The Great Lent & the Holy Pascha
Preparing for the Great Lent
by H.G. Bishop Serapion
Great Lent is considered the holiest fast since our Lord Jesus Christ Himself had fasted it.
Therefore, during Great Lent we follow the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who fasted on our behalf forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4: 2). Also during Holy Week, which comes after the 40 days, we live the Passion of Christ day-by-day and hour-by-hour. Because of the significance and holiness of Great Lent, the Church designated a week of preparation to precede the 40 days. The Church is teaching us to prepare for Great Lent in a spiritual manner. We fast to prepare ourselves for the 40 holy days. In fact, the preparatory week is not the only fast which the Church designated to get us ready for Great Lent and Holy Week. Two weeks prior to Great Lent there is Jonah’s Fast, also known as Nineveh’s Fast. It is a short fast, only three days, and it is a fast of repentance. During this fast, we live with Jonah his fasting and repentance in the whale’s belly. We also live with the Ninevites their fasting and repentance. Just as the fasting accompanied by repentance saved Jonah and the Ninevites from perdition, also our fasting accompanied by repentance will save us from eternal destruction and death due to sin. Great Lent is an Apostolic Fast:
It is mentioned in the Didskalia (chapter 18) the following: "Great Lent should be honored before Holy Week. It starts on the Monday following the Saturday and is completed on the Friday preceding Holy Week. After it, you must pay great attention to Holy Week and fast it with fear and piety." In Canon 69 from the Canons of our Fathers the Apostles, the following is mentioned: "Any bishop, priest, deacon, reader, or chanter who does not fast Great Lent or Wednesdays and Fridays shall be excommunicated, unless he has a physical ailment. As for a lay person, he shall be excluded."
Great Lent is an Ascetical Fast:
The Church teaches us to fast until sunset. Fish is not allowed during this period. Also married couples should refrain from physical relations to give themselves time for fasting and prayer (1 Cor. 7: 5). We would like to emphasize the importance of the period of strict abstention during fasting. It is refraining from eating and drinking for a period of time, followed by eating vegetarian food.
Some people practice fasting by abstaining from meat and they eat vegetarian food, disregarding the period of strict abstention. These people should actually be regarded as vegetarians and not as fasting. A vegetarian eats only vegetarian food, but is not considered a fasting person. True fasting must be accompanied by abstention from food and drink until sunset as designated by the Church. However, due to variations in people’s physical and spiritual abilities, the Church gave the father of confession the authority to designate to his children the length of their strict abstinence. He determines what is suitable for their spiritual benefit according to the nature of their work, as well as their physical ability to endure fasting.
Great Lent is a Period of Prayer:
The period of Great Lent is distinctive for its many Liturgies. They become the spiritual treasure for the fasting person to help him throughout the rest of the year. In addition to the Divine Liturgy on Sundays, which have specific readings, hymns, and tunes, the Church also arranged special readings for the daily Liturgies during Great Lent. Also, during the weekdays, there are special hymns.
The Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy almost daily during Great Lent. It is preferred that these Liturgies start late in the day to offer those fasting the opportunity to practice strict abstinence.
It is not permitted to have the Divine Liturgy on weekdays early in the morning, since we pray the hours until the Compline Prayer. How can we pray the psalms of the Complin Prayer at 5:00 A.M.? Also, having an early morning Liturgy means there will not be abstention from food, since we can not abstain from food following the Divine Liturgy. The proper time to end the Divine Liturgy during the weekdays of Great Lent is at sunset. Due to the inability of the elderly and the sick, it is permitted to have it end earlier, but not before noon. That way everyone may receive the blessing of Holy Communion, while benefiting from abstention. We hope that the fathers of confession will take great care in guiding their children as to the importance of strict abstinence and how to struggle to keep it for as long as they can.
Great Lent is a Period of Repentance:
Fasting without repentance and changing one’s life becomes useless. Unless the fasting person changes his life during fasting, he will only be hungry and exhausted without gaining anything else. Therefore, the Church constantly reminds us of the importance of repentance during fasting. Before Great Lent, we fast Jonah’s Fast and we live the story of Jonah and the Ninevites’ repentance. During the third Sunday of Lent, the Holy Church offers us the Gospel reading of the Prodigal Son as a model of repentance, which requires an awakening, confession of sins, leaving the place of sin, and returning to the Heavenly Father with confidence in His mercies and acceptance. This parable reveals to us the depth of God’s love for sinners and how He accepts them no matter how horrendous their sin is. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out." (John 6: 37) Christ "has come to save that which was lost." (Matt. 18:11) God desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1Tim. 2:4). Christ is the True Physician who is needed by those who are ill by sin. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2: 17). Repentance is a result of divine action; it is the Spirit of God, Who moves the hearts of sinners to repent.
