One difference between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity is the calculation of the date of Easter. Most years, the Eastern Pascha falls after the Western Easter, and it may be as much as five weeks later; occasionally, the two dates coincide. They will in 2010 and 2011. Like Western Lent, Great Lent itself lasts for forty days, but unlike the West, Sundays are included in the count. Great Lent officially begins on Clean Monday, seven weeks before Pascha (Ash Wednesday is not observed in Eastern Christianity) and runs for 40 contiguous days, concluding with the Presanctified Liturgy on Friday of the Sixth Week. The next day is called Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday. However, fasting continues throughout the following week, known as Passion Week or Holy Week, and does not end until after the Paschal Vigil early in the morning of Pascha (Easter Sunday).
The purpose of Great Lent is to prepare the faithful to not only commemorate, but to enter into the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. The totality of the Orthodox life centers around the Resurrection. Great Lent is intended to be a "workshop" where the character of the believer is spiritually uplifted and strengthened; where his life is rededicated to the principles and ideals of the Gospel; where fasting and prayer culminate in deep conviction of life; where apathy and disinterest turn into vigorous activities of faith and good works. Lent is not for the sake of Lent itself, as fasting is not for the sake of fasting. Rather, these are means by which and for which the individual believer prepares himself to reach for, accept and attain the calling of his Savior. Therefore, the significance of Great Lent is highly appraised, not only by the monks who gradually increased the length of time of the Lent, but also by the lay people themselves. In the Orthodox Church, asceticism is not exclusively for the "professional" religious, but for each layperson as well, according to their strength. As such, Great Lent is a sacred Institute of the Church to serve the individual believer in participating as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. It provides each person an annual opportunity for self-examination and improving the standards of faith and morals in his Christian life. The deep intent of the believer during Great Lent is encapsulated in the words of Saint Paul: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).
Observance of Great Lent is characterized by abstinence from certain foods, intensified private and public prayer, self-examination, confession, personal improvement, repentance and restitution for sins committed, and almsgiving. The foods traditionally abstained from are meat and dairy products, fish, wine and oil. Since strict fasting is canonically forbidden on the Sabbath and the Lord's Day, wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. If the Great Feast of the Annunciation falls during Great Lent, then fish, wine and oil are permitted on that day.
Besides the additional liturgical celebrations described below, Orthodox Christians are expected to pay closer attention to and increase their private prayer. According to Orthodox theology, when asceticism is increased, prayer must be increased also. The Church Fathers have referred to fasting without prayer as "the fast of the demons" since the demons do not eat according to their incorporeal nature, but neither do they pray.
Great Lent is unique in that, liturgically, the weeks do not run from Sunday to Saturday, but rather begin on Monday and end on Sunday, and most weeks are named for the lesson from the Gospel which will be read at the Divine Liturgy on its concluding Sunday. This is to illustrate that the entire season is anticipatory, leading up to the greatest Sunday of all: Pascha.
During the Great Fast, a special service book is used, known as the Lenten Triodion, which contains the Lenten texts for the Daily Office (Canonical Hours) and Liturgies. The Triodion begins during the Pre-Lenten period to supplement or replace portions of the regular services. This replacement begins gradually, initially affecting only the Epistle and Gospel readings, and gradually increases until Holy Week when it entirely replaces all other liturgical material (during the Triduum even the Psalter is eliminated, and all texts are taken exclusively from the Triodion). The Triodion is used until the lights are extinguished before midnight at the Paschal Vigil, at which time it is replaced by the Pentecostarion, which begins by replacing the normal services entirely (during Bright Week) and gradually diminishes until the normal services resume following the Afterfeast of Pentecost.
On weekdays of Great Lent, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, because the joy of the Eucharist (literally "Thanksgiving") is contrary to the attitude of repentance which predominates on these days. However, since it is considered especially important to receive the Holy Mysteries (Holy Communion) during this season, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts—also called the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Dialogist— may be celebrated on weekdays. Technically, this is not actually a Divine Liturgy, but rather a Vespers service at which a portion of the Body and Blood of Christ, which was reserved the previous Sunday, are distributed to the faithful. Most parishes and monasteries celebrate this Liturgy only on Wednesdays, Fridays and feast days, but it may be celebrated on any weekday of Great Lent. Because the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays, it is replaced with the Typica, even on days when the Presanctified Liturgy is celebrated. On Saturday and Sunday the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated as usual. On Saturdays, the usual St. John Chrysostom is celebrated; on Sundays the more solemn and penitential Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is used.
The services of the Canonical Hours are much longer during Great Lent. In addition to doubling the number of Psalms read, the structure of the services is different on weekdays. In the evening, instead of the normal Compline (the final service before retiring at night), the much longer service of Great Compline is chanted. In the Greek practice, ordinary Compline is chanted on Friday night together with the Akathist to the Theotokos (Mother of God). The Akathist is divided into four sections and one section is chanted on each of the first four Friday nights of Great Lent. Then the Akathist is chanted in its entirety at Matins in the Fifth Saturday. In the Slavic usage, Great Compline is chanted on Friday night—though some parts are read rather than sung as they are on other weeknights, and some Lenten material is replaced by non-Lenten hymns—and the Akathist is not chanted until Matins of the fifth Saturday.
