With Clean Monday begins Great Lent in the Orthodox Church and marks the end of feasting. Clean Monday is called as such because Christians are called to cleanse themselves spiritually and bodily. It is also a day of strict fasting with no work. The holy fast has a duration of 40 days in imitation of our Lord’s fast in the desert.
On Clean Monday Greeks traditionally eat lagana bread (which is an unleavened bread only eaten on this day), as well as other fasting foods, especially beans, though without oil. Clean Monday is 48 days prior to Holy Pascha Sunday.
Clean Monday (Greek: Καθαρή Δευτέρα) refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.
Strictly observant Orthodox hold this day (and also Clean Tuesday and Wednesday) as a strict fast day, on which no solid food at all is eaten. Others will eat only in the evening, and then only xerophagy (lit. “dry eating”; i.e. eating uncooked foodstuffs such as fruit, nuts, halva, bread and honey, etc).
The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament readings appointed to be read at the Sixth Hour on this day. Isaiah 1:1-20 says in part:
“Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good. Seek righteousness, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool. If then ye be willing, and obedient unto Me, ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye desire not, nor will obey Me, the sword shall devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (v. 16-20).
Genesis 1:1-13 is also read to imply that this is a time of renewal and new beginnings.
The reading from Proverbs 1:1-20 instructs us towards clean and sober living through the use of wisdom, the beginning of which is “the fear of the Lord.” The clearest piece of advice given says: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.”
The Three Day Fast (Ιερὸ Τριήμερο)
For those who are able and willing, it is encouraged by the Church to keep a three day strict fast where neither food or water (if possible) is consumed until Clean Wednesday when one partakes of Holy Communion at the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. Some of the strictest monastics even go so far as to do this for the entire Clean Week, accepting only Holy Communion during the week. This is an excellent way to mark the beginning of a holy struggle against one’s passions and weaknesses.
Abstaining from all food and drink for three days will help us approach the Lord on a deeper level than ever before. It will also help us to see and know ourselves on a deeper level. During these three days one will observe that they will be able to more clearly see their weaknesses, their passions, their spiritual poverty, and their nakedness of all the virtues, the dark abyss within, and the inner ugliness. Physically one will recognize how truly weak the flesh is even when the spirit is willing. This humbling attitude is a prerequisite to a successful fast. It is also a motivating factor for the rest of Great Lent as well as the entire spiritual life in general. And when one partakes of the Holy Mysteries after three days of such fasting, there is instilled in the individual a deeper appreciation for the Lord’s presence within the Mysteries.
Such a fast should not be imposed, but only encouraged and accepted willingly. It is only in this way that it can be of benefit. If one has a spiritual father, his blessing should be given for this to be done. There is no danger to this fast, as it is a long-held tradition, but if one is on medication or has an illness or is pregnant or any other medical condition, such a fast is discouraged. But for healthy people, it has been known that even doctors have encouraged such a fast, at least for purposes of cleansing the body, which has great health benefits. It should also be mentioned that the fast is alleviated the more one is able to attend the Divine Services and keep a prayer rule.
There is an old Greek saying or joke which says: “Σάν συλλογιέται ὁ παπᾶς τό Τριήμερο, μαύρη Τουρνή (Τυρινή) τοῦ πάει.” In other words, a few days before the fast, that is during Cheesefare Week, when the priest is contemplating the three day fast he will do, it is a Black Cheesefare; he is sad and mournful.
Overall, the joy of the three day fast will last the entire journey one undertakes throughout Great Lent and Holy Week. And it will help to bring us more joy on the holy day of Pascha. This is the spiritual fruit of the three day fast. An abundance of grace flows when the paschal mystery shines within the heart of an Orthodox believer.
The First Week of Great Lent
By Sergei Bulgakov
The first week of the Holy Forty Day Fast are “the days beginning the holy fast”. The Holy Church during this week, inviting its children to begin “the all honorable abstinence”, to work “for the Lord with fear”, to fast “the pleasant fast pleasing to the Lord”, to fast not only “in body” but also “in spirit” opens the purpose and meaning of “the all honorable fast”. “The Fast has come”, sings the holy Church in its hymns, “mother of chastity, accuser of sins, advocate of repentance, life of the angels and salvation of men”. “For by this Moses was glorified, and he received the Law written upon tablets”, “Elijah having fasted, was enclosed in heaven”, “through fasting the youths were delivered from the furnace and the Prophet Daniel from the jaws of the lions”; and “taking as shield the strong armor of the Fast, let us repel every delusion of the enemy. Let us not be led astray by the lusts of passion, let us not flinch before the fire of temptation”; “let us quench the burning passions of the flesh”, “Let us be pure before the Pure One, and seeking purity from all before the Only Savior of our souls”; “illumined by divine virtues, let us gaze with faith upon the radiance of the Passion of the Savior”, and “let us receive from Christ God great mercy”. Together with this the holy Church finds out in detail also the properties of true lent, as valid means for the cleansing of sin, as the basis of repentance, as the beginning of the return of the person to God. According to the teaching of the holy Church, “true fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then our fasting is true and acceptable”. Therefore, inviting its children to true repentance and lenten ascetic efforts, the holy Church also sings: “Clothing ourselves in the shining raiment of the Fast, let us cast off the dark and hateful garment of drunkenness”; “let us love chastity, and let us flee from fornication, let us gird our loins with temperance”, “let us wash our faces in the water of dispassion”, “let us loose every bond of iniquity, let us terminate the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and to our house welcome the poor who have no roof to cover them”; “let us brightly begin the all honorable abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage.”