The current Byzantine Liturgy and the Roman usus antiquior have a point of unity in their respective observances of Pre-Lent.
In Constantinople, in either the sixth or seventh century, a week of Pre-Lent developed gradually, and was commonly called “The Week without Meat”. It is likely that this is in imitation of the Church in Palestine, which calculated Lent in forty days, Monday through Friday, over eight weeks. Byzantines did not need the extra days, since they counted the forty days continuously. So the compromise to the eight weeks of Palestine was to add a week of gradual fasting prior to the Great Fast. Now commonly known as “Cheese-Fare Week”, during this week Byzantines begin fasting from meat but continue to eat cheese and other dairy products right up until “Pure Monday”, the first day of the Fast (two days before the Roman “Ash Wednesday”).
There are four Sundays within Byzantine Pre-Lent. The “Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee” calls us to consider our life, and to repent of our sins for repentance is the door through which we enter the Holy Forty Days Fast. The “Sunday of the Prodigal Son” calls us to “come to ourselves” and return to the Father, who eagerly awaits our return. The “Sunday of the Last Judgment” reminds us that while the Lord’s mercy is immeasurable even He does not forgive those who do not repent. And, finally, on “Forgiveness Sunday” we remember Adam’s expulsion from Paradise and the proper method of fasting (don’t put on a gloomy face).
This time of Pre-Lent is also used to ease us into fasting. The week before the “Prodigal Son” is totally fast free (we eat meat, even on Friday). The following week we fast from meat on Wednesday and Friday (the “Sunday of the Last Judgment” is also known as “Meat-Fare”). During the week just prior to the Fast (“Cheese-Fare Week”) we start our abstinence from meat, but we continue to eat cheese and other dairy products. The full fast from both meat and dairy begins with the first day of Lent.
Terror seizes me when I think of the unquenchable fire,
Of the bitter worm,
the gnashing of teeth,
and soul-destroying hell;
yet I do not turn to You with true compunction.
O Lord! Lord! Before the end strengthen Your fear within me!
-- Matins, Seventh Ode, Sunday of the Last Judgment