The “Great Fast” is a seven week period of self-discipline and penitence which precedes the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter). This fast is universally observed throughout the Apostolic Church, and is known in English-speaking lands as “Lent”, from an old English word meaning “to lengthen”. Lent originally just meant “Spring”, that is, the time when the days are lengthening.
Fasting is a discipline which has been observed in the Church from the very beginning of its existence. The practice of fasting had been an important feature of Old Testament life. Moses fasted 40 days, as did Elijah. In the New Testament the followers of John the Baptist were rigorous in the observance of fasts, and Jesus, both in his practice and in his teaching, recommended fasting to his followers (Lk. 4:2; Mt. 6:16-18; Mk. 2:20). After the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven his Apostles practiced fasting (Acts 13:2; 14:23; 2 Cor. 11:27), and first century Christian written sources indicate that members of the Church fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The fast before Easter was originally observed differently in different regions. Some only fasted between Thursday evening (Passover Thursday) and Easter Sunday, others for the week between Palm Sunday (Hosannas) and Easter, others for three weeks (this could be the origin of the three “Weeks of the Mysteries” in the Church of the East). But following the Council of Nicea (AD 325), the “Forty Days Fast” became universally observed. The first canonical mention of the Great Fast in the Church of the East is in the acts of the Council of Mar Isaac (AD 410): “Again, as one and at one appointed time we should together keep the complete fast of forty days, seven weeks.” [Synodicon Orientale, ed., J. B. Chabot, Paris, 1892, p. 20 (Eng. tr. by M. J. Birnie).]
The fast of Lent in the beginning consisted of abstinence from all flesh meat, including fish, and from eggs and milk products. It allowed for one meal a day, taken towards the evening. This rigorous schedule was carefully maintained for some generations, but in the West it was gradually eased, until today there are only two fast days remaining, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, the Eastern churches still enjoin abstinence from meat, eggs, and milk products throughout the Great Fast.
The Great Fast provides us with the opportunity of reflecting on our lives and focusing our vision as we approach the great drama of our salvation, the Passion, Death, Burial, and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a time to put away, insofar as possible, the besetting cares of this life and the demands of appetite, and even the innocent pleasures which are satisfying to us, but often distract us altogether too much from following our Lord, or sometimes even take control of our lives to such an extent as to damage our usefulness as instruments of Christ’s will. This is the time for taking back the direction and control of our appetites and of our lives, and turning them back over to the service of Christ.
“Know this as well, that now is the time and the hour to awaken from our sleep. For now our salvation is much nearer to us than when we believed. Now the night is passing and the day is drawing near. Let us then put away from ourselves the deeds of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Let us walk with decorum, as in the day, not with reveling, nor with drunkenness, nor with sexual impurity, nor with envy and strife. Instead, put on our Lord Jesus Christ, and pay no mind to the lusts of your flesh.” (Rom. 13:11-14)