The Period of Great Fast (Sawma Rabba)

lamentation_ikon-300x248Rev.Prof.Dr. John Moolan


The period of Great Fast is the third liturgical season of the Syro-Malabar Church of East Syrian tradition. The name “Great Fast” signifies the imitation of the great fast of Jesus for forty days in the wilderness before the beginning of His public life (Mt 4:2) by which all are called to enter the great period of self-purification with fast, penance, and prayer to attain salvation. This period motivates the faithful to enter into the process of being one with Jesus through His paschal mysteries of suffering, death, and burial as the bridal price of purification. The theology of suffering finds its meaning in the self-offering of Jesus for the humanity calling for a thorough life renewal through death to sin and burial of vices to attain union with Jesus.

The Apostles and first Christians commemorated the death of Jesus on the day of the Jewish Pasch as a sorrowful day with prayer, contrition, and fasting. This association of the Pasch with fasting caused in the second century to denote “Pasch” as “fasting”. This practice seems to echo the time when the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place on the same day. This association of the sad event of Christ’s death with the joyful event of His resurrection merged the early Great Saturday around midnight service with the resurrection service.

1. Formation of the Period

            The formation of the period of great fast is a very complicated matter, since it had been observed differently in different times and places. The external structural development in the early centuries can be summarised as follows.[1]

a. Two-Day Fast

This system of fasting before Easter that started in the third century, evolved around the preparation of catechumens (Greek term katechein means to teach/proclaim) in the background of biduum (Good Friday and Holy Saturday) before baptism around midnight. The fasting comprised of forty hours commemorating Christ’s spending of forty hours in the hands of death.[2]

Eusebius of Caesarea (d.339), citing the letter of Irenaeus ( to Pope Victor, speaks of a paschal fasting during the last days of the holy week.[3] According to Tertullian ( and Hippolytus (d.235), these were the Good Friday and Holy Saturday as the days of the Bride’s (Church) mourning at the departure of the Groom (Christ). The reason for this fast was based on the saying of Jesus that the wedding guests need not fast when the groom is with them, but they will fast when the groom is taken away from them (Mt 2:19-20).[4]

b. Six-Day Fast

            Later in the third century itself, the two days fast was extended to six days before Easter. Didascalia Apostolorum (3rd c.)[5] and Dionysius of Alexandria (d.264)[6] in his letter to Basilides[7] on Great Saturday, the final day of the fast, speak six fast days before Easter. This might have been in imitation of the Israelites’ preparation for the Paschal Feast. They ate unleavened bread for seven days before the feast (Ex 12:15; Deut 16:13). However, the Christians fasted only for six days, because Sunday, being the day of the Lord, was exempted from fasting.[8]

c. Forty-Day Fast

            Towards the end of the third century and in the beginning of the fourth century, we have ample evidence for the forty consecutive fast days before the Easter based on Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness (Mt 4:2). Athanasius of Alexandria (295-373), Cyril of Jerusalem (d.386), and John Chrysostom (d.407) make mention of a six week preparation for the Pasch.[9] These weeks were called Quadragesima, that is, forty consecutive days preceding the paschal Triduum (6 x 7 – 2 = 40). However, within the six weeks, in some Churches the people fasted three alternative weeks, whereas others fasted continuously during the three weeks immediately preceding the festival, and some people as Montanists fasted only for two weeks.[10] In summary, we may say that in the early centuries the fast of three weeks began before the end of the third century, and that of six weeks in the fourth century.[11]

d. Seven-Week Fast

            Basil the Great testifies (d.379) to a seven-week fast in Cappadocia,[12] and towards the end of the fourth century, Sozomen testifies to the seven-week period of preparation for Pasch in Constantinople.[13] Here the counting of forty days was done excluding seven Sundays, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (7 x 7 – 7 – 2 = 40). Sundays being the Days of the Lord were exempted from fasting. Fasting on Good Friday and Holy Saturday as special mourning days of Bride (Church) at the death and burial of her Groom (Christ) was set apart as a special unit without adding them to the forty-day system of fasting.

e. Eight-Week Fast

            Egeria in 381-384 speaks of an eight-week period of preparation for the Pasch in Jerusalem.[14] This system of fasting found only in Jerusalem where the Jewish Christians respecting the Jewish Sabbath days excluded Saturdays also from fasting, but not biduum, to maintain forty-day fast system of Great Fast (8 x 7 – 16 = 40).