It is written in the Holy Bible, "For it is God who works in you both to will and do for His good pleasure." (Phil. 2: 13) God’s pleasure is in the return of a sinner so that he will not die in his sin. When God sees his sinful child returning to Him, He has compassion and goes to him, kissing him, and welcomes his return by saying, "It is right that we should make merry and be glad." (Luke 15: 32) The return of a sinner and his repentance results in joy to God, as well as all those in heaven, because, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15: 7)
During Great Lent, we praise God for His many mercies. The Doxology of Great Lent presents to us a magnificent hymn in praising God on His mercies, as well as asking for His mercies. The first Doxology of the Sundays of Great Lent starts with the following:
I will praise you, O Lord, for your mercies are forever. From generation to generation, my mouth shall declare Your truth.
In this beautiful doxology, we praise God for His mercies. Then the chanter remembers his many sins and transgressions by saying, " My sins are heavy over my head." As his sins are revealed in front of him, he then remembers the stories of those who repented and were accepted by God, so he won’t lose hope. Therefore, he remembers the publican, the adulteress, and the thief and asks God to make him like any one of them.
Again, he recalls God’s attributes by saying, "I know You are good, kind and merciful. Remember me in Your mercy forever." God does not wish the death of a sinner but that he should return and live. Then the chanter remembers his sins once again and says: “I have sinned, O Jesus, my Lord, I have sinned, O Jesus, my God, O my King, do not count the sins I have committed.”
He asks for God’s mercies and not to be punished like Sodom and Gomorrah, but to have mercy on him like the Ninevites. The chanter ends his praise by saying: “But absolve and forgive My many transgressions As good and lover of mankind Have mercy on us according to Your great mercy.”
This doxology is beautiful poetry, through which the human soul expresses her feelings resulting from the heaviness of her sins. At the same time, she shows her great hope in our kind and merciful Lord, Who is happy with the return and repentance of the sinner. Yet, He punishes the unrepentant sinners. Therefore, repentance is the means by which we enjoy God’s great mercies.
Great Lent is a Period for Doing Mercy:
The Church reminds us of the importance of doing merciful acts during fasting. Therefore, during Great Lent we chant together praising those who have mercy on the poor. The Holy Bible teaches us that the fasting which is accepted by God is the one in which we do acts of mercy to others. "Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from you own flesh?"
Fasting is a beautiful period to do good deeds by helping the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and taking care of the needs of others. The person who fasts by not yielding to the needs of the flesh, will feel the needs of others and his heart will be moved to serve them. Also, the asceticism of fasting teaches us to care for the heavenly and not be concerned with the earthly. Thus it becomes easy to forsake our material possessions and offer them to the needy.
Great Lent is a Period of Reconciliation with Others:
Fasting is an act of worship presented to God, and God does not accept the offering and worship of a person who quarrels with others. Instead, He asks him to go and make peace with his brother before coming to worship and present offerings in front of God’ altar. Fasting is an appropriate time to evaluate our relationship with others. As we ask God to forgive us our sins, we must also forgive those who have sinned against us.
May God grant us a blessed fast by which we can grow in a life of prayer, asceticism, and repentance. May we always increase in doing acts of mercy and living in peace with one another.
Great Lent: A Joyful Journey
by H.G. Bishop Serapion
Great Lent occupies a special place in our spiritual life and liturgical cycle.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this holy period is specified for correction, purification, an enlightenment of our entire being, both physically and spiritually. Great Lent is considered the spring of our spiritual life, and for every soul that yearns for her Heavenly Bridegroom, this is considered “a honeymoon,” in which the soul relinquishes worldly cares in order to be free for the Bridegroom and can say with the bride of the Song of Solomon, “Scarcely had I passed by them, when I fund the one I love. I held him and would not let him go, until I had brought him to the house of my mother, and into the chamber of her who conceived me. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the doves of the field, do not stir up no awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 3:4-5).
The human soul encounters her Bridegroom and is united to Him during the Great Lent. It is an opportunity for the soul to know the Bridegroom, no intellectually, but by experience, and time for the soul to be united to her Bridegroom, becoming one in Him and He in her. It is during Great Lent that the soul transcends time to live with the Eternal One; the limited soul unites to the Infinite One.
This communion between the soul and her Bridegroom is a dynamic action. Therefore, we regard Great Lent as a journey of purification and the correction of our lives, enlightenment and healing of the body and spirit, as well as growth in knowledge. This journey has a certain characteristic that is present throughout the entire journey from beginning to end. It is a journey characterized by joy, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, Who guides the human spirit throughout this journey in order to unit her to the Bridegroom.
This joyful journey has certain landmarks and it is through our liturgical worship during this period that our Holy Church presents to us these landmarks. Together, we shall see how this journey allows us to experience joy, using the gospel reading of the Sunday Divine Liturgies as a guide for the important landmarks of this journey.
