The Sundays of Great Lent

"A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the "bright sadness" of Lent, we see-far, far away- the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent's sadness bright and our lenten effort a "spiritual spring." The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. "Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man!" (fr. Alexander Schmemann)

The Great and Holy Lent (Megalé Sarakosté) comprises nearly 6 full weeks, actually 40 days, which precede the Great and Holy Week. It starts on a Monday, known as the Clean Monday (Kathara Deutera) and is terminated on a Saturday, known as Lazarus Saturday (the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week). The 40 days of Lent include the 5 Sundays that precede the Great and Holy Week.

The Western Church counts the 40 days of Lent differently. She includes the Great and Holy Week, and subtracts all the Sundays that precede the Sunday of Pascha. This is why, for Roman Catholics and other Western Christians, Lent begins on a Wednesday, indeed the Wednesday of the 7th Week before Pascha.

Triodion: Pre-Lenten Period

The pre-Lenten period known as the Triodion refers to the three Sundays preceding Great Lent. (There is also a service book, called the Triodion, which is used throughout Lent). This period prepares us by teaching lessons of humility and prayer through the Gospel readings which are: Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14), Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).

The focus on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee is on the two men who went into a temple to pray, one prideful and the other huble. It teaches us to look at ourselves before judging others.

The Prodigal Son tells about loving forgiveness and shows how we are sorry for our wrongdoings or sins and want to do better. This is a good story to think about when we go to confession.

The Sunday of the Last Judgment teaches how Jesus will separate the good from the evil (sheep from the goats). We need to remember to feed the hungry, visit the sick and many other good works (Matthew 25:35-36).

Take up your Cross

Great Lent is much more than giving things up that we like (like chocolate, soft drinks, potato chips, etc.). Inasmuch as the Fast prepares us for the Feast of Christ's Resurrection, it also helps prepare us for our own death and resur!rection as well as the great Day of Judgment because self-denial is the beginning of the Christian life. Our Lord instructed his disciples: "If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). To follow Christ is to practice self-denial. In fact, we cannot follow Him or take up our cross unless we first deny ourself. It is so obvious, and yet so difficult. We cannot do whatever we want and still follow Christ. Great Lent enables us to get a grasp on this and realise the need of self-denial and discipline in our lives.

Great Lent and Catechumens

Great Lent was an important time of preparation and education for those waiting to be baptized on Holy Saturday. Lent was the final intensive period of education (catechesis) before being initiated into the Christian community through baptism. Those preparing for this would fast and pray for a period of time before their baptism. It appears that the Church, in their support for the catechumens, would join with them in this time of fasting and prayer.

Forgiveness Sunday

On Forgiveness Sunday, which is the day before the beginning of Great Lent (Clean Monday), Vespers is celebrated in the evening. At the end of the service, the congregation approach the priest and one another asking for forgiveness. We enter the season of Great Lent, which liturgically begins after the prokeimenon, forgiving one another so God will forgive us. After the prokeimenon (Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!), Great Lent officially begins.

It is important to remember that God loves us and forgives us our wrongs when we are sorry. We also must forgive those who are sorry they have hurt us.

On Forgiveness Sunday we remember the exile of Adam, the first-created man, and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Our Holy Fathers appointed this commemoration before the Holy Fast, as if to show in actual fact how beneficial the medicine of fasting is to human nature, and also how great is the shame of gluttony and disobedience. Passing over all the individual sins committed in the world on account of him, as being without number, the Fathers set forth how much evil Adam, the first-formed man, suffered from not fasting even for a brief time, and how much evil he thereby brought upon our race, clearly pointing out also that the virtue of fasting was the first commandment that God gave to mankind. Not keeping this commandment, but yielding to his belly, or rather, through Eve, to the deceitful serpent, Adam not only did not become God, but also incurred death and transmitted corruption to the whole human race.

Because of the self-indulgence of the first Adam, the Lord fasted for forty days and was obedient. For this reason, the present Holy Fast was designed by the Holy Apostles, in order that we might enjoy incorruption, through fasting, by keeping the commandment which he did not keep, thereby suffering the loss of incorruption. Furthermore, as we said previously, the aim of the Saints is to encompass in brief the works wrought by God from the beginning to the end. Since Adam’s transgression and his expulsion from the Paradise of delight were the cause of all our woes, for this reason they now set this transgression before us, so that, remembering it, we might avoid it and not in any way emulate his incontinence.