f. Fifty-Day Fast

            St. Thomas Christians in Malabar used to observe fast during the whole season of Great Fast. Since the day begins in the evening, Holy Saturday evening begins the fiftieth day. The system of fasting was from evening to evening. During fast days, after evening prayer (ramsha) they could eat some light food like Kanji (water boiled rice preparation) with vegetable curry.[15] On fast days, they abstained from meat, fish, egg, milk products, and marital conjugal union. Seeing their earnestness in fast, abstinence, and prayer, Francis Dionysius, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary priest in Malabar called them ‘great friends of fast’ in the sixteenth century.[16] When the sixteenth century Latin missionaries forced St. Thomas Christians in Cranganore (Kodungallore) to eat fish and drink wine during Great Fast against their custom, they left for other places.[17]

2. Present Counting

            The present counting of the period of Great Fast in the East and the period of Lent in the West is different. When the East begins the season on the Sunday seven weeks before Easter, the West begins it on the first Wednesday of seven weeks before Easter.

a. East

            It comprises forty days, excluding Holy Week, first Sunday, and Lazarus Saturday (Saturday before Palm Sunday) from counting (7 x 7 – 7 – 2 = 40). However, in order to maintain the principle of giving one tenth of the year (Gen 28:22) as fast days to the Lord (365 ¸ 10 = 36.5), Sundays and Saturdays, except for Holy Saturday, are exempted from counting limiting the actual fast days to thirty six days only (7 x 7 – 14 + 1 = 36).[18] Chaldeans, Syro-Malabarites, and others add four days from Holy Week (Monday through Holy Thursday) to complete the traditional number of forty fast days (36 + 4 = 40), and triduum begins on the Holy Thursday evening.[19]

b. West

            In the Latin West, the period of preparation before the Pasch is known as Lent. The word “Lent” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten meaning springtime, which describes the gradual lengthening of the day light after the winter solstice on December 21 (reaching of sun at the southest of equator). Latins begin the period of Lent on Ash Wednesday before seven weeks of Easter. It comprises forty days, excluding Holy Week, first Monday and Tuesday from counting (7 x 7 – 7 – 2 = 40).

3. Certain Syro-Malabar Customs

Among the St, Thomas Christians of Syro-Malabar Church, there are certain particular observations in this season on Petratha Nayar -first Sunday, Kozhukotta Saniyazhcha – sixth/Lazarus Saturday, Pesaha Vyazhazhcha -Holy Thursday, Dukha Velliyazhcha -Good Friday, and Dukha Saniyazhcha -Holy Saturday.

a. Petratha Nayar

            The first Sunday of Great Fast among Syro-Malabarites is known as petratha Nayar. The Syriac word petratha means ‘to return’, ‘to pass through’, ‘to finish,’ or ‘to end’. It indicates towards a thorough examination of conscience looking back to one’s own life for a real reconciliation through fast, penance, and charitable works during the period following this Nayar (Sunday). Perhaps, the name of this Sunday, being exempted from fast, on which they eat meat, might have been originated from another Syriac word pephortha meaning ‘less tasty food.’[20] Thus, on this Sunday, they get ready for an austere life to attain pardoning of debts and forgiveness of sins committed in life. The evening prayer (ramsha) as a penitential service arouses the sense of repentance for self-purification.  

b. Lazarus Friday

The sixth Friday of Great Fast is known as Lazarus Friday.[21] The Gospel lesson on this day is about the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). This Friday reminds us of the necessity of our own resurrection to salvation at the final call of Jesus at the end of the world. This being the Friday before the holy week, we are warned to take care of the holy mysteries celebrated in the holy week, so that we may become worthy to enter His resurrection glory in heaven.

b. Kozhukotta Saniyazhcha

            The Lazarus Saturday, the Saturday before the Hosanna Sunday, is called Kozhukotta Saniyazhcha. The Malayalam word kozhukotta in middle Kerala, India, stands for a round shaped rice sweet filled with spicy ingredients prepared on this Saniyazhcha (Saturday). The symbolism of kozhukatta is derived from the costly nard perfume in round shaped bottle used to anoint the feet of Jesus by Mary at Lazarus’ house (Jn 12:1-11). This act of Mary made her the fragrance of Jesus. Such a way, after six weeks of self-purification of this period, the Malabar Christians being worthy to become the fragrance of Jesus give banquet to Jesus at their homes on this day. After supper, the father of the family, blesses the kozhukotta prepared  with the sign of Cross reciting a prayer over it, and distributes it among the family members who eat it with devotion as if they are dining with Jesus in order to become His fragrance.

c. Pesaha Vyazhazhcha

Holy Thursday in Malayalam is known as Pesaha Vyazhazhcha (Paschal Thursday). On this day after supper in commemoration of the institution of Eucharist, the father of the family breaks the unleavened bread (INRIJesus Nzarinus Rex IudeorumAppam) marked with sign of Cross and distribute it among the family members in seniority together with a sweet drink made of coconut milk and jaggery, which they consume devoutly. Non-Christians are not given to eat of this particular bread, and no portion of it is to be left over for the next day in remembrance of Lord’s Passover (Ex 12:10-11). The eating of this bread does not break the fasting. If the father dies, no bread is prepared that year, but at present, the same happens if anybody dies in the family. However, the bread brought by neighbors will be eaten without any solemnity.

