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A Brief Survey of the Particulars of the Divine Services of the Yearly Cycle


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 divine services.

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 the year.

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

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 Heavenly Kingdom.

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 Sunday."

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.

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