Sunday, March 16, 2014
The Sundays of Great Lent
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, Eudox-ius, 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 endeavors, 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 Chris i," 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,...