Dukha Velliyazhcha

Good Friday in Malayalam is known as Dukha Velliyazhcha (sorrowful Friday). It is the day of mourning over the death of Christ, on which all had to take a bitter drink or to eat  bitter leaves as an act of participation in the passion of Christ on the Cross who was offered bitter drink (Jn 19:28-29). From Holy Thursday-night to Holy Saturday-night all had to keep silence, and some kept vigil and fast in the church.

d. Dukha Saniyazhcha

Holy Saturday in Malayalam is known as Dukha Saniyazhcha  (sorrowful Saturday) on which the Church venerates the glorious Cross and commemorates the death of Jesus. The Gospel for the evening prayer (ramsha) narrates the guarding of the tomb, and for the Eucharistic celebration speaks of the empty tomb. During the Eucharist, the blessing of the baptismal water and the renewal of baptismal vow are done in memory of the catechumens’ baptism in the early Church around the midnight in between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday night.

In the early Church, in order to re-enact the practical aspect the mysteries of death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism, the baptismal Eucharist started before midnight on Holy Saturday. After the liturgy of the catechumens around midnight, the prepared catechumens are taken out to the baptismal font where the baptism and chrismation are done. Wearing white dress, the baptised enter the Church after midnight for the liturgy of the faithful.

4. Liturgical Themes

            Liturgical themes found expressed in the proper parts of the liturgy of the hours (divine praises) manifest the mystery aspect of the season for practical Christian life. The period of Great Fast calls forth the mystery of suffering and death of Jesus for the salvation of humanity. The theology of suffering and death contains the joy of suffering to become one with Jesus declaring death to sin and life in Christ as the means of purification to live up Christ in a sacrificing manner as the spirit of this season.

a. Life Renewal

            The period of Great Fast is a period of purification of Christian life from all iniquities in order to become worthy to be risen with Christ. Means of purification suggested in this season are the acts of penance, charity, repentance, abstinence, and fasting. Death to sin is the purpose to be achieved in this season.

This process of renovation indicates towards the last days of catechumenate in the period of Great Fast in the early Church where a great spiritual progress of life renewal is called forth through reparation and restoration. We have to compensate the falls of other times by virtuous acts of self-denial. The more zealous we are for our salvation, the more hostile are our opponents. Hence, this is a period of spiritual warfare through combat, trial, and strife. In this attempt, we are assured of victory if we strive really for the reparation of faults, because our trust is in the unconquered master (Christ) of Christian warfare who strengthens those who try for perfection:

“O Christ, who prepared the way for the race of mortals by your fast, gives us strength to fight against the Evil One and his enticements, so that we may render praise to your Lordship during day and night.”[22]

To make the life renewal a great success, the great physician of the soul is approached in this season (Mt 9:12). The One who saved sinners (Jn 4:20; Mt 25:40) shall never abandon those who come to Him with fervent prayers accompanied by self-sacrifices and acts of love.[23] The good examples of biblical characters of repentance put forward in this period  are Zaccheus for sharing goods with the poor (Lk 19:1-10), the women caught in adultery for finding favour with the Lamp of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 8:3-11),  and the cured leper for beseeching the mercy of the Lord (Mt 8:1-11).[24] Ultimate message is to avoid sin in order to attain the joy of resurrection through the mercy of Lord who pardons sins and purifies deeds.

b. The Memory of Death

            Among the Syro-Malabarites of East Syrian tradition, the Friday before this period, the last Friday of Denha, being the memorial day of the souls departed promotes the continuation of the same spirit throughout the season. Therefore, all the seasonal penitential acts are meant for the reparation of our own sins and for the souls departed. The frequent thought of death in this season instigates the necessity of getting ready to face death at any time. Since we can do nothing after death, we have to acquire treasures for eternity before we die. Wealth and positions are not lasting treasures. Practice of virtues and avoidance of vices are the methods of acquiring lasting treasures. What shall we gain by winning the whole world, if the life is lost (Mt16:26)? This is the main stream of thought that governs this season.

