Fr Lijo Velliyamkandathil, Vice-rector, St. Thomas Minor Seminary, Eparchy of Kalyan, explained the reason why the western Church follow 40 days of Lent whereas the Eastern Church follow 50 days. He conveyed his message through ‘Let’s Talk Something Catholic’, a new video initiative by Catholic Focus YouTube channel, Kalyan Media Cell.
Towards the end of the 4th century, in the Western Church, people began to fast 40 days up to Paschal Triduum (From a Sunday to Maundy Thursday- 40 days). Paschal Triduum is Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter. Later they made an exception of the Sundays, considering Sundays as the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. Lent contained 6 Sundays and if those 6 Sundays are excluded it made 34. Later they included Good Friday and Holy Saturday of Paschal Triduum which was already rigorous fast days, and that made 36 days of fast in the western church.
Since the 7th century, there rose the demand that in Lent there ought to be the full number of 40 fast days following the example of Jesus. So it became necessary to take in 4 days from the preceding week (Saturday, Friday, Thursday, Wednesday) to complete 40 days and thus Ash Wednesday came to be the beginning of Lent in the western church.
But the 50 days’ fast of the Marthoma Nasranees, came into existence from the third Century that was stipulated based on the liturgical season grounded on the Temporal Cycle, that tracks the events in the life of Christ. The first Sunday of the season of Lent is celebrated as Peturta Sunday which means “looking back”. The day after Peturta comes the rite of ashes which is Ash Monday on which the fast begins.
The seven weeks of the Season of Lent which starts with Peturtha Sunday comprise 49 days. Easter Sunday which is the 50th day is seen as the culmination day of this period. So Marthoma Nasranees name this period as “Anpathu Nombu”.
Of the 50 days, excluding the ‘Petrutha Sunday’, the First Sunday of Lent and Easter Sunday, which are great feasts, we have 48 days remaining for fast or abstinence.
Of these 48 days, there are 6 Sundays which are days of ABSTINENCE only and not FAST, because Sunday is the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.
(Here we need to clearly understand the difference between the two terms FAST and ABSTINENCE. Abstinence meant, to abstain from meat, fish, egg and milk, which was a strong practice among the St. Thomas Christians, Yet, they had three meals a day but vegetarian meals only. The 6 Sundays of Nombukaalam fell under this category. Fast meant, ‘Oruneram’. which meant, having only one meal a day, and that too, avoiding meat, fish, egg and milk. Thus, the remaining 42 days were days of fast and abstinence. )
So now, strictly speaking, we have only 42 days of Fast and Abstinence.
Of the remaining 42 days, Good Friday and Holy Saturday which are already days of rigorous fasting, were considered the days of the Paschal Mystery of Our Lord, ie., the Great Passion, death, burial and Resurrection and were not considered as part of the 40 days fast (But Latins count those two days with 40). Thus, we now have the remaining 40 days as days of Fast and Abstinence.
So, in all, of the period of ‘Anpathu Nombu’, we have 40 days of fast and abstinence, 6 Sundays of abstinence-only, and two days – Good Friday and Holy Saturday as paschal days and two Sundays – Petrutha and Easter, as Feast days.
Fr Lijo Velliyamkandathil