Great Lent is the most important and most ancient of the
fasts which extend over more that one day. It reminds us of the forty-day fast
of the Saviour in the wilderness, and prepares us for Passion Week and for the
joyous Feast of Feasts, the radiant Resurrection of Christ.
The Holy and Great Fast is a time for special
prayer and repentance during which each of us should beseech the Lord for
forgiveness of sins through Confession and preparation for Communion, and then
worthily partake the Holy Mysteries of Christ in accordance with the
commandment of Christ (John 6:53-56).
During the Old Testament period the Lord commanded
the sons of Israel to give each year a tithe (one tenth) of all that they
possessed, and when they did so they received blessing in all their affairs.
In like manner the Holy Fathers established for
our benefit that a tenth of the year, the period of Great Lent, be consecrated
to God, so that we might be blessed in all our affairs and each year purify
ourselves of our sins which we have committed during the course of the year.
Great Lent then serves as the God-ordained tenth
of the year, for it equals approximately thirty-six days, excluding Sundays,
during which we separate ourselves for a time from the distractions of life and
all its possible enjoyments, and dedicate ourselves primarily to the service of
God unto the salvation of our souls.
Great Lent is preceded by three preparatory
Sundays. The first preparatory Sunday of Great Lent is termed the "Sunday
of the Publican and Pharisee." This Sundayís Gospel parable of the
Publican and the Pharisee is read in order to demonstrate that only prayer with
heartfelt tears and humility, like those of the publican, and not with a
recounting of oneís virtues like the pharisee, can call down upon us the mercy
of God. Starting with this Sunday and continuing until the fifth Sunday of
Great Lent, following the reading of the Gospel, during the All-night Vigil,
the contrite prayer is chanted, "The doors of repentance do Thou open to
me, O Giver of Life..."
The second preparatory Sunday of Great Lent is
termed the "Sunday of the Prodigal Son." In the touching parable of
the Prodigal Son read during Liturgy, the HolyChurch teaches us to rely on the mercy of God, provided we have
sincerely repented of our sins. On this Sunday and the succeeding two Sundays,
during the Polyeleos at the All-night Vigil, Psalm 136 is chanted: By the
waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion...
This psalm describes the suffering of the Jews during the Babylonian captivity
and their longing for their fatherland. The words of this psalm teach us about
our spiritual captivity, the captivity to sin, and that we should aspire
towards our spiritual fatherland, the HeavenlyKingdom.
The final words of this psalm scandalize many with
reference to Blessed shall be he who shall seize and dash thine infants (those
of the Babylonians) against the rock! Of course, the literal meaning of these
words is brutal and unacceptable for the Christian, for the Lord Himself taught
us to love and bless our enemies and to worship God in spirit and truth. These
words gain a pure and lofty significance with a Christian and spiritual nature,
for they mean, "Blessed is he who has a firm resolve to break, on the rock
of faith, the newly forming evil thoughts and desires (as it were in their infant
state) before they mature into evil deeds and habits."
The third preparatory Sunday before Great Lent is
called "Meat-fare Sunday," because after this Sunday, of non-fasting
foods, one is allowed to eat cheese, milk, butter, and eggs, but no meat or
poultry. This Sunday is also termed the "The Sunday of the Last
Judgement," as the Gospel passage concerning the Dread Judgement is read,
describing the final reward or punishment awaiting us, and thereby awakening
the sinner to repentance. In the hymns on Cheese-fare Sunday, the fall into sin
of Adam and Eve is recalled, which resulted from lack of self-control and
fasting, with their salvific fruits.
The last Sunday before Great Lent is termed
"Cheese-fare Sunday," because it is the last day on which one can eat
cheese, butter and eggs. During the Liturgy we hear the Gospel reading (Matt. -21) concerning the forgiveness of our fellow man for his
offenses against us, without which we cannot receive the forgiveness of our
sins from the Heavenly Father. In accordance with this Gospel reading,
Christians have the pious custom on this day of forgiving each other their
sins, both known and unknown, and those who have a quarrel with someone
undertake every effort to be reconciled. Therefore this Sunday is also termed
The general characteristics of the divine services
during Great Lent consist of prolonged services of a less exultant character.
There is less chanting, longer readings from the Psalter and additional
prayers, which dispose the soul towards repentance. At every service full
prostrations are done during the penitential prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian,
"O Lord and Master of my life..."
During the morning hours, Matins, the Hours with
certain insertions, and Vespers are served. In the evening, Great Compline is
served instead of Vespers. On Wednesdays and Fridays the Liturgy of the
Presanctified Gifts is celebrated. On Saturdays the Liturgy of St. John of
Chrysostom is celebrated and on the first five Sundays the Liturgy the St.
Basil the Great, which is also celebrated on Great Thursday and Great Saturday
of Passion Week.
During Great Lent each Sunday is dedicated to the
commemoration of a special event or person which calls the sinful soul to
repentance and hope in the mercy of God.