Great Lent – Its Meaning For Orthodox Christians (Page 3 of 4)

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By: Fr. Alexander Schmemann
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The Great Lent consists of six weeks or forty days. It begins on Monday after Cheese Fare Sunday and ends on Friday evening before Palm Sunday. The Saturday of Lazarus’ Resurrection, Palm Sunday and the Holy Week form a special liturgical cycle with which we shall deal in a special pamphlet.

The meaning and the spirit of the Great Lent find their first and most important expression in worship. Not only individuals but the whole Church acquires a penitential spirit, and the beautiful Lenten services more than anything else help us to deepen our spiritual vision, to reconsider our life in the light of the Orthodox teaching about man. We shall briefly analyze the most important of the liturgical particularities of Lent.

1. The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

The Lent begins with the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. Written in the seventh century by one of the greatest hymn-writers of the Orthodox Church, this canon is the purest expression of repentance. The author contemplates the great history of salvation, recorded in the Old and the New Testaments and applies its various images to the state of his sinful soul. It is a long, pathetic lamentation of a Christian who discovers again and again how much God has loved him, how much He has done for him and how little response came from the man:

“How shall I begin to deplore the deeds of my miserable life?
What beginning shall I make, O Christ, to this lament?
But since Thou art compassionate, grant me remission of my trespasses.”

“Like as the potter gives life to his clay, Thou hast bestowed upon me Flesh and bones, breath and life;
Today, O my Creator, my Redeemer and My Judge, Receive me a penitent…”

“I have lost my first made beauty and dignity,
And now I lie naked and covered with shame…”

And to each one of these troparia the congregation answers: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”

The Great Canon is sung and read twice during Lent: in four parts at Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the first week; and again completely at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week. It is a real introduction to Lent, it sets its tone and spirit, it gives us-from the very beginning- the true dimension of repentance.

2. The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

On weekdays of Lent this prayer is read twice at the end of each service: first, with a prostration after each of its petitions, then with one final prostration. Here is the text:

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.” Prostration.

“But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.” Prostration.

“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.” Prostration.

Then all bow twelve times saying: “O God cleanse me, a sinner.”

And the whole prayer is read again, with one prostration at the end.

This prayer, constantly repeated throughout the services, is the simplest and purest expression of repentance in all its dimensions: desire for purification, desire for improvement, desire for a real change in relations with other people. The Lenten rules of the Orthodox Church pay great attention to prostrations: through them the body participates in the effort of “breaking down” our pride and self-satisfaction.

3. Biblical Readings

A characteristic feature of Lenten services is the use of the Old Testament, normally absent from the daily cycle of worship. Lessons from three books of the Bible are read daily throughout Lent: Genesis and Proverbs at Vespers, Isaiah at the Sixth Hour. These readings indicate that Lent is a time of preparation, a spiritual return to the Old Testament, which announced and prepared the coming of Christ and the inauguration in Him of a new life. The book of Genesis tells us the story of Creation, Fall and the beginnings of the history of salvation. Proverbs teach us the Wisdom of God as revealed to man and leading him to repentance and renewal. Finally, Isaiah is the great prophet of Redemption and Salvation, the announcer of the Kingdom of God.

4. The Lenten Hymns

The liturgical book of Lent is the Triodion. Besides the biblical readings, it contains special Lenten hymns to be sung every day at Matins and Vespers. Of a special beauty are the “idiomela” of St. Theodore of Stoudion, short penitential hymns, one sung at Matins and one at Vespers, which more than anything else express the Lenten spirituality of the Orthodox Church. Here are a few examples:

“Let us begin, O people the spotless fast, for it is the salvation of our souls.
Let us make our devotion to the Lord in fear, anointing our heads with the oil of good works and washing our faces with pure water,
Not many worded in prayer, but saying as we have been taught to say.
Our Father Who art in heaven! Forgive us our trespasses,
For Thou art the lover of mankind.”

(Tuesday Matins, First Week)

“O come ye faithful, let us work the works of God in light,
Let us walk honestly as in the day, let us cast away from ourselves every unjust writing against our neighbor, and not put a stumbling block as an occasion for his falling on the way;
Let us put away the pleasures of the flesh;
Let us increase the graces of our souls;
Let us give bread to those in need; Let us draw near to Christ in penitence, crying out:
“Have mercy on us, O our God!”

(Friday Vespers, First Week)

“Why art thou idle, O my soul? And why dost thou dedicate thyself to sin?
Why art thou weak yet not come to the physician?
Now is the fruitful time, and now is the real day of salvation.
Arise! Wash thyself in the tears of repentance and enlighten thy lamp with the oil of good works,
That thou mayest obtain from God forgiveness and great mercy.”

