Great Lent, as distinct from the little fast that precedes the feast of the Nativity, is observed in commemoration of the forty-day fast of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mt. 4:2; Lk. 4:2), after which the church observes Holy Week in memory of Christ’s passion.
Lent has been observed by the church ever since the apostolic age. According to the Constitutions of the Holy Fathers: “. . . the fast of Lent is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s mode of life and legislation. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of the passover. . . . After which . . . begin the holy week of the Passover fasting in the same all of you with fear and trembling . . .” (Constitutions 5.18, p. 443). The penalty for failure to observe Lent is laid down in the Canons of the Holy Apostles: “If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or reader, or singer does not fast the fast of the forty days of holy Lent, or the fourth day of the week, and the day of the Preparation, let him be deprived, except he be hindered by weakness of body. But if he is one of the laity, let him be excommunicated” (Constitutions, Canon 69, p. 504; Apostolical Canons 69, p. 598; Cummings, 1957, p. 122).
Reference to the importance of observing Lent occurs in the writings of the early fathers of the church.
In the early church, Lent began on the day after the feast of Epiphany (see FEASTS, MAJOR), in imitation of Christ, who fasted immediately after His baptism (Mt. 3:16, 4:2; Lk. 4:1,2). Holy Week was observed as a separate fast to coincide with the Jewish Passover, occurring some time between the two months of Baramhat and Baramudah of the Coptic calendar. Toward the end of the second century, however, Demetrius I established the epact system of computation, and joined the holy fast to Passion Week, as one continuous and uninterrupted period of fasting prior to the celebration of the Resurrection.
Great Lent lasts fifty-five days, being the forty days that Jesus Christ fasted, with the addition of Holy Week as the final week of the fast, and an introductory week of preparation, in view of the particular significance of Lent.
More than one interpretation, however, has been suggested regarding this introductory week. It has been called, for instance, the fast of Heraclius (see above). Al-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL, who antedated Heraclius by several centuries, states that “all men and women should observe Great Lent for eight weeks extending from the end of winter until the beginning of summer” (1927, chap. 15, p. 142).
Another interpretation was given by certain church historians, such as Jirjis ibn al-‘Amid, and Abu-Shakir ibn al-Rahib ibn-Butrus ibn al-Muhadhdhab (thirteenth century), who explain that a further week was imposed by the church in view of the difference in the practice of fasting on Saturdays and Sundays. Strictly speaking, unlike other weekdays, fasting on these two particular days should not be a total abstinence between the first canonical hour of the day (6 A.M.) and the eleventh hour (5 P.M.), with the exception of the last Saturday in Passion Week, that is, Great Saturday, on which the body of Jesus Christ was still lying in the grave. To make up for the difference, a week was therefore added at the beginning of Lent.
Throughout Great Lent, the liturgy is celebrated on weekdays between the ninth and eleventh canonical hours, that is, from three to five o’clock in the afternoon, but on Saturdays and Sundays, it is held as usual earlier in the day. It is also worthy of note that it is frequently taken from the Anaphora of Saint Cyril, also known as that of Saint Mark.
According to the stipulations of canons 51 and 52 of the Synod of Laodicea (343-381), no weddings or birthdays are to be celebrated during the season of Lent, and the faithful should abstain from activities of a festal nature, or those involving physical enjoyment or pleasure.