Celebrating Holy Lent in Orthodox Christianity


“As so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accomplish them during the fast: (1) to speak ill of no one, (2) to hold no one for an enemy, and (3) to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing.” – Saint John Chrysostom. 

The Easter holiday season has officially begun with the onset of the forty day period of Lent..

The great lent in holy Orthodox Church is called ‘Tesseradocaste’ derived from the word forty, depicting the forty days of holy fasting prior to Pascal celebrations.  Some of the oriental orthodox churches observe fifty days of fasting, especially the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches where as Coptic Orthodox Church have forty days of fasting. The Ethiopian Orthodox Lenten days extend up to 56 days. There are three major parts of the holy Paschal cycle namely: the pre-lenten period, the holy lenten days and the holy week. This cycle ends with the celebration of Pasha or Easter.

Bulgarian Orthodox Priests consecrated

The great lent prepares the orthodox faithful to feel and enter into the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The totality of orthodox Christian life is centered on resurrection. It is the preparatory workshop for the true believers by spending more time with prayers, confession, forgiveness, kindness, humility, chastity along with holy traditions and scriptures of the church to help feel the ultimate grace of God.

The great and holy lent in Orthodoxy is a process of huge spiritual exercise. Though it has been mentioned that the lent is observed for forty days or even 56 days in various churches, on the whole the entire process of holy and the great lent extends more than 70 days or even more. That is the rigorous uncompromising nature of holiness in Orthodox lent. Before the holy Lenten period people ask forgiveness to each other (In fact, it is now common to find many orthodox Christians posting forgiveness and prayers to their friends and loved ones in facebook and other social media sites), With the forgiveness granted they enter into the most holy festival of orthodoxy, a festival full of true spirituality and humility. The service of forgiveness or the “Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness” is observed in eastern orthodox churches on the night of Sunday (also know as Sunday of forgiveness) and the great lent begins on Monday.

Pre-Lenten Period

 Apart from the forty days of fasting, there is an additional seven days of Pre Lenten Fast which is the predatory week before the great Lent begins. This time is used effectively to prepare the faithful for the spiritual tasks that are to be accomplished during the holy lent. Church fathers have developed several liturgical themes that are to be observed each day during the holy lent. It includes Zacchaeus Sunday, Publican and Pharisee, Prodigal Son, Meat-fare Week (day of the dead), Cheese-fare Week where dairy products are allowed to be consumed even on Wednesday and Friday, which are normally observed as fast days throughout the year. It ends with Cheese-fares Sunday or the Sunday of forgiveness. In some oriental orthodox churches, especially Indian and Syrian Orthodox churches, dedicate a Sunday to remembering the souls of all departed priests.

pre lenten foods

The Lenten Days

The Oriental Orthodox Churches consider Lenten cycle as the cycle of forgiveness and it consists of eight Sundays. The first six consecutive Sundays, beginning with the wedding of Cana, the church celebrates miracles of Jesus Christ. This ends with the healing of the blind man and Raising Lazarus from the Dead on the Saturday prior to Palm Sunday. The seventh Sunday is Palm Sunday and the eighth Sunday, of course, is Easter. The content theme of  the celebrations of miracles by Jesus are in the following order; the wedding feast in Cana, the healing of the leper, healing the paralyzed man, healing the Canaanite’s daughter, the parable of the Good Samaritan, healing the blind man, and raising Lazarus from the dead, Palm Sunday and Easter.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches Lenten celebrations begin with clean Monday to the Friday of the sixth week. Each of the Sundays will have special commemorations and are as follows; the first Sunday of great lent is celebrated as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the second is the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas, then comes Sundays of Cross adorning, St. John the ladder, Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt which is the fifth Sunday and finally the Lazarus Saturday.

Several Orthodox monasteries, as part of their custom, fast from all food except water for the first three days of the great and holy lent. This is in order to commune during the first divine liturgy of pre-sanctified gifts. The fast for individuals is determined by their spiritual father and it is believed that deep spiritual fasting helps them to get closer to God Almighty.

It shall be noted that similar pre-Lenten and Lenten liturgical and scriptural observances are made in all orthodox churches, whether eastern or oriental, in different forms and in different names according to their traditions, customs and calendar settings.

The Lenten Fast

Fasting is denoted not eating at all or the abstinence from certain food. The purpose of fasting in orthodoxy reminds the Holy Scripture that “Man does not live by bread alone.” There are several benefits of fasting. It helps to pray with more ease, helps to create a pure and healthy diet, and also the faithful will empathetically feel with the poor and the hungry and this helps to save resources to feed the downtrodden. Fasting is more than just controlling food; rather it is considered a tedious exercise of forgiveness, compassion and controlling ones emotions.

The nature of Lenten fast in all Orthodox Churches is very rigorous. For example,within the Ethiopian Church believers are to abstain from all types of food except bread, water and salt, as well as meat and diary products are eliminated from the diet. On fasting days only one meal is allowed and it is to be taken in the afternoon at three pm or in the evening.  The strict nature of the great lent fasting instructs orthodox believers to completely abstain from all worldly pleasures including physical and sexual intimacy, allowing them to spend more time praying.

