For Assyrian Christians, Lent is know as Sowma Rabba (The Great Fast), which takes up 49 days, instead of typical 40. It’s one of the holiest times of year that represents the 7 weeks that the body of Christ was taken, plus additional 2 days for the ancient Fast of the Passion of Christ.
“This fast is 49 days, but in reality it is only 42 days if you consider the Sunday exemption,” says Father Gewargis Sulaiman, the parish priest of St. George Cathedral in Chicago, who was born in Baghdad and spent his youth in Duhok, Iraq.
Early Christians included an additional ancient fast called the Fast of the Passion of Christ to Sowma Rabba, making the total number of days 49, says Father Gewargis Sulaiman.
This is one of the holiest times and most spiritual times of the year for Assyrian Christians as a 7 week period of prayer, self-discipline, and atonement just before the most important Christian feast, Holy Pascha, commonly called “Easter”. During Sowma Rabba, there are commonly 7 kinds of prayers, as well as charity, abstention from sin, and expected generosity, kindness and love for those inside and outside the community.
Sowma Rabba provides Assyrian Christians a holy time to reflect and refocus their intentions in life and their salvation through the passion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
One important aspect of Sowma Rabba is fasting. It is a historical 49 days where believers maintain control over their appetites and service to Christ. Fasting itself has been observed since the Old Testament where Moses fasted for 40 days, or in the New Testament where the followers of John the Baptist committed to the regular observance of fasting. Even when Christians look to Christ, they see he both preached and practiced fasting, as well as members of the early church.
Some Assyrian Christians don’t eat diary or meat, or any animal products, then there are those that fast until the afternoon prayer when they break their fast. Others, fast until the evening prayer when they break their fast. Despite differences in habit among Assyrian Christians, in general, for 49 days Assyrian Christians do not eat any diary product or meat.
“Know this as well, that now is the time and the hour to awaken from our sleep. For now our salvation is much nearer to us than when we believed. Now the night is passing and the day is drawing near. Let us then put away from ourselves the deeds of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Let us walk with decorum, as in the day, not with reveling, nor with drunkenness, nor with sexual impurity, nor with envy and strife. Instead, put on our Lord Jesus Christ, and pay no mind to the lusts of your flesh.”-(Rom. 13:11-14)
Historically, fasting differs throughout the seven weeks of Sowma Rabba week to week. The first, fourth, and the last weeks are special where everyday there is a holy mass served for evening prayer after dawn, similar to the Fast of Nineveh. During the rest of the fast (weeks 2, 3, 5, 6) there is no fast and only mass held on Friday evening. The fast is practiced regularly by the Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
Though fasting is typically strict, individuals new to the fast simply resolve to do so as faithfully as they can during Sowma Rabba. One’s health or living situation are always taken into account by the community. Sowma Rabba for Assyrians is a time to not sin or to do any evil, and instead to focus on prayer, devotion, repentance and acts of kindness.