            Christ alone who made victory over death by His own death can make us free from the slavery of death to win eternal life. The purpose of earthly life is to gain everlasting treasures to gain the imperishable kingdom of God. This treasure is made available through the death of Christ on the Cross. Those who embrace the Cross of Christ will attain the crown of Justice. Hence, the fast, prayer, and charitable works in the period of Great Fast aims at lamenting over sins that cause the anger of God, and helps the souls departed to attain salvation.

c. Fasting

Fasting is a powerful weapon to gain mastery over oneself and the devil. It is a strong instrument to employ against our temptations, and an excellent deed for achieving divine mercy. Thus, the spiritual warfare becomes easier. Mere abstinence from food alone does no good. Body and soul should fast together, the body from bread and the soul from inequities. Abstinence of body from food alone is in vain without the abstinence of the soul from evil vices.[25] The important thing is the correction of vices and the exercise of virtues. Mutual relation between bodily fasting and interior mortification attains them. Forty days of fast summon for greater progress in life through corporal and spiritual renewal. Corporal fast gives up certain foods, drinks and amusements, in order to overcome them. Spiritual fast keeps aloof sin, wickedness, and evil habits in order to remain with the Lord, and spiritual renewal seeks greater practice of virtues, deeper prayer life, repentance over sins, and conversion of heart orienting to a deeper union with God.

(1) Physical Benefits

Physically, fasting is not starvation, but a wilful abstinence from food, which is not fatal to health. On the other hand, Starvation is the deficiency of food in the body, which is fatal to health. Hence, fasting is a saviour, and starvation is a destroyer. There are numerous physical benefits for fasting.

(a) External Vitality

It reduces body weight and pains. Body becomes energetic and its activities become normal and natural to make physical pursuit more efficient. The liver is activated and pure blood begins to flow through blood vessels. As a result, vitality wakes up and every organ in the body enjoys new strength and energy. Blood pressure decreases and the sugar problems diminish. Laziness and weakness disappear. The mental power and peace increase, as the mind becomes alert and cheerful. The sense organs like ear, eye, nose, tongue, and skin become energetic. The sense of morality becomes strong, and the virtues like peace, confidence, courage, and respect grow in abundance towards a physical and spiritual rebirth.[26]Animals and birds have a normal natural instinct of not taking food when they become ill. Then they observe a fast, and the illness is got cured without any medicine or therapy. The fasting is a method of natural cure. A regular observance of fasting helps to keep up good health in both body and mind.

(b) Internal Cleansing

Human digestive system also needs an occasional relaxation by abstaining from food, so that the whole system could be cleaned up from impurities for getting ready for its further normal task of assimilation through digestion. Body takes a lot of energy (heat) for digesting the food given to its system. At fasting there is no function of digestion, and the bodily energy (heat) is directed to eliminate or burn away the toxic elements accumulated in our body through the consumed various food items. Thus through a regular way of abstinence from food, the whole body can regularly be purified by disintegrating the poisonous elements present in the system. This brings in resistance power and the whole body becomes free from illness, because the fasting revitalises the various processes in our body such as digestion, blood circulation, and metabolism.[27]

(c) System of Fasting

The holy Catholic Church keeps up a system of fasting in order to maintain both the physical and spiritual health of her children in their earthly sojourn. Among the St. Thomas Christians in Malabar, following are the fast days of their yearly plan.

(1) Twenty five-day fast in the period of Annunciation.

(2) Three-day fast in the period of Denha on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday known as the Rogation of Ninevites before eighteen days or three weeks of the beginning of Great Fast.

(3) Fifty-Day fast in the period of Great Fast.

(4) Fifteen-day fast in preparation for the Feast of Assumption on August 15.

(5) Eight-Day fast in preparation for the Nativity of Mary on September 8.

Though there is the system of fast in the periods of the Apostles and Elia-Croos, in Malabar they are not found observed.

(2) Spiritual Benefits

The importance of fast can be seen in all ages and religions[28]. The fasting is an excellent deed for a meaningful spiritual advance. Divine concern is easily made available through this act of penance.

(a) Divine Concern

In the Old Testament all were obliged to fast on the day of atonement for the forgiveness of sins (Yom Kippur Lev 16:29-30; 23:26-32; Num 29:7). Abraham fasted lamenting over the death of Sarah (Gen 23:2). Jacob fasted in sackcloth at the death news of his beloved son Joseph (Gen 37:34). It was through the power of fasting, Moses became worthy to receive Ten Commandments (Ex 24:18, 34:28). Joshua stopped the course of the sun (Josh 1:1). Joshua together with elders anointing with ash prostrated before the tent of covenant until evening at the killing of the people of Israel by the gentiles (Josh 7:6). When the tribe of Benjamin killed Israelites, the whole people fasted and offered sacrifices during the whole day before the Lord (Jud 20:26). In order to be saved from the hands of Philistines, Samuel and the whole people of Israel gathered before the Lord and fasted for a day lamenting over their sins against the Lord (1 Sam 7:6). Ahab in sackcloth fasted when he knew about the punishment of God (1 Kings 21:27). Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2: 11). Daniel shut the mouths of lions (Dan 6:16-23) and the three youths in furnace put out the flames (Dan 3:19f).[29] Foreseeing the destruction of Israel, Esther declared three-day fast (Esth 4:16). At times of necessity, the whole people fasted (Jud 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; Jon 3:4-5).

