuesday. The same applies to the elderly."
The Holy Mountain Typicon commands not to eat food at all on the first day. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday one may eat one liter of bread and water, and nothing else, unless salt is needed with the bread. On Saturdays and Sundays olive oil and wine is permitted". In the other weeks, except for Saturdays and Sundays, we eat dry foods (xerophagy). Wine and olive oil is authorized on February 24, March 9, and on the day of the reading of the Great Canon on Great Thursday. "We do not eat any fish during all the Holy Forty Day Fast, except for the feast of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and Palm (Flower-bearing) Sunday". On Lazarus Saturday it is permitted to eat caviar, but not fish.