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The Sundays of Great Lent, Their Significance and Basic Rubrics


The first week of Great Lent is distinguished by its special strictness and its lengthy services. On the first four days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) the canon of St. Andrew of Crete is read at Great Compline with the refrain between each verse, "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me."

On Friday of the first week, at the Liturgy after the Prayer before the Ambo, the blessing of "koliva" (a mixture of boiled wheat with honey) takes place in memory of the holy Great Martyr St. Theodore Tyro, who granted supernatural help to Christians to help them keep the fast. In 362 A.D., the Byzantine Emperor, Julian the Apostate, ordered that the blood of sacrifices offered to idols be secretly sprinkled on the provisions for the city of Constantinople. The Great Martyr St. Theodore, who was burned alive in 306 for his confession of the Christian faith, appeared in a dream to the bishop of Constantinople, Eudoxius, and exposed the secret plot of Julian. He ordered him not to buy food for the entire week at the city market, and to instruct his flock to live on koliva.

On the first Sunday of Great Lent the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" is celebrated, which was established by the Empress Theodora in 842 A.D. in memory of the restoration of the veneration of the holy icons. At the conclusion of the Liturgy a Service of Intercession ("Moleben") is held in the center of the church before icons of the Saviour and the Theotokos, asking that the Lord confirm Orthodox Christians in the faith and bring back to the path of truth all those who have apostatized from the Church. The deacon reads the Creed solemnly and pronounces the anathemas, proclaiming that all those who have presumed to distort the true Orthodox Christian Faith are separated from the Church. He then intones "Eternal Memory" for all the reposed defenders of the Orthodox Faith, and finally, "Many Years," for all those who are living. This service is customarily done in the presence of a bishop.

On the second Sunday of Great Lent the memory of St. Gregory Palamas is celebrated. A bishop of Thessalonica who lived in the fourteenth century, he continued the battle against Western, Latin distortions of the Christian faith by teaching the importance of the deifying power of the uncreated Grace of God and preserving the true balance between immanence and transcendence with the doctrine of the relationship between the "essence" and "energies" of God. In accordance with the Orthodox Faith he taught that the ascetic endeavor of fasting and prayer, particularly the practice of the Jesus Prayer according to the teachings of the hesychastic Fathers, prepares one to receive the grace-filled light of the Lord, which is like that which shone on Mt. Tabor at the Lord's Transfiguration. In other words, if God wills, according to one's striving, one can partake of divine blessedness while still on this sinful earth. Thus the second Sunday of Great Lent has been set aside to commemorate this great Church Father, who made explicit the teaching which reveals the power of prayer and fasting.

On the third Sunday of Great Lent, during the All Night Vigil after the Great Doxology, the Holy Cross is brought forth from the Altar and placed in the center of the church for the veneration of the faithful. During the prostrations made before the Cross (which often contains a portion of the True Cross) the church chants, "Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify." This hymn is also chanted at the Liturgy instead of the Trisagion. The Church has placed this event in the middle of Great Lent in order that the recollection of the suffering and death of the Lord might inspire and strengthen those fasting for the remainder of the ascetic struggle of the fast. The Holy Cross remains out for veneration throughout the week until Friday, when, after the hours and before the beginning of the Presanctfied Liturgy, it is returned to the Altar. Thus the third Sunday and fourth week of Great Lent are termed those of the "Adoration of the Holy Cross."

On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent St. John of the Ladder is commemorated, the author of the classic ascetic text, The Ladder, in which he indicates a ladder, or succession of virtues which lead us up to the Throne of God. On Thursday of the fifth week at Matins, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is read, along with the reading of the life of St. Mary of Egypt. The commemoration of the life of St. Mary of Egypt, who formerly had been a great sinner, is intended to serve as an example of true repentance for all and convince us of the ineffable compassion of God. On Saturday of the fifth week (Matins on Friday evening) we celebrate the "Laudation of the Theotokos," which consists of the reading of the Akathist to the Theotokos. This service was initiated in Greece in gratitude to the Theotokos for her numerous deliverances of Constantinople from its enemies. The Akathist is read here for the confirmation of the faithful in their reliance upon the heavenly Mediatress, who, delivering us from visible enemies, is even more an aid to us in our battle with invisible enemies.