Sunday of Orthodoxy

On the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Church celebrates the restoration of the icons to the church. This day is called Sunday of Orthodoxy. Over a thousand years ago, there was an emperor (Leo the Isaurian, 717-741 AD) who made a law against icons. He said it was wrong to have them or to venerate them. He ordered that all icons be removed from churches, buildings and even people’s homes. Christians, mostly monks, were put in prison and even killed because they kept icons.

Many years later, a new empress named Irene understood about icons. She knew that they helped people worship God. She knew that the people did not worship the icon itself. She called a special meeting called a council. They decided that people could venerate icons. But people still fought about icons. The emperors after Irene ordered icons to be destroyed. It wasn’t until many years later that a new empress, Theodora, ordered the return of all the icons to the churches. The icons were carried through the streets and brought back to the main church.

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy, of true faith, which trampled down all heresies and was established. For this reason this Sunday is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Heresies showed up even at the very beginning of Christianity. The Apostles of Christ themselves warned their contemporaries, and with them us too, about the danger of false teachers.

We should know that the new heresies are not saying anything new but repeating what the old heretics have already said. All of these heresies were anathematised by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. So the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils are enough for us, especially the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This is why we rejoice today and celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which was expressed and fixed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

On Sunday of Orthodoxy, at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, a service is conducted in commemoration of the affirmations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 and the restoration of the use of icons in 843. Orthodox faithful carry icons in a procession, while the clergy offer petitions for the people, civil authorities, and those who have reposed in the faith. Following is a reading of excerpts from the Affirmation of Faith of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the singing of the Great Prokeimenon.

The name of this Sunday reflects the great significance which icons possess for the Orthodox Church. They are not optional devotional extras, but an integral part of Orthodox faith and devotion. They are held to be a necessary consequence of Christian faith in the incarnation of the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Jesus Christ. They have a sacramental character, making present to the believer the person or event depicted on them. So the interior of Orthodox churches is often covered with icons painted on walls and domed roofs, and there is always an icon screen, or iconostasis, separating the sanctuary from the nave, often with several rows of icons. No Orthodox home is complete without an icon corner, where the family prays.

Icons are venerated by burning lamps and candles in front of them, by the use of incense and by kissing. But there is a clear doctrinal distinction between the veneration paid to icons and the worship due to God. The former is not only relative, it is in fact paid to the person represented by the icon. This distinction safeguards the veneration of icons from any charge of idolatry.

Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas

The second Sunday of Lent is named for Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica. Saint Gregory Palamas, taught that by prayer and fasting and through the grace of God in the Holy Spirit, we could become divine or godlike. We can be bearers of the light of Christ.

The situation in St.Gregory's time was that Orthodoxy was being debased; it was becoming wordily and being changed into either pantheism or agnosticism. Pantheism believed and taught that God in his essence was to be found in all nature, and so when we look at nature we can acquire knowledge of God. Agnosticism believed and taught that it was utterly impossible for us to know God, just because He is God and man is limited, and therefore man was completely incapable of attaining a real knowledge of God.

In the face of this great danger St.Gregory Palamas developed the fundamental teaching of the Church concerning the great mystery of the indivisible distinction between the essence and energy of God.

All spiritual life is a result and fruit of the energy of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the saint taught, we cannot participate in God's essence, but we can know and participate in His uncreated energies. In this way St.Gregory preserves the true teaching of the Church. The common mind of the Church recognises St.Gregory Palamas as a great Father of the Church, an Ecumenical teacher, and includes him with the great Theologians of the Church.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Mark 2:1!12, the healing of the paralytic. In Capernaum, Jesus heals a paralytic by saying “Your sins are forgiven”. When the scribes are shocked that anyone but God can forgive sins, Jesus replies by asking, “What is easier to say: thy sins are forgiven or arise and take up thy bed and walk?” He then says to the paralytic, “Arise, take up thy bed and walk.” The focus of this Gospel is not only physical healing but spiritual healing as well.

Sunday of the Holy Cross

On the third Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the Veneration of the Cross in a way that is similar to the Elevation of the Cross (celebrated September 14). The Veneration of the Cross marks the mid-point of Great Lent and is meant to encourage the faithful to continue their Lenten struggle. The remembrance of the Cross on the third Sunday of Lent focuses on faith and reverence. It helps us to understand the place of the cross in the history of our salvation and to encourage us and prepare us for the “Cross of Holy Friday”. The Gospel reading is Mark 8:34-38, 9:1, which tells us take up our cross and follow Christ. This is the same Gospel reading used on the Sunday following the Elevation of the Cross. During a procession around the church, the cross is held high on a tray of flowers as the choir sings the hymn: “Before thy cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and thy holy Resurrection, we glorify”

"By the power of Thy Cross, O Christ our God, protect us from the assaults of the Evil One, and vouchsafe us, having passed through the arena of the forty days with ease, to venerate Thy Divine Passion and Thy Life-Bearing Resurrection and have mercy on us, for Thou alone art good and loves mankind."