The correct observance of the great lent nullifies the sins for the rest of the year. Some are not even considered to be good Christians if they did not observe the great and holy lent.

Recipes for Orthodox Lenten Days

There is wide variety of Lenten foods offered in Orthodoxy. As mentioned earlier, food items like meat, eggs and dairy, fish with backbones (other seafood allowed), wine & olive oil are completely avoided. Fish, wine, & olive oil are permitted on celebration days within the fast period; wine & olive oil are always permitted on Saturdays & Sundays, and this is typical with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Most of the Oriental Orthodox Churches do not allow wine nor do they allow seafood in any form. Orthodox Christians in India observed the traditional of replacing all cooking utensils with new ones  to be used only to cook food during the great Lenten period. It is the traditional practice of many oriental orthodox Churches to place a stand with a wooden cross, covered with black clothes, where the cross is placed between two candles. This stand is placed at the center of the church on the completion of the first half of the great lent normally, on the 25thday of the holy Lent. This resembles crucified Jesus Christ as well as the snake and staff and snakes of mosses which was paced by him in the middle of the earth. This practice is common among Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches.

 The Holy Week

holy fire

photo courtesy: Travelujah

Normally the last week of Christ’s life is called ‘Passion Week’ which is popularly known as ‘Holy Week’. Each day of the holy week is called ‘Holy and great’ and there are very special services and themes for every day. Monday is dedicated to the sterile fig tree which yields no fruit and is condemned. Tuesday is the day of the vigilance of the wise virgins. Wednesday is for the fallen woman who repents. The Friday before the Palm Sunday is considered to be concluding Friday in Coptic Orthodox Church and on this very special day the ceremony of unction of the sick is conducted and the last Saturday before the Holy Week is commemorated as Lazarus Saturday.

icon of crucifixion

Icon of Crucifixion; courtesy theorthodoxchurch.info

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church uses unleavened bread for the Divine Liturgy on Maundy Thursday and it is considered to be a very special day. It is traditionally prohibited to  make intercession prayers to the saints, or kiss the icons of saints and people do not greet each other or the priest during the holy week. The theme of sorrow and betrayal of Christ is first and foremost in the background.

The Holy Friday or the Good Friday ceremony is observed with great reverence and holiness and Orthodox believers spend the whole day at Church taking part in prayers and processions with cross marking the journey of Jesus Christ to Golgotha. There is a tradition of serving rice porridge or congee, peas, pickle and papad (rice flakes is also served at some places) to all believers after the holy Friday ceremony as part of the common feast and this is found typically among the Indian and Syrian Orthodox Christians living in India. There is no Divine Liturgy celebrated on Holy Friday, but liturgy is celebrated if holy Friday and Annunciation occur on the same day, which has rarely occurred in Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches. The paschal or Easter Divine Liturgy is observed in the early morning hours.

Due to calendar differences Pascha or Easter is celebrated at different dates, but in some years it is celebrated together. Since resurrection of Jesus Christ is the centre of the Orthodox Christian faith, Easter is the most important celebration in Orthodoxy,. On the Paschal day believers greet each other saying “Christ is truly risen”, and the response is “He is Indeed Risen”, also known as Christos Anesti in Greek. ”

Easter Eggs, widely considered the symbol of resurrection, are another important part of the holy Pascha. These eggs are painted with a red color to represent the blood of Christ shed on the cross. The Easter eggs and blessed by the priest towards the end of the paschal vigil and thereafter distributed to the faithful.

pashal baskets

Pashal baskets; photo courtesy theorthdoxchurch.info

An interesting legend connected to the origin of Easter eggs states that Mary Magdalene brought cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus which turned to brilliant red when she saw the risen Christ. After the Ascension of Jesus, Mary went to the Emperor of Rome and greeted him saying that “Christ has risen,” but he replied pointing at the eggs, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” After making this statement it is said the egg immediately turned blood red. Modern day customs surrounding Easter eggs are abundant and special chocolates are made in the shape of Easter eggs.

Holy Fire, the great miracle of Orthodoxy


The Orthodox holy fire ceremony is considered is one of the greatest living examples of holy orthodoxy. It is the most renowned miracles of universal orthodoxy. The miracle has been recorded since 1106 A.D. The holy fire takes place inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was crucified, entombed and rose from the dead. It takes place every Holy Saturday prior to the Orthodox paschal or Easter celebrations. It is very important to note that the miracle of the holy orthodox fire takes place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries. The ceremony of the holy fire is broadcasted live in countries like Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Egypt. Also the holy fire is carried to most of these places in special flights with utmost care and they are received at the airport by their national leaders in the most honorable manner. Believers carry holy fire in their hands because it will never burn their skin.

The Great and Holy Lent in Orthodoxy is the divine process of self purification and repentance with humility, kindness and love, thereby moving closer and closer to God. Wishing you all a blessed and prayerful Lenten Season and may God bless you all in abundance with thy grace.

George Alexander writes for Travelujah and is the secretary and spokesperson for Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE. He can be reached at info@theorthodoxchurch.info, www.theorthodoxchurch.info 

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