On the fifth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate our holy Mother Mary of Egypt. As mentioned above, the Church finds in her an image of true repentance and a source of encouragement for those engaged in spiritual endeav ors, by virtue of the example of the ineffable mercy of God shown towards her a repentant sinner.

The sixth week, which directly precedes Palm Sunday, is dedicated to the preparation of those fasting for a worthy meeting with the Lord and for the commemoration of the Passion of the Lord.

On Saturday of the sixth week the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus Christ is commemorated. This day is termed "Lazarus Saturday." During Matins the "Troparia on the Blameless" are chanted: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes..." and at the Liturgy instead of "Holy God" we chant "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia," for those catechumens who are baptized according to custom on this day.

The sixth Sunday of Great Lent is one of the twelve great feasts, in which we celebrate the solemn Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem for His voluntary Passion. This feast is also termed Palm Sunday. After the reading of the Gospel at the All Night Vigil, we do not chant "Having seen the Resurrection of Christ," but the 50th Psalm is read immediately, and after being sanctified with prayer and holy water, bundles of palms, flowers, and (in the Russian Church) pussy willows, are distributed to the faithful, who then remain standing until the end of the service holding these bundles with lit candles as a sign of the victory of life over death.

At Vespers on Palm Sunday the dismissal begins with the words, "May Christ our true God Who for our salvation went to His voluntary Passion."

Passion Week

Passion Week is the term for the last week before Pascha. It has this name because it is consecrated to the commemoration of the last days of the earthly life of the Saviour, His suffering, death on the Cross, and burial. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week are dedicated to the commemoration of the last conversations of the Lord Jesus Christ with the people and His disciples.

The specifics of the services of the first three days of Passion Week are as follows: at Matins, after the Six Psalms and the "Alleluia," we chant the troparion, "Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight ......" and after the Canon is read we chant the exapostilarion, "I behold Thy chamber, O my Saviour..." On each of these three days we serve the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with readings from the Gospels.The Gospel is also read at Matins.

Great Thursday

The service of Great Thursday is dedicated to the commemoration of the Mystical Supper, the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus Christ, the prayer of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and His betrayal by Judas.

At Matins after the Six Psalms and the "Alleluia" we chant the troparion, "When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of the feet."

The Liturgy served is that of St. Basil the Great and is combined with Vespers in commemoration of the fact that the Lord established the Mystery of Communion during the evening. Instead of the Cherubic Hymn and the communion verses, "Let our mouths be filled," we chant the hymn, "Receive me today, O Son of God, as a communicant of Thy mystical supper."

In the Moscow Cathedral of the Dormition and in the Kiev Caves Lavra on this day after the Liturgy, and in the Greek Church during Matins of Great Wednesday, there is performed the Sanctification of Chrism, which is used for the Mystery of Chrismation, and in the consecration of churches and Antiminsia.

Great Friday

The services of Great Friday are dedicated to the commemoration of the sufferings on the Cross of the Saviour, His death and burial. At Matins, which is served on the evening of Great Thursday (as all services of this week are held the night before the actual day), the Reading of the Twelve Gospels takes place in the middle of the church. These readings are selections from the four Gospels which proclaim the Passion of the Saviour, beginning with His final conversation with the disciples at the Mystical Supper, and ending with His burial in the garden by Joseph of Arimathea and the setting of the military watch over His Tomb. During the readings, the faithful stand with lit candles, which are symbols both of the glory and magnificence which the Lord did not lose during the period of His suffering, and of the ardent love we should have for our Saviour.

On Great Friday the Royal Hours are served, but Liturgy is never served, since on this day the Lord offered Himself as a sacrifice.

Vespers is served at the ninth hour of the day (3 P.M.), which is the hour of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. In this service His removal from the Cross and His burial are commemorated.