In the New Testament, we see Anna even at the age of eighty-four spending the day and night in the temple in fast and prayer (Lk 2:37). John the Baptist who prepared the day for the Lord was an ascetic (Mt 3:4). Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness (Mt 4:2). As a Jew, Jesus observed all the Jewish fasts and directed them to the proper spirit of fasting. Secret fast is preferred, since God seeing everything will grant reward (Mt 6:16-18). Prayer with fast is more effective (Mk 9:28). Saul fasted for three days (Acts 9:9). The Church in Antioch while fating received the revelation to set apart Saul and Barnabas for preaching Gospel (Acts13:2). Paul and Barnabas fasted in Antioch and other Churches (Acts 14:22). These all indicate the magnanimity of fasting as a powerful weapon to fight against the devil.

(b) Spiritual Nourishment

The holy fast in the Church is compared to the tree of life in paradise (Gen 3:24). As its fruits are suitable for food and its leaves are useful for medicine, so the fruits of fast are suitable for the spiritual nourishment and its leaves (properties) are useful medicine (Ez 47:12) for the reparation of faults committed in life. The fasting nourishes the mind with spiritual thoughts. The intellect is purified through praise of God. The body obtains material strength. The eyes shine forth and sparkle with the oil of atonement. The man in his body and soul becomes a sanctified temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, God dwells in the one who fasts, and writes his name in the book of life in heaven.[30]

(c) Spiritual Power

The power of fasting is far reaching. It helps towards the conversion of heart and the reparation of sins. The prayer ith fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness produces immediate fruits before God (Tob 12:8). Fasting helps to become one humble before God and people (Gen 37:34; Josh 7:6; 1 Sam 7:6). It makes the journey easier in the midst of enemies (Judit 13). Through fasting, the mind of God can be changed to withdraw his wrath upon us (Joel 2:12-14). The real fasting is meant for the avoidance of wickedness, breaking of the yoke of sin, granting freedom for the oppressed, sharing bread with hungry, brining the homeless to house, clothing the naked one, and spreading love where there is enmity and hatred  (Is 58:6-7). Thus fasting is the sign of putting complete trust upon God in order to improve oneself both physically and spiritually to work for the betterment of others.

d. Union with Christ

            The Holy Week memory of the institution of the Eucharist and the passion of Christ deserves special mention, which re-enacts in a special way the passage from death to life. Through baptism, we are grafted into this paschal mystery of Christ (Rom 6:2-4). In the early Church, this was the final period of preparation for the catechumens, reaching its climax in baptismal Eucharist at the paschal vigil showing our own close fellowship with Christ in everything:

                “If we die with Him, we shall live with Him; if we endure with Him, we shall reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will deny us; if we remain in Him, He will remain in us” (2 Tim 2:11-13).

Eucharist makes perfect union with Christ. The memory of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday celebrates the intimate union with Christ as per the will of Christ that whoever eats His body and drinks His blood will live for ever (Jn 6: 26, 57-58). By eating Jesus, we should permit Jesus to eat us burning away                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               all inequities in the furnace of divine love in order to become another Christ.

The suffering of Christ is not of gloom but of joyfulness. For John Climacus (7 c.), it is a ‘joy-creating sorrow.’[31] Christ’s passion and death paved the way for salvation procuring the pardon of debts and the forgiveness of sins committed by our ancestors. The passion of Christ made Cross the sign of victory over Satan and the source of divine grace to all. The Cross is no more a sign of curse, but a source of grace. His death on the Cross reconciled heaven and earth, and opened the doors of heaven redeeming all from death and sin through His body and blood.

e. Passages of Salvation

The Holy Week re-enacts in a special way His glorious passages of self-giving (Eucharist) on Holy Thursday, self-immolation (suffering and death) on Good Friday, and glorification (resurrection) on Easter Sunday.

(1) Self-Giving

On Holy Thursday, He instituted Eucharist as the life giving body and blood by a total self-giving to remain with us forever. His own self-giving to us expects of our own self-giving to Him avoiding selfishness and vices. This mutual self-giving manifests the deep unity with Christ that all He has is of ours and all we have is of His (Jn 17:10). Hence, this is the passage of transformation to become another Christ, a total change of our inner self to the body and blood of Christ.

(2) Self-Immolation

On Good Friday, He immolated Himself for our sake. His self-sacrifice through passion, death, and burial liberated us from the bondage of sin and death. It was His bridal price to purify His Bride, the Church. As the Eve, the first bride, was taken from the side of Adam, so the second bride, the Church, was taken from the side of Christ. The flowing of water and blood from His side signify the birth of the Church, the Bride, worthy of Christ, the Groom. Thus, the passage of self-immolation demands the sacrifice life to be purified from inequities in order to become the worthy Bride of the Groom.

