Yandex Metrika
What is Great Lent to a Christian?

Great Lent, Our Preparation for the Feast of Feasts

Great Lent church cervice

What is Great Lent? For some, it is yet another extended period when certain foods must be avoided. However, to a Christian, it is a time of intense fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and spiritual reflection, offered as a sacrifice to Christ and serving as an expression of their love for Him. In the last month Orthodox Christians have been preparing themselves for the coming of the Great Lent.

How long is lent?

The Lenten period is forty days long, which is symbolically an important number for Christians, as it is the same duration as Christ’s fast in the desert, Noah’s flood, as well as the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension.

The beginning and end of Lent are moveable dates, which means that they happen at different times in different years. So when does lent start and end in 2023? This year, it begins on Monday, February 27th and–technically speaking – ends on the evening of April 7th, the Friday before Palm Sunday.

The time between the end of Lent and Easter - in 2023 and all other years - constitutes a separate liturgical cycle, containing Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week. However, great lent fasting rules continue until Easter, celebrated on April 16th this year. Many faithful Christians believe that the end of the Great Lent is Orthodox Easter, which is not surprising because that is the day the fast ends.

Sundays of preparation

To help the faithful properly transition into the Great Lent and its ascent to Easter, the Sunday services for the four weeks preceding Lent each present different themes from Holy Scripture that are meant to cultivate in the Orthodox Christian the spirit of humility and repentance necessary for the coming fast. These Sundays are known as the Sundays of Preparation.

To help you keep track of the Orthodox Lent Calendar this year, we have put together this downloadable infographic, illustrating the meaning and significance of each Lenten week.

Banner for Easter


The first such Sunday is that of the Publican and Pharisee, in which we are reminded of the Publican who, through humility and self-denial, received pardon from the Lord, unlike the selfish and proud Pharisee who fasted and made sacrifices for his own glory, in vain. The parable encourages us to approach Lent like the Publican instead of the Pharisee.

On the second Sunday of Preparation we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son, a profligate who was lovingly received by his father after a life of sin and wastefulness. This reminds us of the Lord’s promise that, if we return to Him in repentance– no matter how far we have strayed–we will receive His mercy.

return of the prodigal son

Return of the prodigal son. XVI century icon. Holy Mount Athos,
Hilandar Serbian Monastery

The third Sunday is that of the Last Judgment, a sobering trumpet-call, warning us that repentance is not for tomorrow but today, because the Day of Judgement is impending.

The final Sunday of Preparation is Forgiveness Sunday, when we bow to each other and formally beg for our neighbor’s forgiveness, mutually humbling ourselves and setting aside all grievances and debts in order to initiate the Great Lent, that time of year when we are most called to seek closeness to the Lord through self-denial, charity, and humble-mindedness.

Rite of Forgiveness

Rite of Forgiveness at the St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk

In tandem with these Sundays of preparation, the Church slowly introduces the coming fast. The Sunday of the Last Judgment is also known as “Meatfare Sunday” because it is the last day Orthodox Christians eat meat until Easter.

The week that follows, known as Maslenitsa in Russian, is traditionally a time that families say farewell to butter and cheese through the preparation of special cheese and pancake dishes, because on the subsequent Monday the Orthodox Great Lent officially begins.

Into the Great Lent

This first day of Lent is known as Clean Monday, when it is traditional, by monastic charter, to abstain entirely from eating food.

For those with the physical capacity, it is also encouraged that they abstain as much as possible from food for the whole first five days, eating only on Wednesday and Friday, after the Presanctified Liturgies.

Any food that is consumed this week is “dry”, which is a term that indicates the lack of oil, spices, and cooking preparation. The fasting meals of Clean Week typically consist of bread, nuts, fruit, and vegetables.

Under the guidance of their priest, Orthodox Christians can vary in terms of the particulars of the Clean Week fast; what all have in common is the effort to eat only what is absolutely needed, and to eat “dry”.

lenten food

It is also traditional to clean one’s dwelling this week, and to go to confession.

Clean Week sets the precedent for the weeks to come. Orthodox Christians continue to eat “dry” for the remainder of Lent, with a few exceptions.

On Saturdays and Sundays wine and oil are generally allowed; and, on years when the Feast of the Annunciation falls on a day during Great Lent, fish, wine, and oil are permitted for the day of that celebration alone.

Orthodox Christians are encouraged to use the extra money that they have from eating simpler food to give alms to the poor.

The thematic Sundays continue on through Lent, with the Sunday of Orthodoxy, also known as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”, the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas, the Sunday of the Holy Cross, the Sunday of St John Climacus, and lastly the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt.

Venerable Ephraim the Syrian

Venerable Ephraim the Syrian Book miniature. Byzantium.
XIII century. Greece. Athos libraries

The Lenten prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian

The most characteristic Lenten prayer known by all Orthodox Christians is the Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephrem, which is read at every Lenten weekday service, complete with multiple prostrations:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

As we approach the Great Lent, these words of Saint Ephrem are returning to the hearts of Orthodox Christians around the world as we beg the Lord to give us that “spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love” that alone is capable of receiving the fullness of the Easter miracle.

We all need spiritual support, especially at this special blessed time. We invite you to send us your prayer requests for you and your loved ones to be commemorated during the Great Lent.
To do this, please follow the link and select the "Great Lent" option when prompted. We will remember these names in our prayers during the forty days of Lent.

March 01, 2023
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