Sunday of Saint John of the Ladder

The fourth Sunday of Lent is named for Saint John of the Ladder (also called Saint John Climacus) is a church father who lived in the 7th century. He realized in his own life the ideal of penitence (feeling sorry for what we have done wrong and having the desire or will to change one’s way). Saint John got his name from a book he wrote called “The Ladder of Perfection”, in which he gives spiritual directions to help us “climb” spiritually.

In the Church services for the fourth Sunday the Holy Church offers us a great example of the life of fasting in the person of the Venerable John of the Ladder, who, "having overcome the flesh through fasting" and "by the sweat of his ascetic efforts quenched the fiery arrows of the enemy" and "renewed the strength of souls" and, "ascending to the height of virtues", "received in his soul the divine wealth of the Spirit, undefiled prayer, chastity, modesty, continouous vigil", "was deified through heavenly glory", "was revealed as a physician to those sick through sin" and was the author of the Ladder of Paradise. According to the expression of the Holy Church, how the profoundly granted ascetic life of the Venerable John "gives us a pleasure sweeter than honey", and so his Ladder "brings to us the ever flowering fruits of his teaching, pleasing the heart with vigilant heeding: for souls are rising up the ladder from earth to heaven and abiding in glory".

The memory of Saint John of the Ladder is celebrated on the 30th of March; but it is also celebrated today, perhaps because in monasteries it is customary to read The Ladder from the beginning of the Holy Fast.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Mark 9:17-31, which is the casting out of evil spirits. This Gospel describes the healing of a boy whose father brings him to Jesus. Jesus says, “If you believe, all things are possible to him that believes”. The father cries out with tears: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”. Jesus ac!cepts his faith and heals the boy.

Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt

On the fifth Sunday of Lent, Saint Mary of Egypt is remembered. Saint Mary of Egypt, is a symbol of repentance and conversion. She is an encouragement and a final preparation for the coming days of Holy Week and Christ’s passion. Saint Mary was a beautiful woman who lived a life of sin. One day, Mary followed some people on a pilgrimage to the Church of Holy Resurrection in Jerusalem. When she tried to enter the church, she could not. She tried two more times to enter the church but was prevented from entering by an unseen power. At that moment, she repented and vowed to improve her manner of living. She became a monastic and lived life alone in the desert for over four decades. Toward the end of her life, she met a priest named Zosimas. She told him about her life from the beginning and asked that he bring her Holy Communion that she might partake of it. The following year on Great and Holy Thursday, he returned to give Holy Communion to her. She died shortly thereafter. She became famous everywhere for her renunciation of worldly pleasure and is known as the “Penitent Saint”. Her feast day is on April 1st but she is always remembered on the fifth Sunday of Lent as well.

In her life the Holy Church pays attention to two contrasts: on the depth of her sinful falling and on the height of her graceful rising, that it points out that true repentance wipes away the very heaviest sins, and can uplift the repenting trespasser to a high degree of spiritual perfection.

The story of Saint Mary's life was written down by Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt is read during Great Lent along with the Great Canon of Saint Andrew, Archbishop of Crete.

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Mark 10:32-45. In this Gospel, disciples James and John request to sit “one at the right hand and one at your left”. Jesus asks them if they “can drink of the cup that I drink of?” He was ask!ing if they could suffer with him as he foresaw in the coming days. Jesus reminds them that He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many. He would die for our sins so we could be saved.

The fast of Great Lent ends on the Friday of the sixth week. For this reason on this day we sing: “Having completed the lifesaving Lent …” It is followed by the fast and celebration of the Great and Holy Week. The Saturday of the sixth week is dedicated to the commemoration of the raising of Lazarus and the Sunday following to the commemoration of the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. This is why they are respectively called “Saturday of Lazarus” and “Palm Sunday.” This is a fitting arrangement in view of the last events which are commemorated during the Holy Week. On Palm Sunday we use palms (and branches of laurel among the Greeks) which are blessed and distributed to the people.

Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia

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