(3) Glorification

Resurrection of Jesus made victory over death and Satan, and established eternal glory as a symbol of our own victory for attaining the glory of resurrection. For this purpose, we have to flow Him fully establishing Gospel truths. It demands our own fellowship with Christ in everything as, “If we die with Him, we shall live with Him. If we endure with Him, we shall reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will deny us. If we remain in Him He will remain in us also” (2 Tim 2:1 1 -1 3). Hence, the passage to resurrectional glory contains in the victory over death and sin.

5. Lectionary Theology

            The lectionary system of this season from Sunday to Sunday Eucharist unfolds the diachronic and synchronic settings of scripture lessons, together with the paschal mysteries of suffering and death of Jesus commemorated in the liturgical propers, enable a dynamic encounter with gospel values to be practiced in daily life. Reincorporation into the Paschal events reminds the faithful of their commitments to lead a new life in Christ. The Great Fast’s forty days of abstention in imitation of Jesus’ hunger in the wilderness is a summons to spiritual progress: to wage war against evil and to journey further into the renewal of life.

a. Diachronic System

Diachronism indicates the chronological, thematic, and linguistic agreement of scripture lessons showing the progress of scripture lessons on Sundays by establishing an agreement between the Old and the New Testament scripture lessons within the periods of the liturgical year. The seasonal Sunday lessons bring out a gradual unfolding of the chronological order of the Christ event in salvation history. In this respect, the theme of the first Sunday gets a further development on the second Sunday; the third Sunday proceeds from the second Sunday, and so on. For this purpose, the scripture lessons in the lectionary system are anamnetically and epicletically interpreted. The whole system follows a historically ordered sequence of gospel events to which the other lessons are oriented as follows.[32]


Anamnetic Lessons

Epicletic Lessons



Prophetic  Admonitions

Apostolic Exhortations

1.Exod 34:1-7,27-35 Giving of Ten Commandments Matt 3:16-4:11 Jesus’ 40-day fasting, and the temptation Isa 58:1-12,14 Teaching on true and false fasting Eph 4:17-5:4,15-21 Moral standards
2.Gen 5:19-32 Genealogy of Noah Matt 7:15-27 False prophets and two builders Josh 4:15-24 Monument to miracle of crossing Jordan Rom 6:1-23 The new life in Christ
3.Gen 7:1-24 Noah’s refuge in the ark Matt 20:17-28 Passion prediction, and Zebedee sons Josh 5:13-6:5 Angel with Joshua, Jericho captured Rom 7:14:25 Struggle against sin
4.Gen 11:1-32 Babel tower, Abraham’s genealogy Matt 21:23-46 Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem Josh 6:27-7:15 Joshua’s grief over Achan’s sin of looting Rom 8:12-27 Avoidance of sin for attaining glory
5.Gen 16:1-16 Birth of Ishmael John 7:37-53,8:12-20 Life-giving water, light of the world Josh 9:15-27 Punishment for Gibeonites for telling lie Rom 12:1-21 Demand to lead a Christian life
6.Gen 19:1-7,9-26 Rescue of Lot from Sodom John 9:39-10:21 Jesus, the good shepherd Josh 21:43-22:9 Blessings to Israel Rom 14:10-23 Clarity of right and wrong
7.Hosana: Gen 49:1-12,22-26 Jacob’s   prophecy Matt 20:29-21:22 Jerusalem entry, cleansing of the temple Zech 4:8-14;7:9-10;8:4-5,12-19; 9:9-12 Zechariah’s vision Rom 11:13-24 Restoration of Jews


(1) Anamnetic Lessons

The book of law presents the Ten Commandments, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob as the important types of Jesus the true liberator. The Ten Commandments were the God-given guidelines for total commitment to the Lord who, in turn, would provide protection. Noah fought against evil to establish goodness. Abraham kept up complete trust in the Lord as attested by his readiness to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. Jacob provided a foundation for the hope of liberation while Moses prepared the stage of liberation. The destruction of the tower of Babel was a reminder of the need for obedience to the will of God in order to obtain true freedom. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the rescuing of Lot showed the abhorrence of wickedness and the brilliance of holiness. Freedom from oppression was promised for those who adhered to God; damnation was the prospect for those who rejected God.

The gospel events present Jesus as the true liberator and the Savior. Liberation comes by following and fulfilling the will of God. Jesus himself fulfilled the will of the Father when he overcame temptations through self-control in prayer and fasting. Thus he instructed his followers, through strong faith in the Lord, to reject false prophets even though sufferings and sacrifices might be required. Jesus the Good Shepherd will lead the faithful to his pastures of divine grace and enlighten them with his divine knowledge. By his solemn entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple, Jesus manifested divine authority as the true Savior of the world.

