The Great Fast Begins: The First Week and Lenten Worship

Fr. Basil Zebrun
     This Sunday night, March 13, Orthodox Christians begin their observance of Great Lent in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha (Easter).  Orthodox Easter in 2016 is later than usual: May 1.  Holy Week starts April 23 and 24 with the celebration of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.
     As they embark on their “journey to Pascha” Orthodox Christians – during the first week -- will participate in a series of services setting a tone for the days ahead.  On Sunday (March 13), after the Divine Liturgy and Fellowship Hour, members of St. Barbara’s will celebrate Forgiveness Vespers, followed immediately by a special Rite of Forgiveness.  Through this Rite each parishioner is given the opportunity to ask forgiveness of the brethren, and to offer forgiveness as well.  Thus, at the threshold of Lent we are reminded that real fasting is characterized not merely by following a set of dietary rules, but by one’s ability to love, serve and forgive his fellow man.
     During the 40 day Fast the Church overall will acquire a penitential spirit, particularly during weekdays of Lent.  According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann this spirit is conveyed through the unique Lenten worship.   He explains that, “the Lenten “atmosphere,” is brought about mainly by means of worship, by the various changes introduced during that season into the liturgical life…. Understood as a whole, they reveal and communicate the spirit of Lent, they make us see, feel, and experience that “bright sadness” which is the true message and gift of Lent.” He goes on to say that the penitential character of the Lenten services, the “bright sadness,” is necessary, “for it helps (the Christian) to deepen (his) spiritual vision, to reconsider (his) life in the light of the Orthodox teaching about man.“
      Again, the first days of the Fast set the tone, enabling the Christian to begin the process of introspection, repentance and renewal, preparing himself for the Resurrection of Christ, “the Feast of Feasts.”
     Following Forgiveness Sunday members of St. Barbara’s will observe the Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Monday through Thursday, March 14 – 17, at 7 pm.  “Written in the seventh century by one of the greatest hymn writers of the Orthodox Church, this canon is the purest expression of repentance.  The author contemplates the great history of salvation, recorded in the Old and New Testaments and applies its various images to the state of his sinful soul.  It is a... lamentation of a Christian who discovers again and again how much God has loved him, how much He has done for him and how little response came from the man.”  (Fr. Schmemann)
     “The Great Canon is sung and read twice during Lent:  in four parts at Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the first week;  and again completely on Thursday of the first week.  It is a real introduction to Lent, it sets its tone and spirit, it gives (the Christian) – from the very beginning – the true dimension of repentance.”  (Fr. Schmemann)
      In addition to the above, the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is introduced to Orthodox Christians on a daily basis, during the first week of the Fast.  Added to personal devotions, as well as to corporate worship, this prayer, “is the simplest and purest expression of repentance in all its dimensions:  desire for purification, desire for improvement, desire for a real change in relations with other people.” (Fr. Schmemann) The prayer is accompanied by prostrations after each section.  Through prostrations and making the sign of the Cross “the body participates in the effort of “breaking down” one’s pride and self-satisfaction.”  (Fr. Schmemann)
     The prayer reads:  “O Lord and Master of my life, take from the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk (Prostration);
     “But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant (Prostration);
     “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages.  Amen” (Prostration).
     Scripture reading in Church is increased as well during the Fast, starting with the first week.  Lessons are read on a daily basis from Genesis, Proverbs and Isaiah.  “These readings indicate that Lent is a time of preparation, a spiritual return to the Old Testament, which announced and prepared the coming of Christ and the inauguration in Him of a new life.  In addition, the Psalter, normally read once a week in Orthodox worship, is read twice a week during the Fast…. the Church considers the Psalms to be essential spiritual food for the Lenten Season.”  (Fr. Schmemann)
     As Orthodox Christians begin the Fast, we can also mention the beautiful Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, celebrated in Churches on Wednesdays of Lent and often on Friday as well.
We must also mention that during the next 40 + days the spirit of Lent will be expressed musically through solemn tones and melodies, as well as through dark vestments and altar coverings used throughout the Fast and Holy Week.
     And then finally, each Sunday during the Fast has a unique theme related to the season of repentance, as well as special Epistle and Gospel readings that remind the faithful that Lent is not only a time for their renewal, but was, and is, a time of final preparation for catechumens, those studying to become members of the Body of Christ.
     Great Lent is highly anticipated each year by Orthodox Christians.  We invite members and friends of St. Barbara’s to join us for the special services in the weeks ahead in our observance of the Fast as we prepare ourselves for the Cross, Tomb and Resurrection of Christ.  Please check the website Calendar and Holy Week sections for more information.