Our Lenten Journey

by Fr Patrick Tishel

The Christian life is serious; it's not lived according to whims, but as a witness of one's life in and before the Almighty God and the vastness of Reality. It is no less serious than walking a narrow path over a fathomless precipice; nor is it any less significant. Life in Christ is a doorway to wonder, meaning, the stunningness of life, and it is ultimately seen in nature, as life and death, salvation, or loss of salvation.

The central jewel set in the year of worship is Pascha, and the way to it,  Great Lent. What can describe the depth of meaning and beauty? Representatives from 'Rus', a country which possessed a culture rich in shadowy myths but unenlightened by Christ, visited Constantinople at its Orthodox Christian height and were vouchsafed a glimpse of the prayer life of the Church, and exclaimed that when they entered the Temple with the sound of the chants, the incense and candles burning, and the prayerful movements of the people, they felt they had entered Heaven itself.

Isn't this the idea? The salvation of Christ reunites body, mind, soul, with the Eternal Realm; and not just mentally but on the level of our being.

Why do we labor during Great Lent? Why must we fast and pray? Nothing will happen by mere outer compliance. God made us in a god-like manner, with a will, with desire, with intellect. A person's will has to be stirred, our desire, our understanding-knowing what we seek. We want Christ, we want to give of ourselves but we find ourselves imprisoned in selfish, destructive habits. Great Lent offers a way to overcome them. Great Lent is a treasure of the Church; a jubilee from the passions that tie us in knots, and the way to the threshold of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Weeks of Preparation For Lent

Lent is a time of penance, and as penance requires a sense of one's unworthiness, hope in the mercy of the Lord, fear of judgment and a readiness to forgive others, all these feelings must be aroused in us before the beginning of Lent.

Four Sundays before Lent, the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is read, and in the Matins hymns the meaning of it is explained; it is a lesson of humility. From this Sunday (called "the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee") all the way through the Sunday in the fifth week of Lent (the Sunday before Palm Sunday), the hymns take on a penitential tone, inculcating humility. Besides this, that we may be taught still more clearly not to become proud and boast of fulfilling the law-as the Pharisee of the parable boasted of keeping the fasts-the fast of Wednesday and Friday is remitted for the following week.

On the following Sunday, during the Liturgy, the parable of the Prodigal Son is read, which teaches us, having repented of our sins, not to despair of our salvation, but to trust in the mercy of the Lord, our Heavenly Father. This Sunday is called, "the Sunday of the Prodigal Son." The essence of the hymns of the day is expressed in the Psalm: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion." This Psalm is sung at Matins after the Polyeleos (The Hymn of Many Mercies).

On the Sunday following that of the Prodigal Son, the Lesson from the Gospel is on the Day of Judgment; that we, in trusting to God's mercy, may not forget His justice and may not lapse into carelessness. This Sunday is called "the Sunday of the Meat Fare," because with it ends the eating of meat. On the day before-Saturday-the Church commemorated (i.e. prayed for) all our deceased Forefathers, fathers, mothers and brethren. From the time of death repentance can no longer be reached, and who can obtain the mercy of God without the prayers of the living? The Matins service on this Saturday consists mostly of prayers for the rest of their souls.

This Sunday is followed by  "Cheese Fare Week," which serves as the vestibule to Lent. It has received this name because, all throughout the week, the use of butter, cheese and eggs is allowed. In all the hymns of this week the Fall of Adam is referred to, and it is shown that it was caused by intemperance. On Wednesday and Friday of this week there is no Liturgy, but only a Lenten service. The last day of the week, Sunday, is called, "The Sunday of Cheese Fare," because with it ends the eating of butter, cheese, and eggs. The Gospel Lesson, at the Liturgy of the day, commands us to forgive one another's sins. This is why Christians on this day ask one another's forgiveness for mutual offenses, and make efforts to become mutually reconciled. Hence the day is called "the Day of Forgiveness" or "Forgiveness Sunday."

Peculiarities of Lenten Services

The general feature of Lenten services is their increased duration with lessened splendor; in particular a limited number of joyful and triumphal hymns, subdued light, less frequent drawing away of the curtain and opening of the Royal Doors. Most of the services are performed with the Royal Doors closed and consist of the reading of Psalms and penitential prayers, listened to while kneeling and with frequent prostrations. At every service the penitential prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is recited with prostrations: "O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking give me not, but rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant. Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen."

The Liturgy being a joyful, triumphal service is celebrated during Lent only on Saturdays and Sundays. Yet, in order that Christians may not be deprived for long of the privilege of partaking of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Church has permitted communion to be given out on certain days at Vespers using Pre-sanctified Gifts (gifts that have been sanctified during the Divine Liturgy of the previous Sunday). Such a Vespers service, at which the faithful may receive communion, is called, "the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified," also the Liturgy of Gregory the Great, because the ritual of it was written down by the Roman Patriarch, St. Gregory the Great.

There is a special combination of services prescribed for Lent. The evening service consists of Compline; the morning service of Matins and the First Hour; the noon service of the Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours, Typica, and of Vespers, combined on certain days with the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified.

Lenten Hours

The peculiarity of the offices of the Hours in Lent are as followings:

At every hour:

    1. After the Three Psalms, the Kathisma (Psalter readings) are read,

    2. In the place of the troparia for the day, special troparia are read, indicating the events commemorated in the service for the given Hour,

    3. Before the concluding prayer of the Hour, the penitential prayer of St. Ephraim is recited, with prostrations.

      The Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts

      The Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified is celebrated on those days of Lent when the contrition proper to the season does not allow for the triumphal gladness conveyed by the full Liturgy, yet the memories of the day demand the comfort of the Communion Sacrament. Such days are the Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, the first three days of Holy Week, and all the days on which falls the feast of some major saint. At this Liturgy the Gifts are not consecrated, but the faithful who receive communion partake of the Gifts which have been consecrated at the preceding Liturgy of St. Basil the Great or St. John Chrysostom (from Sunday), and preserved in an ark on the altar.

      © 2008 Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, Allston, MA