(2) Epicletic Lessons

The prophets provided practical guidelines for a successful journey towards the Promised Land.  Those who take paths of truth, goodness and justice—who are not selfish and who are kind to the poor—will possess it. The chain of evil is to be broken and the treasury of goodness opened; God will destroy evildoers and save the righteous as happened at the miraculous crossing of Jordan and the destruction of Jericho.

The apostolic exhortations explicate guidelines for moral uplift, renewal in Christ, avoidance of sin, and discernment of good and evil; liberation from the bondage of evil is required in order to enter the Promised Land of heaven. The Great Fast is a time for spiritual warfare against evil through fasting, prayer, penance, abstinence and almsgiving. The doors of heaven are opened to those who are purified through sacrifices. A proper control and disposition of life is necessary in order to encounter Christ both on earth and in heaven.

b. Synchronic System

            The mystery of suffering and death as the theological focus of the liturgical propers during this season are well integrated into the seasonal scripture lessons.[33] The main theological themes are fasting, repentance, penance, suffering, death, prayer, and sacrifices—all of which present the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death to be considered in daily life.


            Great Fast is the most important fasting season in the church year, which prepares Christians for the greatest feast of the church year, Pasch (Easter). The purpose is to make the faithful enter into the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. Spending more time in prayer and meditation on Holy Scriptures and traditions of the Church, the believer becomes through the grace of God more godlike.

This period makes conscious of the necessity of dependence upon God, because without Him, we can do nothing (John 15: 5). The seasonal abstinence and fasting not only from food but also from sins lead to spiritual wakefulness, freedom, and joy in life. By virtue of Baptism, all Christians, monks and laity following the same spiritual path as Cross-bearers, are bount to fast. According to Chrysostom, fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the feet and hands from acts of injustice, and all members of the body avoiding vices.[34]For Basil, it is useless to fast from food, if one indulges in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”[35] Periodic fasts contribute to bodily hygiene. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are central to this season. Absence of prayer, non-reception of sacraments, and lack of compassion make fasting pharisaic or even demonic. Fasting, then, is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer, because the demons do not eat due to their incorporeal nature and neither do they pray. In the Gospels, the devil is cast out, not by fasting alone, but by “prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17.21; Mark 9.29).

                During the Great Fast, the Church increases its prayer for the dead. Reminding the believer of his own mortality, increases the spirit of penitence, and reminds of his Christian obligation of charity in praying for the departed. Shepherd of Hermas (2 c.) insists that the money saved through fasting is to be given to the widow, the orphan, and the poor.[36] However, almsgiving means more than this that not only our money but our time too, that is to say not only what we have but also what we are to be given as a part of ourselves.

            The lectionary system unfolds the liberation from the slavery of Satan. The commemorative lessons from the Book of Law and the anamnetic lessons from the Gospels express liberation
theology. The Old Testament types like Noah, Abraham, Melchizadek, Joseph and Moses are the liberators of Israel; while the Gospel lessons historically realise Jesus as the true liberator and saviour. The invocation lessons from prophets and the epicletic lessons from epistles bring forth the theology of a new life in God. Prophetic admonitions to Israel propose criterion of good conduct for a successful entry to the Promised Land; while the apostolic exhortations to Christians demand a proper control of life for entering the Kingdom of God.


[1] A.A.McArthur, The Evolution of the Christian Year (London, 1953) 114-132; P.Regan, Three Days and Forty Days,” Worship 51 (1980) 2-18, gives the details of the formation of the Lenten season. M.F.Lages, “Etapes de l’évolution du Caréme a Jérusalem avant le Ve siécle,” Revue des études Arméniennes 6 (1969) 67-102, speaks about its development in Jerusalem before the fifth century.

[2] A.Adam, The Liturgical Year ( New York, 1981) 63f; C.Payngot, Arathanavalsaram, OIRSI 256 (Malayalam, Kottayam, 2001) 189.

[3] Eusebius of Caesarea , Historiae ecclesiastcae 5, 24; PG 20, 501-504. During the 4th and the early 5th centuries, the Pasch contained three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday known as “Paschal Triduum,” of single unit of redemption; see P.Regan, Three Days and Forty Days,” 2-5; C.Mohrmann, “Pascha, Passio, Transitus,” in Etude sur le Latin des Chrétiens, vol. 1 (Rome, 1961) 205-222; J.Talley, “History and Eschatology in the Primitive Pascha;”  Worship 47 (1973) 212-221; M.Richard, “La question paschal au IIe siècle,” L’Orient Syrien 6 (1961) 179-212; A.Chavasse, “La structure du carême et les lectures des messes quadragésimale dans la liturgie Romaine,” MD 31 (1952) 81.

