Great Lent is the lengthiest fast of the year, but another reason it is called Great is because it relates to and precedes the greatest feast of the Christian Church – Easter. Lent developed gradually, having different durations at first. In the modern tradition of Armenian Church Great Lent includes the period of seven weeks preceding Easter. Although first and last Sundays are not fast days, they are included in Lent since first Sunday – Boon Barekendan symbolizes paradise, where fasting took its origin in the form of a commandment, and on last Sunday – Easter day – fasting is absolved (after Holy Communion). Including these Sundays, the Great Lent lasts 50 days. According to Scripture 50 is a Year of Jubilee and symbolizes liberty, as in the 50th year slaves were set free [Leviticus 25:9-13
]. Church fathers interpret the 50-day Lent as a period of liberation from the bondage of sin, since “whosoever committeth sin is a slave of sin” [John 8:34
]. Just as in the Old Testament in the Year of Jubilee the sounding of trumpets announced the release of all slaves, so Easter is a time of joy for all Christians who rejoice in the Resurrection of Christ, through which God restored human nature immerged in the death of sin. Thus, Church honors Christ’s resurrection with a fast of 50 days - a celestial Jubilee, and a single most important means of repentance and atonement of sins in order to enter into Lord’s joy [Matthew 25:21
The canonical liturgy of the Great Lent with its daily Scripture readings, sharakans (hymns) and sacraments reflects the unity of effort - man’s attempt for piety and God’s saving economy.
The Lamb of God took upon Him the sins of mankind, sacrificing Himself on the Cross – but the way for man to profit from this great mystery is to make a reciprocal sacrifice, as response by one spiritual love to another. Great Lent is especially revered by pious Christians because it is a period for manifesting this love. By becoming vigilant through constant penitence and periodic confessions, this lengthy fast is a serious occasion to fundamentally change one’s conscience toward good, overcome sinful habits and take root in godly living.
Traditionally Great Lent is also called the Forty Day Fast, since in the early days it lasted for 40 days – reflecting the Lord’s forty day fast in the desert. Starting six weeks before Easter, it ended on Good Friday (the 40th day).
In certain canonical texts Great Lent is associated with the term “Forty Day Fast” and represents the period between first Monday and the resurrection of Lazarus 40 days later, and the Holy Week is presented as a separate weeklong fast following Great Lent. However, in the tradition of Armenian Church Great Lent includes both of these periods and ends on the day of Easter, in dedication to which it was established. Another interpretation of the name, which was in circulation in the past, was strongly condemned by Armenian Church as justification for gluttony. According to it, the fast was called Forty Day Fast because Sundays were excluded. Although the liturgy of Saturdays and Sundays during Lent is not specific to Lent, it only applies to liturgical side, not asceticism. The fast shall last 48 days uninterruptedly, from first Monday to Easter, and shall not be interrupted by feats of Presentation (Tearnendaraj) and Holy Annunciation, both of which sometimes overlap with Lent. When fast is interrupted, its desired outcome – pacification and subjugation of the body, due to which passions become subdued and desires become more controllable while mind is cleared of sinful thoughts, becomes unattainable. This religious experience forced many pious Christians and monks alike to follow an even stricter fast – cutting food consumption altogether or only eating bread and salt.
During Great Lent from Boon Barekendan to Palm Sunday the curtain of the altar remains closed [symbolizing man’s expulsion from paradise] even during Holy Mass on Sundays. In the past, instead of the curtain, they closed church doors. Church services were held in the courtyard, and Holy Mass was held by one priest behind closed doors. The Holy Mass of Palm Sunday was no exception. The door was only opened in the evening of Palm Sunday, during the rite of Opening of the Doors, symbolizing the entering of the righteous into God’s Kingdom.
During the period of closed curtains believers preside in essence in status of unbaptized children, thus speechlessly confessing their inability to live pious lives in the grace of baptism and in mournful attempt to regain lost grace with constant repentance, which is considered as second baptism.
Church fathers consider Great Lent to be a path leading to the peak – the Easter, with resting points that allow for reflection on the past experience and invigoration for continuing the journey. Such resting points are the Saturdays and Sundays of the Great Lent. Saturdays are Saint commemorance days, while Sundays commemorate Biblical events that have great significance for Lent – expulsion, parable of prodigal son, parable of unjust steward, parable of unjust judge, parable of returning king.