In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11). The Synaxarion says the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline. It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have gotten off track. It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly. We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God. It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins. Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality. But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them. Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice. If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic! To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom. Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives. The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.
“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)
Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…
So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”
Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds us that we like everyone else are human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him. We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride. The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.