[4] A.Reiferscheid, G.Wissowa, ed., Qunti septimi florentis Tertulliani opera, Corpus Scriptorum Eccleasticorum Latinorum 20.1 (Vindobonae, 1890) 291-293; B.Botte, ed., Hippolyte de Rome: la tradition apostolique, Sources Chrétiennes 11 (Paris, 1946) 47-49, 64-65, n.20, 29.

[5] A.Vööbus, The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium , scriptores Syri 179 (Louvain, 1979) 214.

[6] M.Routh, Reliquae sacrae, vol. 3 (Oxonii, 1847) 229; see S.Salaville, “ La Tessaracoste du Ve canon de Nicée (325),” Echos d’Orient 13 (1910) 66.

[7] O.Stahlin, ed., Clemens Alexandrinus, vol. 2: Stromata Buch I.21, Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 3 (Leipzig, 1906) 91; PG 8, 888.

[8] Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie 2, col. 2140.

[9] Athanasius, Epistolae heortasticae 2.8 in anno 330; PG 26, 1371; Cyril, Procatechesis 4; PG 33, 340; Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos 3.4; PG 48, 865f.; see McArthur, The evolution of Christian Year, 115-123; S.Salaville, “ La Tessaracoste du Ve canon de Nicée (325),” 66.

[10] Sozomen, Historiae Ecclesiastica  7.19; PG 67, 1477f. For the English translation, see NPNF, series 2, vol.2, 390.

[11] M.F.Lages, “Etapes de l’évolution du Carême a Jerusalem avant le Ve siècle,” 102.

[12] Sozomen, Historiae Ecclesiastica  7.19; PG 67, 1477.

[13] Basil, Homilia 14: In ebriosos; PG 31, 444.

[14] Etherie, Journal de voyage, ed., H.Petre, Source Chrétiennes 21 (Paris, 1947) 207-209; Lages, “Etapes de l’évolution du Carême a Jerusalem avant le Ve siècle,” 67, 102.

[15] P,J,Podipara, Nammude Reethu (Malayalam, Eranakulam, 1943) 31-32, 41-42, 80-82; Id., The Thomas Christians (Bombay, 1970), 93; C.Payngot, Aradhanavadsaram, 131- 133; Id., Malabar Sabbah Pudiya Velichathil (Malayalam, Kottayam, 1995) 221-222  give many early practices of fast and abstinence existed among Thomas Christians in Malabar.

[16] J.Wicki, ed., Documenta indica (1563-1566), Monumenta historica Societatis Jesu 11 (Rome, 1970) 141.

[17] G.Schurhammer, The Malabar Church and Rome: During the Early Portuguese Period and Before  (Trichinopoly, 1934) 22.

[18] G.P.Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals, vol. 2 (London, 1852) 188.

[19] R.H.Connolly, ed., Anonymi auctoris expositio officiorum ecclesiae Georgio Arbelensis vulgo adscripta, CSCO, scriptores Syri, series secunda, tomus XCII (Rome, 1913-1915) 51-52; J.Mateos, Lelya-Sapra, OCA 27 (Rome, 1959) 158.


[20] C.Payngot, Aradhanavadsaram, 131; Id., Thirunnalukal, OIRSI 231 (Malayalam, Kottayam, 1999) 21.

[21] P.Bedjan, Breviarium juxta Ritum Syrorum Orientalium id est Chaldaeorum II (Syriac, Rome, 1938) 295.

[22] Ibidem, 124: Sabbah d’sapra of the second Sunday of Great Fast.

[23] Ibidem, 91: Mawtba  of the first Thursday of Great Fast

[24] Ibidem, 57: Mawtba of the first Sunday of Great Fast.

[25] Ibidem, 217: Onita d’raze of the fourth Wednesday of Great Fast.

[26]  r.m.shah, trans., Efficacy of Fasting (Bombay, 1992) 8, 27-28,31-32.

[27]  R.M.Shah, trans., Efficacy of Fasting, 5-7.

[28] J.F.Lake, Fasting, (Mary Land, 2008); S.McKnight, Fasting (Nashville, 2009).


[29]  Bedjan, Breviarium II, 56: Mawtba of the first Sunday of Great Fast..

[30]  Ibidem, 194: Mawtba of the fourth Sunday of the Great Fast.

[31] The Ladder of Paradise, Step 7, title.

    [32]Ordo celebrationis “Quddasa” iuxta usum ecclesiae Syro-Malabrensis (Rome, 1959) 43-58.

[33]Supplementum Mysteriorum, (Rome, 1960) 51-86; Bedjan, Breviarium II, 54-389.

[34] Homilies on the Statues 3.3-4; P.G.49, 51-53.

[35] Homilies on Fasting 1.10; P.G. 31, 181B).

[36] Similitudes V, 3.7.

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