After the creation of the world, God consecrated
the seventh day for divine worship on earth (Gen. 2:3) and subsequently,
through the Law granted to Moses on Sinai, this service was extended to include
every day, for He commanded that daily, the morning and evening are to be
consecrated by offering sacrifices to God.
Jesus Christ, when He came to earth to fulfill the
will of the Heavenly Father, and the Holy Apostles, as the select disciples of
the Lord, by their example and teachings, demonstrated to the faithful the
utmost importance and necessity of establishing and preserving days of general
Since apostolic times the Orthodox Church in her
daily divine services has united various sacred commemorations unto the glory
of God from which have developed the various daily services in the course of
On each day in the Holy Church's year, in addition
to the weekly cycle, the memory of one or several saints is celebrated.
Definite days of the year are dedicated to either the commemoration of
particular events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, or from
the history of the Christian Church, or in honor of various saints. In
addition, fasts of either a single day or several consecutive days have been
ordained throughout the course of the year, and several days are set aside for
the remembrance of the reposed. In accordance with these sacred days of the
year special hymns and prayers have been composed and rituals established which
are combined with the prayers and hymns of the weekdays. The greatest changes
in the divine services occur on the days of great feasts and fasts.
The days of general remembrance of the reposed,
which are termed "ancestor (soul) days," are as follows: the Saturday
before Meat-fare Sunday, the Saturdays of the second, third and fourth weeks of
Great Lent, the Saturday before the feast of the Holy Trinity (Pentecost) and
the Tuesday after Thomas Sunday.
In addition, the Russian Orthodox Church has
ordained that Orthodox soldiers killed on the field of battle be remembered on
the Saturday before the feast of St. Demetrios of Thessalonica (Oct. 26) and on
the day of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (Aug. 29).
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 Sunday's 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 one's 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 Holy Church 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
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 "Meatfare 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.
6:14-21) 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 "Forgiveness
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
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.
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