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SUNDAYS OF PREPARATION
Three weeks before Lent proper begins we enter into a period of pre-Lenten preparation. It is a constant feature of the Orthodox tradition of worship that every major liturgical event -(Christmas, Easter, Lent)-is announced and prepared in advance. Knowing our lack of concentration, the "worldliness" of our life, the Church calls our attention to the seriousness of the approaching event, invites us to meditate on its significance. Thus, before we can practice Lent, we are given its meaning.
This preparation includes four consecutive Sundays preceding Lent, each one of them dedicated to some fundamental aspect of repentance.
1. Humility (Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee)
On the eve of this day (i.e. on Saturday at Vespers) the liturgical book of the Lenten season-the Triodion makes its first appearance and texts from it are added to the usual liturgical material of the weekly Resurrection service. They develop the first major theme of repentance: humility.
The Gospel lesson (Luke 18:10-14) teaches us that humility is the condition of repentance. The parable of the Publican and Pharisee pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is proud of himself and self-assured. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he gives to the temple. Religion is for him a source of self-admiration. The Publican humbles himself and humility justifies him before God.
"Let us avoid the high-flown speech of the Pharisee"-says the Kontakion of the day- "and learn the majesty of the Publican's humble words."
2. Return to the Father (Sunday of the Prodigal Son)
The Gospel reading of this day (Luke 15:11-32) gives us the second theme of Lent and repentance: that of the return to God. It is not enough to acknowledge sins and to confess them. Repentance remains fruitless without the desire and decision to change life, to go back to God, to begin the movement of ascension and purification. We must realize that we have lost our spiritual beauty and purity and we must want to recover them: "... I shall return to the compassionate Father crying with tears: Receive me as one of Thy servants." At Matins we sing Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion ... If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." The Christian remembers and knows that he has lost communion with God, the peace and the joy of His Kingdom, the purity of the new life. For he was baptized, introduced into the Body of Christ, but his sins have driven him away from God. Repentance, therefore, is this desire to return to God, a movement of love and trust:
"I have wickedly strayed away from Thy Fatherly glory, and wasted the riches Thou gavest me among sinners. Then do I raise the prodigal's cry unto Thee, O Bountiful Father, I have sinned against Thee: take me back as a penitent, and make me as one of thy hired servants ..."
(Kontakion of the day)
3. The Last Judgment (Meat Fare Sunday)
On Meat Fare Saturday (preceding this Sunday) the Church prescribes the universal commemoration of all her departed members. The Church is unity and love in Christ. We all depend on each other, belong to each other, are united by the love of Christ. Our repentance, therefore, would not be complete without an act of love towards all those who have departed this life before us. Repentance is primarily the recovery of the spirit of love: "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Liturgically this commemoration includes Vespers on Friday, Matins and Divine Liturgy on Saturday.
The Sunday Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46) reminds us of the third theme of repentance: preparation for Divine Judgment. A Christian lives under Christ's judgment. This means that we must refer our actions, attitudes, judgments to Christ, to His presence in the world, that we must see Christ in our fellow men. For "inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it to Me..." The parable of the Last Judgment gives us the "terms of reference" for our self-evaluation as Christians.
On the week following Meat Fare Sunday a limited fasting is prescribed. We must train and prepare ourselves for the great effort of Lent. On Wednesday and Friday the Divine Liturgy is not served and the type of worship is already Lenten. On Cheese-Fare Saturday the Church commemorates all men and women who were "illumined through fasting"-the Holy Ascetics and Fosters. They are the patterns we must follow, our guides in the difficult art of fasting and repentance.
4. Forgiveness (Cheese Fare Sunday)
(a) "the expulsion of Adam from the paradise of bliss." Man was created for paradise-for knowledge of God and communion with Him. His sins have deprived him of this blessed life and his existence on earth is an exile. Christ, the God-man, opens the doors of Paradise to every one who follows Him and the Church is our guide to the heavenly fatherland.
(b) Our fast must not be hypocritical, a show off. We must "appear not unto men to fast, but unto our Father who is in secret" (cf. Sunday lesson from Matthew: 6:14-21).
(c) The condition for such real fasting is that we forgive each other as God forgives us -"If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you ..."
On the evening of this day, at Vespers, Lent is inaugurated with the Great Prokimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily. Attend to my soul and deliver it." At the end of the service the faithful ask forgiveness from one another and the Church begins her pilgrimage towards the joyful and glorious day of Easter.