In yesterday’s “Paschal Discrepancies,” I briefly explain why the date of Pascha often differs for the West and for the Orthodox Church. Today’s post concerns the differences in the calculation for Great Lent.
As yesterday’s entry states, if Pascha falls on the same day in both the West and the Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins two days earlier for the Orthodox on Clean Monday, whereas Lent starts on Ash Wednesday for the West. These differences go back to the early centuries of the Church, long before the schism of Christendom.
As I understand it, the Christian observance of Lent developed alongside catechumens’ preparation for holy baptism. Certain feasts were favored occasions for the baptism of converts, especially the feasts of Theophany that commemorates the baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan and of Pascha itself—often on Holy Saturday before the feast of feasts. The Christian community fasted before the great feast, and the catechumens fasted before baptism. The Christian community looked after the catechumenate and began to fast with the proselytes in solidarity, and the two parallel preparations mutually influenced each other and evolved into the fast of Great Lent. At first, the fast was only three days, and then Holy Week developed. In time, as catechumens followed the Jewish practice of forty days of preparation, following Christ’s example in the wilderness, the Church entire came to observe a forty day fast in spiritual preparation for Pascha.
Nonetheless, East and West considered the forty days differently. In the West, Sundays were not considered fast days. Hence, the Western Churches needed to move the beginning of the fast back six days to account for the five Sundays of Lent and the sixth Sunday skipped in the counting back. Thus, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday for the West instead of a possible Ash Tuesday.
Sundays are numbered among the forty days in the East, which would make the Orthodox observance of Lent begin on the Tuesday after Western Ash Wednesday. However, Holy Week from Lazarus Saturday until Holy Saturday is considered its own fasting period in the Orthodox Church. Thus, the forty days end on the Friday before Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday), but the fast continues during Holy Week. That is why Clean Monday falls two days before Ash Wednesday rather than six days after.
History is yet more messy—and more interesting. In the Holy Land, the Lenten calculation of forty days excluded not just Sundays but the sabbath day, as well. The Palestinian tradition also considered Holy Week as its own fast. Thus, Christians in Palestine began their fast a week earlier than other Eastern Christians to account for all the exempted Saturdays and Sundays. As the two Eastern practices merged, Eastern Christians developed a hybrid Lenten tradition wherein the week before Lent is a semi-Lenten “Cheesefare” week. During this week, one may still consume dairy goods but one can no longer eat meat. Moreover, one can see the compromise, as well, in the relaxed provisions for Saturdays and Sundays during the great fast; one can consume wine and oil on Saturday and Sunday but not during the week.
The actual provisions of the fast were quite similar in the East and West until the early modern period, and you can see the remnants of the old Western practice in the pre-Lenten traditions of Western cultures. Consider, for example, the practice of eating English pancakes or Polish pączki to use up butter, eggs, and milk before Lent. I am not sure when fish became acceptable as a Lenten food in the West, though perhaps that difference is quite ancient. The East allows invertebrates and honey as the only permissible animal products during Lent in honor of John the Baptist, who survived on locusts and honey. The West may have always allowed fish because of their special status in Christian symbolism.
Have a blessed Lent!