When does the great fast begin?
The Ukrainian Catholic Church observes a 40 day fast before Easter as does the Roman Catholic Church. Why then do the fasts start on different days?
The question of the forty days of Lent takes on some confusion when comparing ourselves with the Roman Catholic Church.
Eastern Christians do not observe the Great and Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday) as part of the fast. The events of this week are so extraordinary and have such a deep and profound meaning to our salvation that they merit consideration apart from the Great Fast. It is definitely not a week of feasting, but it takes on, perhaps, an even more intense spirit of solemnity and fasting. Our last day of Lent is the Friday before Lazarus Saturday (April 15, 2011). Holy Week begins on Lazarus Saturday. If you count back 40 days (including Sundays) from the Friday before Lazarus Saturday, you will have the start of the observance of the Eastern Christian Great Fast.
The Western Church (Roman Catholic) includes Holy Week in their forty days of Lent, so originally their Lent began one week after ours. This period needed to be adjusted when it was decided that Sundays would not be considered days of fasting during Lent for the Roman Catholic Church. In the 7th century, four more days were added, moving the start of their Lent to Wednesday, two days after the Eastern Christian Great Fast begins.
While the number of days in the Great Fast is important, we must remember that 40 was chosen as a symbolic number. It is the time both Moses and Elijah spent preparing to meet God in a very intense, personal and special way. It is also the number of days Christ went to fast and pray in the desert before beginning his public ministry. These 40 days are meant to be a time for us to prepare to meet God in a deeper, more personal way and a time for us to become more Christ-like.