February 22, 2018

Great Lent in Fourth Century Jerusalem

An image thought to portray Egeria

The Spanish nun Egeria gives a most interesting first-hand account of how Great Lent was kept in Jerusalem in the late fourth century, specifically in the 380's. She writes the following:

Chapter 27. And when the Paschal days come they are observed thus: Just as with us forty days are kept before Pascha,* so here eight weeks are kept before Pascha. And eight weeks are kept because there is no fasting on the Lord's Days, nor on the Sabbaths, except on the one Sabbath on which the Vigil of Pascha falls, in which case the fast is obligatory.** With the exception then of that one day, there is never fasting on any Sabbath here throughout the year. Thus, deducting the eight Lord's Days and the seven Sabbaths (for on the one Sabbath, as I said above, the fast is obligatory) from the eight weeks, there remain forty-one fast days, which they call here Eortae, that is Lent.

Services on Sundays

2. Now the several days of the several weeks are kept thus: On the Lord's Day after the first cockcrow the bishop reads in the Anastasis the account of the Lord's Resurrection from the Gospel, as on all Lord's Days throughout the whole year, and everything is done at the Anastasis and at the Cross as on all Lord's Days throughout the year, up to daybreak.

3. Afterwards, in the morning, they proceed to the greater church, called the Martyrium, which is in Golgotha behind the Cross, and all things that are customary on the Lord's Days are done there. In like manner also when the dismissal from the church has been made, they go with hymns to the Anastasis, as they always do on the Lord's Days, and while these things are being done the fifth hour is reached. Vespers, however, takes place at its own hour, as usual, at the Anastasis and at the Cross, and in the various holy places; on the Lord's Day the ninth hour is kept.

Weekday Services

4. On the second weekday they go at the first cockcrow to the Anastasis, as they do throughout the year, and everything that is usual is done until morning. Then at the third hour they go to the Anastasis, and the things are done that are customary throughout the year at the sixth hour, for this going at the third hour in Lent is additional. At the sixth and ninth hours also, and at vespers, everything is done that is customary throughout the whole year at the holy places.

5. And on the third weekday all things are done as on the second weekday.

Wednesday and Friday

Again, on the fourth weekday they go by night to the Anastasis, and all the usual things are done until morning, and also at the third and sixth hours. But at the ninth hour they go to Sion, as is customary at that hour on the fourth and sixth weekdays throughout the year, for the reason that the fast is always kept here on the fourth and sixth weekdays even by the catechumens, except a martyrs' day should occur. For if a martyrs' day should chance to occur on the fourth or on the sixth weekday in Lent, they do not go to Sion at the ninth hour.

6. But on the days of Lent, as I said above, they proceed to Sion on the fourth weekday at the ninth hour, according to the custom of the whole year, and all things that are customary at the ninth hour are done, except the oblation, for, in order that the people may always be instructed in the law, both the bishop and the priest preach diligently.*** But when the dismissal has been made, the people escort the bishop with hymns thence to the Anastasis, so that it is already the hour of vespers when he enters the Anastasis; then hymns and antiphons are said, prayers are made, and the service of vespers takes place in the Anastasis and at the Cross.

7. And the service of vespers is always later on those days in Lent than on other days throughout the year. On the fifth weekday everything is done as on the second and third weekday. On the sixth weekday everything is done as on the fourth, including the going to Sion at the ninth hour, and the escorting of the bishop thence to the Anastasis with hymns.


But on the sixth weekday the vigils are observed in the Anastasis from the hour of their arrival from Sion with hymns, until morning, that is, from the hour of vespers, when they entered, to the morning of the next day, that is, the Sabbath. And the oblation is made in the Anastasis the earlier, that the dismissal may take place before sunrise.

8. Throughout the whole night psalms are said responsively in turn with antiphons and with various lections, the whole lasting until morning, and the dismissal, which takes place on the Sabbath at the Anastasis, is before sunrise, that is, the oblation, so that the dismissal may take place in the Anastasis at the hour when the sun begins to rise. Thus, then, is each week of Lent kept.

