What is the reason for the fact that during Great Lent we have to keep a fast for 40 days? The thing is, the fast that prepares us for Holy Pascha is called Great Leant not only because of its spiritual significance, but also because of its length – it lasts for 48 days. It joins together two fasts: Lent itself (lasts for 40 days and ends on Friday of the 6th week) and the fast of the Holy Week.
During the Old Testament period of the Holy history, the 40-days-long fasts of prophets Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (3 Kings 19:8) were the foretypes of Lent. In the Church, Lent is organized in commemoration of the 40-days-long fast of our Lord and Savior (Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:2). Jesus Christ (Who ate nothing during those days) not just blessed the fast by His own example, but ordered His disciples to keep a fast, too.
The apostles prepared themselves for services with a fast (Acts 13:2, 14:23). Later they ordered all the other Christians to keep a fast. This found a reflection in such canonical document as “The Canons of the Holy Apostles”: If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or reader, or singer, does not fast the holy Quadragesimal fast of Easter, or the fourth day, or the day of Preparation, let him be deposed, unless he be hindered by some bodily infirmity. If he be a layman, let him be excommunicated. (Canon LXIX)
Bishop Nicodemus (Milosh), a well-known canonist, writes that, “these canons fully deserve the names of the Holy Apostles and the respect payed to them by the Ecumenical Church. The canons express exactly what the Apostles wrote in their letters and told to their first successors. It can be proved by the full compliance of the main ideas of these canons with the teaching containing in the canonical books of the New Testament”. (The Canons of the Orthodox Church, pp. 10-11)
The Holy Fathers often wrote that by fasting for 40 days we loyally follow the example of our Divine Master:
– “It is good to keep a fast at any time. However, it is much better to spend time with Christ in fasting during Lent, for He blessed with His own fast. Those Christians, who do not keep a fast during Lent, show their disloyalty and obstinacy, violation the law given by God with their satiety. What Christian you can be, if you do not fast by the example of your Lord? If you delight while He was hungry? If you are afraid to fast for your sins, while He was hungry to save you?” (St. Ambrose of Milan. “The word about Lent”)
– “Christ was fasting before temptations, but we are fasting before Pascha. Christ was fasting for 40 days, but we measure our fast against our abilities”. (St. Gregory the Theologian)
– “We prepare for the Lord’s sacrament with the 0-days-long fast; we fast for our sins as many days as the Lord fasted for our crimes”. (Pious Jerome)
– “We keep a fast that the Lord has kept – the holy, both by its name and its essence, Lent – to purify ourselves and to please God, as if we gave Him the tithe from every year of our life” (St. Simeon the New Theologian). This is why Lent is also called the Lord’s fast.
The fast of the Holy Week is the continuation Lent. Although Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday do not refer to the Holy Week, they become the gates to the saving sufferings of our Lord, and this is why they are fast days. Since these days are feasts, the fast is weakened: caviar is permitted on Lazarus Saturday, caviar and fish – on Palm Sunday. The fast of the Holy Week was organized according to the Savior’s word: “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:35). In “Apostolic Constitutions” it is said: “He therefore charged us Himself to fast these six days on account of the impiety and transgression of the Jews, commanding us withal to bewail over them, and lament for their perdition. For even He Himself wept over them, because they knew not the time of their visitation”. (Book V.XV)
The first week of Great Lent is over. If you have managed to tune on the right mood, the rest of Lent will be light and grace-filled for you. For this, you just need to keep in mind that that although corporal abstinence is important, it is still the means of spiritual purification, while the aim of fasting is spiritual fruits: “abstinence from food is not enough for a proper fast; let us keep a good and pleasing to God fast. The true fast is removing yourself from evil, it is tongue abstinence, suppressing your anger, refusal of lech, deceit, slander, perjury – abstinence from all of these is what the true fast is”. (St. Basil the Great)
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds