By John Sanidopoulos
What we know as the Triodion today with its fixed four Sundays prior to Great Lent began to be formed in the sixth century. Dorotheos of Gaza (c. 505-c. 565) informs us of the eighth week, now known as Cheesefare Week beginning with Meatfare Sunday, that was added to the original seven week period of fasting before Easter, as follows:
"The holy Apostles elected to consecrate out of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, seven weeks of fasting, and so they ordained; but our Fathers, in their time, thought it advisable to add another week, both to train and better prepare themselves to enter on the labor of fasting and to honor with their fasting the holy number of forty days which our Lord fasted. The eight weeks, subtracting Saturdays and Sundays, makes forty days, but we honor Holy Saturday with a fast because it is a very holy day and the only Saturday fast of the year."
The first time we encounter the term "meatfare" (Gr. "apokreas"; Lat. "carnival") to describe the Sunday before Great Lent is during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565). It is specifically in the Chronicle of Theophanes, where he describes a curious incident in the 19th year of the reign of Justinian, on 4 February 545/6. During this year there was a dispute as to when the fast of Great Lent should begin by the various Churches of Alexandria, Constantinople and throughout the East. Some began the fast two weeks early, others a week later. The emperor therefore ordered an additional week during which meat might be sold. The butchers offered meat for sale, but no one would eat it except those considered gluttons. Easter was observed according to the emperor's decree that year, though with some confusion, and thus the eight week period of fasting was instituted instead of the seven week fasting period.
It is difficult to trace when the apocalyptic tone of Meatfare Sunday began to be emphasized. Romanos the Meodist (490-556) wrote hymns relating to the Great Judgement that are lenten in character, and were for sure later assigned to this day, but it is unknown if it was done for this day in his day, though he surely must have been aware of the additional Sunday added to the fasting period during the reign of Justinian. We do know that meditation on the Second Coming for this Sunday was assigned in the tenth century lectionary of Constantinople, which assigns the reading of Matthew 25:31-46. Prior to this, in the ninth century text of the Triodion, there is a hymn attributed to Theodore the Studite (759-826) on the subject of the Great Judgement for this day.
As far as the carnival nature of Meatfare Week, Theodore the Studite makes the following remarks in his Catechetical Lecture for Meatfare Sunday: "Brethren and fathers, it is a universal law on this day for those who live in the world to stop eating meat and one may see among them great competition in meat-eating and wine-bibbing, and even spectacles of outrageous pastimes which it is shameful to speak about. It is necessary to participate with moderation and to give thanks to the Lord for what we have and to make worthy preparation for the banquet before us; while they possessed by the wiles of the devil do the opposite, demonstrating that they have accepted one rather than the other."