An interesting difference between the Eastern and Western observances is that while in the West the chanting of Alleluia ceases during Lent, in the East its use is increased. This is because for the Orthodox, fasting should be joyous (cf. Matthew 6:16), and the sense of unworthiness must always be tempered with hope in God's forgiveness. In fact, days which follow the Lenten pattern of services are referred to as "days with Alleluia". This theme of "Lenten joy" is also found in many of the hymns of the Triodion, such as the stichera which begin with the words: "The Lenten Spring has dawned!..." (Vespers Aposticha, Wednesday of Cheesefare Week) and "Now is the season of repentance; let us begin it joyfully, O brethren..." (Matins, Second Canon, Ode 8, Monday of Cheesefare Week).
The making of prostrations during the services increases as well. The one prayer that typifies the Lenten services is the Prayer of Saint Ephrem, which is said at each service on weekdays, accompanied by full prostrations. One translation of it reads:
O Lord and master of my life! a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition and idle-talking, give me not.
But rather, a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience and charity, bestow upon me Thy servant.
Yea, my king and Lord, grant me to see my own failings and refrain from judging others: For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.The public reading of Scripture is increased during Great Lent. The Psalter (Book of Psalms) is normally read through once a week during the course of the Daily Office; however, during Great Lent, the number of Psalms is increased so that the entire Psalter is read through twice during each of the Six Weeks (during Holy Week it is read through once). Readings from the Old Testament are also increased, with the Books of Genesis, Proverbs and Isaiah being read through almost in their entirety at the Sixth Hour and Vespers (during Cheesefare Week, the readings at these services are taken from Joel and Zechariah, while during Holy Week they are from Exodus, Ezekiel and Job). Uniquely, on weekdays of Great Lent there is no public reading of the Epistles or Gospels. This is because the readings are particular to the Divine Liturgy, which is not celebrated on weekdays of Great Lent. There are, however, Epistles and Gospels appointed for each Saturday and Sunday.
During the Great Fast, the church also increases its prayer for the dead, not only reminding the believer of his own mortality, and thus increasing the spirit of penitence, but also to remind him of his Christian obligation of charity in praying for the departed. A number of Saturdays during Great Lent are Saturdays of the Dead, with many of the hymns of the Daily Office and at the Divine Liturgy dedicated to remembrance of the departed. These Saturdays are:
- The Saturday of Meatfare Week
- The Second Saturday of Great Lent
- The Third Saturday of Great Lent
- The Fourth Saturday of Great Lent
In addition, the Litya, a brief prayer service for the departed, may be served on each weekday of Great Lent, provided there is no feast day or special observance on that day.
Since the season of Great Lent is moveable, beginning on different dates from year to year, accommodation must be made for various feast days on the fixed calendar (Menaion) which occur during the season. When these feasts fall a weekday of Great Lent, the normal Lenten aspect of the services is lessened to celebrate the solemnity.
The most important of these fixed feasts is the Great Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), which is considered to be so important that it is never moved, even if it should fall on the Sunday of Pascha itself (a rare and special occurrence which is known as Kyrio-Pascha). The fast is also lessened, and the faithful are allowed to eat fish (unless it is Good Friday or Holy Saturday). Whereas on other weekdays of Great Lent, no celebration of the Divine Liturgy is permitted, there is a Liturgy (usually the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) celebrated on Annunciation—even if it falls on Good Friday.
When the feast day of the patron saint of the parish church or monastery falls on a weekday of Great Lent, there is no Liturgy (other than the Presanctified), but fish is allowed at the meal. In some churches the feast of a patron saint is moved to the nearest Saturday (excluding the Saturday of the Akathist), and in other churches, it is celebrated on the day of the feast itself.
When some other important feast occurs on a weekday, such as the First and Second Finding of the Head of John the Baptist (February 24), the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (March 9), etc., it is usually combined with the Lenten service, and wine and oil are allowed at the meal.
Regardless of the rank of the feast being celebrated, the Lenten hymns contained in the Triodion are never omitted, but are always chanted in their entirety, even on the feast of the Annunciation.
On the Saturdays, Sundays, and a number of weekdays during Great Lent, the service materials from the Triodion leave no room for the commemoration of the Saint of the day from the Menaion. In order that their services not be completely forgotten, a portion of them (their canon at Matins, and their stichera from "Lord I Have Cried" at Vespers) is chanted at Compline.
In addition to the added readings from Scripture, spiritual books by the Church Fathers are recommended during the Fast.
One book commonly read during Great Lent, particularly by monastics, is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which was written in about the seventh century by St. John of the Ladder when he was the Hegumen (Abbot) of St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. The theme of The Ladder is not Great Lent itself, but rather it deals with the ascent of the soul from earth to heaven; that is, from enslavement to the passions to the building up of the virtues and its eventual theosis (union with God), which is the goal of Great Lent. The Ladder is usually read in the trapeza (refectory) during meals, but it may alternatively be read during the Little Hours on weekdays so that everyone can hear. Many of the laity also read The Ladder privately during Great Lent.
Besides the Ladder, in some monasteries the Paradise of the Holy Fathers by Palladius and the penitential sermons of St. Ephrem the Syrian are read during Matins.