Patriarch’s Lenten Letter 2004

Prot. 25/6/2004

Letter of His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III
for Great and Holy Lent, 2004


The beginning of Great Lent

A Lenten greeting, with love, prayer, blessing and peace! We address ourself to our brother bishops, to our sons the priests, the monks and nuns, to all our sons and daughters in all the parishes of our Patriarchal Church everywhere, through this brief letter at the beginning of blessed Great Lent.

We thank God, who has granted all Christians today in our Arab countries and throughout the whole world to fast together this year and to celebrate afterwards the Great Feast of Pascha together. And we hope that what is imposed on us by astronomic reckoning may be granted to us by the grace of God and thus, our hearts will be filled with holy love as we continue to fast together, to serve together, to celebrate Easter together and to witness together for the one Christ, for the one faith and hope, united by love that binds all our hearts.

In order to be useful, we give here a brief presentation of the rule of fasting and abstinence, of the different kinds of abstinence and the basic rules on this subject in the Oriental tradition of the Eastern Church and its application in our Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

Great Lent in the ancient discipline of the Church

The days of fasting (abstinence) are the days of Wednesday and Friday of the Carnival Week before Cheesefare Week and Monday through Friday of the weeks of Lent and of Great and Holy Week, except the day when the Annunciation falls (25 March).

Great and Holy Saturday is the only Saturday on which one must keep a fast. It is forbidden to fast on the other Saturdays of the year, because Saturday (Sabbath) is a holy day linked with the day of the Resurrection (Sunday).

Days of abstinence are for the whole time of Great Lent, including Sundays and during all of Holy Week, unless the Annunciation falls then, except Palm Sunday, when fish may be eaten.

Fasting and Abstinence throughout the Year

  1. Abstinence every week of the year on Wednesday and Friday, except during Eastertide up until the Ascension, the Week after Pentecost, the Twelve Days of Christmas up to and including Epiphany, and the Week of the Publican, which comes after the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee.
  2. Days of fasting and abstinence on the Days of Preparation for Christmas and Epiphany, unless they fall on Saturday or Sunday, and in that case, the fast is transferred to the preceding Friday.
  3. Fast before Christmas, beginning 15 November up until the Vigil of Christmas, 25 December, which makes forty days.
  4. Fast of the Apostles, which falls towards the end of June, from Monday after the Feast of All Saints (Sunday after Pentecost). The length of the fast varies according to the date of Easter.
  5. Fast of the Dormition of the Virgin, which runs from the 1-14 August.
  6. Fast for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on 29 August.
  7. Fast for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September.

The Fasts which are mentioned above are days of abstinence only, whilst during Great Lent, there is both fasting and abstinence, so that all the abstinences of one kind or another comprise the whole time of Great Lent and Holy Week. So the days of fasting and abstinence throughout the year are one hundred and sixty days.

The Meaning of Fasting and Abstinence

Fasting is abstinence from any food and drink from midnight until Vespers. So the person fasting eats a single meal a day after Vespers or after the Liturgy of the Presanctified, or at midday after the Festal or Sunday Liturgy.

Eucharistic or sacramental fasting in its deepest meaning is linked to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and to Holy Communion. According to the ancient tradition, anyone presenting himself for Holy Communion should have fasted by abstaining from all food and drink. In fact, communion finishes or brings to a close the fast. One can say that it breaks the fast, whether after a day of fasting or during Great Lent. In that case the person fasting ends his day and his fast by celebrating the Presanctified Liturgy, which is the service of Vespers with solemn communion. In the same way, the Fasts of the Preparation for Christmas and for Epiphany end with the Divine Liturgy, preceded by the service of Vespers. In the same way, the fast of the last three days of Great and Holy Week ends with Paschal Communion on Easter morning.

Abstinence is abstinence from meat and gravy, dairy products, eggs, milk, cheese and butter, whilst fish is permitted on some days: 25 March and Palm Sunday. Wine and oil are permitted on certain days.

The wisdom of fasting

The Holy Fathers of the Church consider Great Lent or the Great Fast of the Great Days as a carrying out of the tithe for God. Forty days is almost a tenth of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. In fact, we read in the commandments, to carry out the tithe and receive blessing. (Deuteronomy 12:6-7) To that we add the Advent Fast, the Apostles’ Fast and the Dormition Fast. The different fasts fall in all four seasons of the year to sanctify the whole year. The Advent Fast is in autumn, the Great Fast of forty days is mostly in winter, the Apostles’ Fast is in late spring and the Fast of the Dormition in summer.

