On the day of the Jewish Passover, the early Christians introduced a practice of remembering the torment and death of Jesus Christ. In order to spend the day in a due manner, they decided to fast. In the early church the one- to three-day fast was considered not the pre-Easter fast but Passover itself.
In the second and third centuries, the church began to pay great attention not only to the sad event of Christ’s torment and death but also to the Resurrection of Christ. That is how the practice of the Cross and Resurrection Passovers appeared. The contradictions that had arisen were eliminated by the Council of Nicea in 325.
In the third century, as noted in the book “Know Your Rite” by Fr. Yulian Katrii, the pre-Easter fast in some churches lasted for a week, which today is called this Holy Week. The earliest evidence of the 40-day pre-Easter fast is traced back to the fourth century.
There is a difference between the East and the West in calculating the date of Easter. This started after the introduction of the Gregorian (new) calendar in the sixteenth century, when the West began to use the new calendar to calculate Easter. The Eastern Church still uses the Julian (old) calendar and, therefore, the date of Easter is calculated starting from the Equinox according to the old calendar, whereas in the Western tradition, the date of Easter is calculated starting from the Equinox according to the new calendar. Occasionally, the dates coincide and the Christians of the two churches celebrate Easter simultaneously.
Even though it is called a 40-day fast, in the Eastern Church it actually lasts for 36 and a half days – that is, seven weeks without Saturdays and Sundays, as well as the Great Saturday on the eve of Easter and half of the night before Easter.
The Western Church observes a 6-week fast as Saturdays are also considered fast days. In order to make it 40 days, the Western Church in the seventh century added four days in the beginning of the fast, making it start on Ash Wednesday. According to the tradition, which was formed in the Latin Church in the eight century, it was called Ash Wednesday after an ancient rite of putting ash on one’s head as a sign of repentance. The ash used is the ash of burnt palm branches left from the previous year’s feast of the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem. The ash is consecrated and the priest pours it on the heads of the parishioners in the form of the cross.
The Catholic Church requires observation of strict fast only on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. On the other days of the fast, it is prohibited to eat meat, but dairy products and eggs are allowed. The fasts became less strict in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as a fast for Christians is primarily a time for renewing the spirit in prayer and practicing Christian virtues. The Orthodox have stricter Lent requirements.
Weddings and other celebratory events are not held during Lent.
The Great Fast should be a time of the feat of the soul and body, and in particular due preparation for Easter. The fasting time is reflected also in the practice of the church prayers. The Liturgy of Lent in the Eastern Church, the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, is a combination of Vespers with the Holy Eucharist and includes no consecration prayers. An ordinary liturgy is celebrated during Lent only on Sundays and Saturdays. During all the services of Lent, from Monday to Friday, the Eastern Church practices bowing to the ground.
The full meaning and purpose of Lent is clearly expressed in the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, which is repeated at each Lenten service:
O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter.
Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love. O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.