(Tuesday Matins, Second Week)

“Arriving midway on that road of fasting which leads to Thy venerable cross,
And hoping for a glimpse of that day when Abraham caught up Isaac from the grave
We entreat Thee to make us partakers of Thy mystical supper
Who are saved by faith and cry out to Thee:
O our Light and our Saviour, glory to Thee.”

(Wednesday Matins, Fourth Week)

The Triodion unfortunately has not yet been translated into English. Its wonderful riches are still hidden: short three-ode canons (hence the name “Triodion”), kathismata (stanzas sung after the psalms), hymns to the Holy Trinity, etc. Of all the liturgical books it is one of the most inspiring, most directly connected with the spiritual needs of man.

5. The Psalter

The Psalms occupy a very central position in Orthodox worship. But in Lent the use of the psalter is doubled. Normally it is read once every week; during Lent it is read twice. Of course this is done mainly in monasteries, yet it is important to know that the Church considers the psalms to be an essential spiritual food for the Lenten season.

6. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

On weekdays of Lent (Monday through Friday) the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is strictly forbidden. They are non-liturgical days (with one possible exception, the Feast of Annunciation). The reason for this rule is that the Eucharist is by its very nature a festal celebration, the joyful commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection and glorification and His presence among His disciples. But twice a week, on Wednesday and Fridays, the Church prescribes he celebration after Vespers, i.e., in the evening, of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It consists of solemn Great Vespers and communion with the Holy Gifts consecrated on the previous Sunday. These days being days of strict fating (theoretically: complete abstinence), are crowned” with the partaking of the Bread of life, the ultimate fulfillment of our efforts . . .

“… When Thou has freed us and Thy faithful people from all impurities, sanctify the souls and bodies of all of us with a sanctification not to be taken away; that with a clear conscience, peaceful presence and enlightened hearts we may participate in those divine Sacraments, and be quickened through them and become one with Thy Christ Himself, our true God, Who said: Who so eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood, abides in Me and I in Him. So that by Thy Word dwelling in us and walking with us we may become, O Lord, a temple of Thine all-holy and adored spirit…”

(Prayer at the Presanctified Liturgy)

7. Liturgical Music and Vestments

The spirit of Lent is also expressed in the liturgical music. Special lenten tones and melodies are used for responses at litanies, for the “Alleluias” and the hymns of the Presanctified Liturgy. Slow, deep and solemn, these melodies provoke in us a longing for purity, and also the sadness for not living up to the “pristine beauty” for which we were created.. .
And finally, as an external symbol of this state of repentance, preparation and humility, dark purple vestments are used in the Church.

8. Saturdays and Sundays of Lent

Lenten Saturdays, with the exception of the first, dedicated to the memory of the Holy Martyr Theodore Tyron, and the fifth, the Saturday of the Akathistos, are days of commemoration of the departed. And it would be good o restore this practice of one weekly universal commemoration of all Orthodox Christians departed this life, of their integration in the Eucharist which is always offered “on behalf of ill and for all.”

Each Sunday in Lent, although it preserves ts basic meaning: that of the weekly feast of Resurrection, has its own special theme:

The First Sunday-Triumph of Orthodoxy– commemorates the victory of the Church over he last major heresy: Icorioclasm (842).

The second Sunday is dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas, a great Byzantine mystic and theologian of the 14th century, who centered his teaching on the high calling of man, on his “deification” in Christ.

The third Sunday is the Sunday “of the Veneration of the Holy Cross.” At Matins the Cross is brought in a solemn procession from the sanctuary and placed in the center of the Church, where it remains for the whole week, ‘his rite announces the approaching of the Holy Week, with its commemoration of Christ’s Passion. A special veneration of the Cross takes place at the end of each service.

Fourth Sunday-St. John of the Ladder, one of the greatest Ascetics, who in his “Spiritual Ladder” described the various stages of spiritual life.

Fifth Sunday-St. Mary of Egypt, whose life is a most wonderful example of repentance.

On Saturdays and Sundays, days of Eucharistic celebration, the dark vestments are replaced by light ones, the Lenten melodies are not sung and the prayer of St. Ephrem with prostrations is omitted. The order of services is not of the Lenten type, yet fasting remains a rule and cannot be broken. Each Sunday night at Great Vespers a special Great Prokimenon (verses from a psalm) inaugurates a new week in the penitential effort.

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