So the faithful Christian who observes the different fasts remains in a continuous relationship with the spiritual and ascetic exercises and in a spiritual watchfulness to enable the Holy Spirit to work in him. In the same way he keeps his fitness of soul and body together.

Many people seek out doctors and scientists to get information relevant for keeping their bodily good health but we should not be at all surprised to find that the wisdom of the Church in distributing the fasts is absolutely in agreement with medical instructions and even superior to their advice, for it is aimed at health of soul and body. So is fulfilled the saying of the great master Jesus, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33) And again he says, “It is written, man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) That was the reply of Jesus to the tempter in the desert. St. Paul says, explaining the true meaning of Lent, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31) And he also says, “Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (I Corinthians 6:20)

The Canon and discipline of fasting and abstinence in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Our Holy Synods have more than once dealt with the question of fasting and abstinence, especially between 1949-54. General guidance was given, above all, after Vatican II, that each local bishop organise the discipline of fasting and abstinence suitable to his eparchy.

Despite different dispensations which were put in place for different situations in life, the discipline of fasting according to the old, Eastern tradition remains firm and, thank God, fairly well practised in many monastic religious institutions, among the clergy and faithful.

Great Lent starts this year on Monday, 23 February and lasts until the morning of Pascha on 11 April, 2004.

We have presented in this letter the wisdom of Lent according to the ancient discipline. Some eparchies apply dispensations, so that people fast in the first week and on the last three days of Holy Week. With all the respect that we have for the authority of each bishop in his eparchy to put in place the discipline suitable for his eparchy, we would like to remind everyone of what the canon law particular to us says in Article Number 107, which corresponds to canon 888 of the Code of canons of the Eastern Churches: “We exhort the faithful to take on the discipline of fasting and abstinence noted in the liturgical books.” That is what we have explained above and that is what our fathers and ancestors always practised. But we do not wish to make anyone’s conscience heavy but rather leave to each one of our children, our sons and daughters, to organise himself his own method of fasting and abstinence according to the circumstances of his own life, his work and his health.

On the other hand we exhort everyone, bishops, priests, monks and nuns and our children, the sons and daughters in our parishes, to fast according to the old tradition for fasting will never be for us the cause of death, it will not hurt at all our health. On the contrary, it is good for all, for soul and body.

However, for the sick, or someone in a special situation it is his conscience which must be his guide as to how to practise Lent. He can also ask the advice of his parish priest.

That is why we address ourself to everyone, “Do not be afraid of fasting. Make of this time of preparation for the Feast of Pascha some of the most beautiful days of your life.”

And we exhort everyone, priests, monks and nuns, monasteries and families not only to abide by the laws of ecclesiastical fasting but moreover to live during this Lenten time a simple life with regard to food and drink, jewellery, cosmetics and clothing, so that we have recourse to all methods of creating an atmosphere of piety, compunction and inner peace in all aspects of our life.

Apart from physical fasting, we call upon you to put Christian spiritual living into practice with depth, conviction and joy. Here are some ways of doing this:

  1. more personal, deeper prayer in the home and in church and above all, participation in Great Compline and the Akathist
  2. practising fasting and abstinence to the best of one’s capability
  3. exercise bodily and spiritual mortification in different ways
  4. live out brotherly charity in social relations
  5. approach the holy Mysteries
  6. alms-giving and benefaction, each according to his possibilities and condition of life.

We recommend to all, with St. Paul, to leave the works of darkness to put on the armour of light. We are all sinners in need of metanoia (penitence) and to be rid of sin, passions and everything that enslaves us with regard to food and drink, clothing, pleasure, jealousy, anger, hatred, vengeance, disputes, pride, obstinacy, calumny, stupidity, amusements and superficiality. He who commits sin is not free, but is the slave of sin.

The period of Lent is a period of purity, holiness, prayer and liberation from sin, evil and corruption.

If we do all this, our period of Lent is welcome and we sanctify the days of Lent and are illumined by the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, giving witness to Jesus in our society. Brothers and sisters, do penance, make yourselves holy, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Here is a time very pleasing to God, a time of salvation. It is the period of Lent which comes to us as a spiritual spring-time, preparing us to shine with the light of the glorious Resurrection and the saving Passover.

Good Holy Lenten Fast, with my friendship, affection and blessing,

Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Translation from the French by V. Chamberlain