In the Byzantine Catholic Church, the Great Fast is the name given to the Lenten period, the six weeks before Great and Holy Week (the final week before Easter). It is recognized as a penitential time but also a time for personal renewal in our faith and transformation in our Christian life as followers of Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time to practice gratitude and humility in response to God’s outpouring of love and mercy for all. That love was demonstrated in the ultimate sacrifice anyone could make, giving one’s life for another. Jesus did this for all humanity in his crucifixion on the cross to fulfill the promise of salvation in His glorious Resurrection.
In the Great Fast, we begin a journey of repentance in which we strive, in spite of all of our human frailties and failings, to become all that God wants for each of us, earned through his sacrificial love. The Great Fast is a challenge to open our hearts to God’s will for our lives; to open our minds to the Truth of his Word; and to open our eyes to a vision of hope and in seeing the needs of others. This is a time for applying deliberate effort, exercising discipline, and making sacrifices. The usual means is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These require action and selective use of our time in various ways.
The church guides our path by setting minimum rules for abstinence and fasting as Lent begins. We are given more opportunities for confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation) and for community prayer in Lenten services (Presanctified Liturgy & Lenten Vesper Services). Of course, we can make changes in other ways, such as setting aside more time away from the distractions and noise that consume our every minute. Whatever we do, and if we falter, we never lose God’s invitation to keep trying.
The beginning of the Great Fast for the Byzantine Church differs from other churches in a few ways but the meaning and intent are similar. There isn’t an Ash Wednesday or even ashes, but instead, the Great Fast begins quietly without notice on a Monday, two days before the more well-known Ash Wednesday the same week. The first day of Lent (and Good Friday) is one of strict fast in which meat, eggs, dairy products are not allowed. Byzantine Catholics are required to abstain from meat on both Wednesdays and Fridays. Faithful are encouraged to expand fasting throughout Lent if possible, though not mandatory. We are reminded that giving up certain foods during Lent is merely an exercise if not practiced with spiritual intention. Our fasting is a discipline that enables us to make choices. Through fasting we find we do have the ability to delay gratification, focus our priorities, and become more attuned to things beyond our immediate desires. It is less about giving up than exchanging old patterns for new beneficial ones, less about food than about understanding God’s plan for each of us and following his will.
The Gospel reading, the Sunday before the first day of the Great Fast, reminds us of how we are to act. We read in Matthew 6:14-21 that when we pray, we are to pray in private as Jesus then follows with teaching his disciples the “Our Father”. And He tells us in our fasting we are not to change our appearance so that everyone knows we are fasting; and finally that we are to make it a practice to store up heavenly treasure, as Jesus says: “where your treasure is, there your heart is also (Matthew 6:21). The Sunday before the Great Fast begins, we hear the message of St. Paul that begins with Romans 13: 11-14: 4. Reading beyond those passages, St. Paul reminds us that our abstinence should not become a stumbling block for ourselves or a reason to judge others. Instead, St. Paul states “Let us, then, make it our aim to work for peace and to strengthen one another.” (Romans 13: 19). This reminds us that each of us are weak in different ways. And so in our own conscience we need to reflect, focus and work on our own failings, and not others. For this reason, the Church gives us the healing Mystery of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. During this time of the Great Fast, we are fervently invited to benefit by going to confession one-to-one with a priest, who acts in the persona of Christ. This is the same power to forgive sins that Christ gave to his apostles (John 20: 22-23). Even if we have not experienced the healing power of Confession in a while, we find comfort knowing the Father, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, welcomes us with open arms.
The final week before Easter is known as Great and Holy Week. It is considered a separate time apart from the previous six weeks of Lent. During Great and Holy Week there is an elevated intensity each day with a different focus. Great and Holy Week is an extraordinary week in Eastern churches because it brings our Christian faith to a climax. We are given this time to make changes in our lives so we can fully celebrate our joy and fullness in our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The fasting regulations for the Byzantine Church are listed below. In strict tradition, the Great Fast would require abstinence from all meat and dairy products every day from the first day of Lent through Great and Holy Week ending with the Paschal (Easter) Liturgies. Our Eparchy of Passaic states that all who receive Holy Communion are required to follow the abstinence listed below as the minimum fast. Anyone who wishes is encouraged to do more.
Excellent Detailed Information can be found here:
“THE GREAT FAST” (courtesy of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute of the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)
The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, permitting the use of eggs and dairy products. All faithful of the Eparchy who receive Holy Communion are obliged to abstain.
Abstinence is to be observed on all Wednesdays AND Fridays during the Holy Season of the Great Fast.
The law of strict abstinence (fast) requires not eating any meat, eggs and dairy products on certain days. All adult faithful of the Eparchy who receive Holy Communion are obliged to observe Strict Abstinence.
Strict Abstinence is to be observed on the First Day of the Great Fast, on Great and Holy Friday.
Pastors and Administrators may, for a just cause, grant to individual faithful and to individual families, dispensations or commutations of Abstinence and Strict Abstinence into other pious practices.