What is Great Lent?
Great Lent is the 40 day fast (Tesserakoste) which the Orthodox Church observes before the Great and Holy Week of Christ’s Passion. It is a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal in preparation for celebrating the most sacred observance of the Christian year, of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.
What are the primary activities of Great Lent?
The fundamental practices that set Great Lent apart are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These are, of course, part of daily Christian life – things we should be doing all the time. We become lazy and inattentive, however, through the course of the year, and Great Lent is the time in which we get back to basics, return to our Christian discipline, and once more set our lives on the right path.
During Great Lent, the Typicon (The Church’s rule book for services and fasting) prescribes that on weekdays we practice xerophagia (“dry eating”) – that is, that we refrain from eating meat, dairy products, and food cooked in oil, and that we not drink alcoholic beverages. On weekends, we consume oil and may drink wine. On the Feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, the Typicon states that we may eat fish. Of course, these guidelines must be followed with discretion, according to the age and physical condition of each member of the household. But at the least, we should not eat meat or dairy products for the forty days, except for small children who may need some milk, and the elderly or chronically ill who may need protein-rich food to avoid severe consequences to their health.
During Great Lent, there will be more services at our parish church. We should not only be strict about not missing the Sunday services, but also attend at least one more additional service per week, such as the Salutations of the Theotokos (Hairetismoi) on Friday evening, or the Great Compline (Mega Apodeipnon) and the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (Proiagiasmena) served during the week, or the Divine Liturgy on Saturdays. We should also be faithful to family prayers at home, keeping our oil lamp lit constantly, censing our house daily – generally increasing our efforts to be serious about putting prayer at the center of our family life.
“Almsgiving” is the traditional English translation of eleemosyne, a rich word which includes both the meaning of material giving to those in need, as well as acts of charity. Lent is a good time to review what our priorities are for spending our money and our time: how much of either is given to God, the Church, and those in need? One excellent practice at home would be to teach our children to set aside some of their own money (allowance money, money they earn, etc.) for the Church or to help others, as well as to take our children to visit the sick or do a good deed for the sake of Christ.
Changing the Atmosphere at Home
During Great Lent, we should feel a distinct difference in the atmosphere at home. We bring about this Lenten atmosphere by concrete changes: unplugging the TV set, cutting out loud music in the house, bringing the family together to read holy books and talk about our Christian life, constantly bringing the focus back to where it belongs. This “atmospheric change” along with the fasting and Church services, make Lent a special time and imprint its feeling, its special savor, on the soul of a child.
Organization is key
Since we live in a non-Orthodox society, Lent does not “just happen.” We have to be organized to cook fasting food, get to weekday Church services, etc. It is advisable for husband and wife to sit down, plan their “resolutions” for Lent, and then have a family meeting with the children to explain which things are going to change, and how everyone can pitch in to make it happen, and that, though it might be a little hard, it will bring grace and joy into the home and into each soul.
Looking ahead to confession and communion
Great Lent and Holy Week are pre-eminent times to prepare for Holy Communion. Before Lent starts, look over your March/April family calendar and block out appointment time for confessions and weeks for preparing for communion.
Holy Unction Services
In the Greek Church, it is customary for the priest to visit homes during Great Lent to perform the Service of Holy Unction (Efhelaio). Contact your priest during the week before Lent (“Cheese Week”) if possible, or during the First Week of Great Lent, to plan a day when the family can gather for this blessed and grace-filled event in your home.
If we make even a moderate effort, then with the help of God’s Grace, the Great Lent can truly be a springtime for the soul:
Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Pascha.
Stichiron from “Lord I have cried” at Vespers on the evening of the Forgiveness Sunday