With the chanting of the troparion, "The Noble Joseph, having taken Thy most pure body down from the Tree," the clergy take up the Burial Shroud (an icon) of Christ lying in the tomb (called "Plaschanitsa" in Russian, "epitaphion" in Greek), from the Holy Table as it were, from Golgotha, and carry it from the Altar, into the center of the church, preceded by candles and incense. It is placed on a specially prepared stand that resembles a tomb, and the priests and all those present prostrate themselves before it and kiss the wounds of the Lord depicted upon it, the pierced side and the imprint of the nails in the hands and feet.

The Burial Shroud is left in the church for three days, from Friday afternoon through Saturday and until the first moments of Sunday, in commemoration of the three day entombment of Christ.

Great Saturday

The divine services of Great Saturday are dedicated to the commemoration of the time Jesus Christ remained "in the grave bodily, but in hades with Thy soul as God; in Paradise with the thief and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit wast Thou Who fillest all things O Christ, the Inexprdssible," and finally, the Resurrection of the Saviour from the grave.

At Matins on Great Saturday, after the Great Doxology, the Burial Shroud is borne out of the church by the priests, accompanied by the chanting of "Holy God," as at a normal burial service. The people all join in following it while it is carried around the church in commemoration of the descent of Christ into hell and His victory over hell and death. After it is brought back into the church, it is taken through the open Royal Gates into the Altar as a symbol that the Saviour remained inseparable from God the Father, and that with His suffering and death He again opened the gates of Paradise. During this moment the choir chants, "When the noble Joseph."

When the Burial Shroud is again placed on the tomb in the center of the church, a litany is said and the prophecy of the Prophet Ezekiel is read, concerning the resurrection of the dead. The Epistle instructs the faithful that Jesus Christ is the true Pascha for us all, and the Gospel relates how the high priest with the permission of Pilate placed a watch over the Lord's tomb and sealed it.

The Divine Liturgy on this day is later than any other day of the year and is combined with Vespers. After the Vespers Entry and the chanting of "O Gentle Light..." we begin the reading of fifteen lessons from the Old Testament, which contain all the foreshadowings and prophecies of the salvation of mankind through the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

After these readings and the Epistle reading, the forefeast of the Resurrection of Christ begins. The choir begins to chant slowly "Arise, O God, judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations..," while in the Altar and throughout the church, the black vestments are replaced with white ones. This change is a symbol of the event in which the Myrrhbearers, early in the morning "while it was still dark," saw before the tomb of Christ the angel in radiant vestments and heard from him the joyful proclamation of the Resurrection of Christ.

The deacon, now clad in bright vestments like an angel, goes out into the center of the church and before the Burial Shroud reads the Gospel which proclaims to mankind the Resurrection of Christ.

The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great then continues in its usual order. Instead of the Cherubic Hymn we chant the following, "Let all mortal flesh keep silence," and instead of "It is truly meet..." we chant, "Weep not for Me, O Mother, beholding in the tomb Thy Son..." The communion verse chanted is, "The Lord awoke as one that sleepeth and is risen, saving us."

Following the Liturgy there is a blessing of bread and wine for the nourishment of those praying. A few hours later the reading of the Acts of the Apostles begins in the Church and continues until the beginning of the Midnight Office.

An hour before midnight the Midnight Office is served during which the Canon of Great Saturday is read. At the end of this service the priests silently take the Burial Shroud from the center of the church and into the Altar through the Royal Gates and place it upon the Altar Table, where it remains until the Ascension of the Lord, in commemoration of the forty day abiding of Jesus Christ on the earth after His Resurrection from the dead.

The faithful now reverently await the hour of midnight when the radiant, Paschal joy of the greatest feast, the Resurrection of the Lord our Saviour Jesus Christ begins.

This paschal joy is a sacred rejoicing of which there is no likeness nor equal on earth. It is the endless joy and blessedness of eternal life. It is of this joy that the Lord spoke when He said, "Your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you" (John 16:22).

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