By Hieromonk Anastasios
Clean Monday, the first day of Holy and Great Lent. The church with its coverings inside, has taken on the color of mourning. It is a day of meditation, prayer, repentance, fasting and abstention from every wickedness. In the morning service, a good amount of people will be found doing prostrations. It is the day we will first hear the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian "Lord and Master of my life...," during which all church attendees do prostrations. In the evening Great Compline is chanted with the troparia of the Great Canon, at the end of which the priest will distribute antidron for those who fasted all day. It is the so-called "ninth," that is to say, food, bread and water is prohibited till after the ninth hour of the day, which is around 4:00 in the evening.
There are women who keep the Holy Three-Day Fast, which is a tradition of our Church for the first three days of Great Lent, in which there is total fasting until Wednesday, until the first Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, when they receive the Divine Mysteries and physical food. In the olden days people were more pious. But even today there are many women who keep the old tradition [traditionally men who labored outside the home found it more difficult to keep]. The physical food eaten on Wednesday is called housafi, which is wheat that is boiled to the point of thickening, with chopped walnuts, sugar and cinnamon, various dried fruits, plums, raisins, figs and the like, boiled like compote. After strict fasting, eating strong foods creates problems for the body, which is why a simple recipe is used to enter once again into our daily habit. Housewives would bring the housafi to church on Wednesday evening for the other women to eat who kept the Holy Three-Day Fast. Olives are not permitted to be eaten during the first week of Lent, only foods boiled in water, legumes, herbs, torshi, etc. During Great Lent everything is simple, which will extend into Holy Week for a total of almost fifty days.
Not permitted during this time are all the foods regularly forbidden, such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, and even oil, the latter of which is only permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. Fish is permitted on March 25th for the Annunciation to the Theotokos, and on Palm Sunday to mark the end of Great Lent.
In the olden days no one spoiled their fast during Great Lent, even if they were sick. Today many are returning to these old good habits of fasting, and with physical exhaustion and spiritual fervor keep the Passion of the Lord, which then enters into the very essence of the believer.
From the book Ἀπό τόν Σεπτέμβριο ὥς τόν Αὔγουστο. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.