9. The dismissal taking place earlier on the Sabbath, i.e. before sunrise, as I said, in order that the hebdomadarii, as they are called here, may finish their fast earlier.**** For the custom of the fast in Lent is that the dismissal on the Lord's Day is at the fifth hour in order that they whom they call hebdomadarii; that is, they who keep the weeks' fast, may take food. And when these have taken breakfast on the Lord's Day, they do not eat until the Sabbath morning after they have communicated in the Anastasis. It is for their sake, then, that they may finish their fast the sooner, that the dismissal on the Sabbath at the Anastasis is before sunrise. For their sake the dismissal is in the morning, as I said; not that they alone communicate, but all who are so minded communicate on that day in the Anastasis.


Chapter 28. This is the custom of the fast in Lent: some, when they have eaten after the dismissal on the Lord's Day, that is, about the fifth or sixth hour, do not eat throughout the whole week until after the dismissal at the Anastasis on the Sabbath; these are they who keep the weeks' fast.

2. Nor, after having eaten in the morning, do they eat in the evening of the Sabbath, but they take a meal on the next day, that is, on the Lord's Day, after the dismissal from the church at the fifth hour or later, and then they do not breakfast until the Sabbath comes round, as I have said above.

3. For the custom here is that all who are apotactitae, as they call them here, whether men or women, eat only once a day on the day when they do eat, not only in Lent, but throughout the whole year.***** But if any of the apotactitae cannot keep the entire week of fasting as described above, they take supper in the middle (of the week), on the fifth day, all through Lent. And if any one cannot do even this, he keeps two days' fast (in the week) all through Lent, and they who cannot do even this, take a meal every evening.

4. For no one exacts from any how much he should do, but each does what he can, nor is he praised who has done much, nor is he blamed who has done less; that is the custom here. For their food during the days of Lent is as follows: they taste neither bread which cannot be weighed, nor oil, nor anything that grows on trees, but only water and a little gruel made of flour. Lent is kept thus, as we have said.******

Chapter 29. And at the end of the weeks' fast the vigil is kept in the Anastasis from the hour of vespers on the sixth weekday, when the people come with psalms from Sion, to the morning of the Sabbath, when the oblation is made in the Anastasis. And the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks in Lent are kept as the first.


* The forty day fast of Great Lent was thus kept in fourth century Spain.

** Today in the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is seven weeks long and since the fasting is more lenient Saturdays and Sundays are numbered among the forty, and the eighth week became what is now known as Cheesefare Week beginning with Meatfare Sunday during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.

*** In other words, Great Lent at this time was primarily a time of preparation for catechumens to receive baptism, and thus instruction held a primary place on weekdays, and since they were forbidden from participating in the Divine Liturgy, it did not take place during these weekdays of Great Lent, but was reserved for Saturdays and Sundays. This may be the origin of why we still do not celebrate the Divine Liturgy during weekdays of Great Lent, and partake of communion only during a Presanctified Liturgy on weekdays.

**** Hebdomadarii were monastics in monasteries who served a weekly rotation of either being a cook or a reader in the refectory. Here it simply applies to all the Christians who kept a complete fast from Sunday morning till Saturday morning, eating nothing on weekdays.

***** Apotactitae (to renounce), were an ancient Christian sect, who, attempting to follow the evangelical counsels of poverty and the example of the primitive Christians, renounced all their possessions. They seem to have been the same as the Apostolici or the Tatianites.

****** Fasting held the traditional sense of not eating anything at all at this time, but there were also stages for anyone who was not able to handle such a strict fast with a very dry, meager and tasteless meal that did not even offer the reprieve of a fruit or vegetable. That fasting was not kept on Saturday and Sunday lended to such strictness, though meals on those days were also few and meager and simple.