1) Preparing for the Joyous Journey:
The gospel reading of the Preparatory Sunday is from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-18), which revolves around the joyful worship. Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us that our worship, whether through prayer, fasting, or alms giving, is directed towards God and not to impress people, as hypocrites do. God is our Heavenly Father, Who sees what is done in secret and rewards us openly. When He talks about fasting, our Lord exhorts us during fasting not to have a sad countenance, but a cheerful and happy face, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that hey may appear to men to be fasting… But you, when you fast, anoint you head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to you Father Who is in the secret place; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).
2) Where do We Go?
The gospel reading of the first Sunday of Lent (Matt. 6:19-33) defines the direction of the journey. Our Lord Jesus Christ tell us, “But seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt 6:33). The Kingdom of God means that Christ rules over us and that we have communion with Him. The bride in the Song of Solomon went searching for “the one I love” (Song of Solomon 3:3). She did not search for just any bridegroom, but for a specific One; the One whom she loves because He loved her first. Likewise, at the beginning of the Lenten journey the soul is not concerned with earthly treasures, food, drink, or clothes. She is concerned with only one thing; encountering her Bridegroom, the Heavenly King. Therefore, with the beginning of Lent, the soul must be freed from worldly concerns, even the good and essential matters. The soul must imitate Mary, who sat at the feet of her Bridegroom, listening to Him and not worrying about anything else. On the other hand, her sister, Martha, was concerned about important things, but they were inappropriate for that time. At a time in which she should have freed herself tot listen to the Lord, Martha was concerned about the duties of hospitality. Therefore, Christ told her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed” (Luke 10:41).
At the beginning of our fasting, may our Lord help us not to be concerned and troubled over many things, but to choose the good part, the one which will not be taken away from us, which is encountering our Heavenly Bridegroom. This is what will bring us joy, the kind that no one can take away from us.
3) The Joy of Victory Over Satan:
The gospel reading of the second Sunday of Len (Matt. 4:1-13) give us the joy of victory over the one who tempts us. For our sake and on our behalf, our Lord was victorious over Satan. The Church reminds us that the journey has many temptations, because Satan, our adversary, “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Despite the difficulty of the trials, yet we are joyful, because our powerful God conquered the devil. Regardless of how strong our enemy may seem, and despite the numerous trials, yet he is a defeated enemy compared to our Lord’s might and the power of His life-giving Cross.
4) The Joy of Repentance:
The Lenten journey is actually one of purification and correction of our lives for it is a jour of repentance. The soul that meets her Bridegroom must be like the bride of the Song of Solomon, “looks forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:10). If the sun of temptation burns us and sin humiliates us, and we weaken when facing temptations, we should not lose hope. Despite our sins, our Lord sees a beauty in us. He shows us the road to repentance so we may joyfully walk through it, and when we return to Him, He receives us with great joy.
The gospel reading in the third Sunday of Lent (Luke 15:11-32) helps us experience the joy in heaven when one sinner repents. Even if we wander away from our Heavenly Father, and even if we journey to a far country, waste our possession with prodigal living, and become in need to eat the pods that swine eat, yet we can look up to our Heavenly Father. The gospel tells us how the father received his returning son, “But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him… But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his and hand sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf and kill her, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ Andy began to be merry” (Luke 15:20-24).
This is a message of hope to every soul that suffers from the sorrow and wretchedness of a sinful life. The Prodigal Son was sorrowful over his sin, but his sorrow was godly sorrow. Therefore, it caused him to repent, leading to salvation, not to be regretted. It is the sorrow, which the Holy Spirit talks about through St. Paul’s writings, “Now I rejoice, not that you were mad sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor. 7:9-10).
During Great Lent, we sorrow for repentance; it is a sorrow, which produces repentance without regret, for it leads to salvation. It is a joyful sorrow, one in which we experience the joy of salvation (Ps. 51:12). This sorrow for repentance leads to joy on earth, as well as in heaven, where “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
5) The Joy of those Disdained and Rejected:
The gospel reading of the fourth Sunday of Holy Lent recounts the joyful story of the rejected and disdained ones after they encounter the Lord of lords and Holy of holies. It is the story of how the Samaritan woman and the Samaritans met Christ, the Savior of the world (Jn. 4:10-42). God sought the Samaritans, who were rejected by the Jews, and led them to know Him. He changed their levies of sin, isolation, and inferiority to joy, and they preached how God worked through them. These are the joyous words of the Samaritan woman and the Samaritans, “The woman the left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, ‘Come see a Man, who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ Then they went out of the city and came to Him” (Jn. 4:28-29). “So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with thgem; and He stayed there two day. And many more believed because of His own word. Then they said to the woman, ‘Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world’” (Jn. 4:40-42).
Every soul that feels rejected by society, the family, or the church looks up with hope to Christ, the Savior of the entire world, without exception. He will lead her to knowing Him and will restore her to the sheepfold. A life of distance and isolation begets hardness and pride as it did to the Samaritan woman, who refused to give Christ water to drink and told Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (Jn. 4:9). The Samaritans also refused Christ, because “His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). But the encounter with the Lord, the Savior of the world, melts the stony hearts and changes them to hearts full of love. Thus, during Holy Lent, the Church teaches us that there is joy in changing the stony hearts into compassionate hearts and the wolves into lambs. Every meek soul living in the midst of the snatching wolves rejoices that Christ the Savior of the worlds is able to change the wolves into lambs, as He did with the Samaritans.
6) The Joy of Complete Healing:
A person is humbled by illness, for he feels his weakness and disability. The cruelty of illness increases when it is connected to sin. The gospel of the fifth Sunday recounts the story of the paralytic at Bethesda (Jn. 5:1-18). This man was paralyzed for 38 years and suffered from loneliness; he said that he had “no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up” (Jn. 5:7). Our Lord changed this man’s sorrow to joy. At a time when he felt desperate in finding someone to care about him, or that he may be healed, our Lord went to him not by means of water of the pool, but by His word; He told him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (Jn. 5:13). After granting him complete healing, Christ revealed to him the reason for his illness. He also warned him of the cause that may lead to an illness worst than the first one; He told him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (Jn. 5:14).
During Great Lent, we experience the joy of complete healing, since healing the spirit from sin is more important than healing the physical ailments. Sin is the illness of the spirit, body, and soul; only Christ can grant complete healing. In the Sacrament of Holy Unction, our Holy Church shows us how to experience complete healing. This sacrament is observed on the last Friday of Great Lent. Let us approach this sacrament with joyful and repentant hearts, confident that sin has no power over our bodies, since our bodies have been made holy and are temples of the Holy Spirit, being purified daily by repentance.
7) The Joy of Illuminations:
The soul that has been purified by repentance and lived away from sin needs illumination through knowing God. Our spiritual life is not merely abstaining from sin, but is growth in the knowledge of God and coming closer to Him. The gospel reading of the sixth week of Lent (Jn. 9:1-41) presents to us the story of a man whom Christ testified that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (Jn. 9:3). He lived in darkness, which was not only the inability to see, but also more importantly the ignorance of not knowing the Son of God. Christ granted him spiritual sight. Our Lord met him and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” and the man answered, and said, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” to which Christ answered, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you” (Jn. 9:35-37). At the end of this chapter, Christ explains the meaning of true blindness; He said, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind. Then some of the Pharisees, who were with Him, heard these words and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind you would have no sin; but now you say ‘We see!’ Therefore, your sins remain’” (Jn. 9:39-41). During this Sunday, we experience the joy of illumination by knowing God through our communion with His Son, Who was incarnate for our salvation.
The Church used to baptize the catechumens on this Sunday, which became known as “Baptismal Sunday,” since through baptism we are granted the new nature that enables us to become illuminated by know thing Son of God.
8) The Joy in Christ Our King:
With the gospel reading of Palm Sunday (Jn. 12:12-19), we rejoice with the multitudes, because Christ the King enter\s into our hearts to rule over them. We carry the branches of the palm tree and go out to meet Him chanting, “Hosanna! Bless is He Who comes in the name of the Lord” (Jn. 12:13). The journey of Great Lent is a journey to encounter our Lord Jesus Christ and grow in His knowledge. When Christ reigns over our hearts, He guides our life and directs it in accordance to His royal commandments. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). During Holy Lent, we experience this joyful experience of mortifying our egos so Christ can rule, and we even experience it with more depth during Pascha Week, in which we rejoice because Christ, the Lover of mankind, reigned as a King on the Cross, was victorious over death, and conquered it, giving us the new life by His glorious resurrection. We then proceed towards the Fifty Holy Days to experience the life in the Kingdome by celebrating daily Christ’s resurrection.
Let us pray that during Holy Lent our Lord may grant us a joyful journey and help us live with Him through His journey of love during His Passion. May our Lord grant us victory with Him, through His glorious resurrection, s that in the end, after we have complete our earthly journey, in this world, we may be worthy to sit with Him in the heavenly places.
Sundays of Great Lent
Treasures in Heaven
The Prodigal Son
The Samaritan Woman
The Paralyzed Man
The Man Born Blind
Matthew 6: 1 – 18
Luke 11: 1 – 13
Matthew 6: 19 – 3
Luke 6: 27 – 38
John 10: 22 – 38
Luke 15: 11 – 32
Matthew 21: 28 – 32
John 4: 1 – 42
John 5: 1 – 18
John 9: 1 – 41
Matthew 21: 1 – 17
Mark 11: 1 – 11
Luke 19: 28 – 48
John 12: 12 – 19
John 1 – 18
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