Great Lent, the "springtime of the soul," is a period of seven weeks--forty days in remembrance of Our Lord's fasting in the wilderness, and Passion Week in honor of His sufferings on the Cross--which prepare us to meet the great and holy feast of Pascha. In her wisdom, the holy Church begins three weeks (four Sundays) before the start of Great Lent to prepare our minds, hearts, and even bodies by special fasts, prayers, hymns and lessons. The services of this preparatory period through Great Lent are contained in a special book called the Lenten Triodion.
The first of these weeks is that of the Publican and the Pharisee, so-called after the Sunday Gospel reading in which we learn that a sinner who is humble and repents of his sins and faults, is nearer to God's love than one who prides himself on good deeds and disdains others. This lesson is given to us at the very outset since pride is the root of all evil. The various hymns and stichera verses sung throughout the week condemn the arrogance of the pharisee and extol the virtue of humility. As a reminder that we are not to pride ourselves on keeping the letter of the law as did the pharisee, the usual Wednesday and Friday fasts this week are not observed. It is not the outward keeping of the fast but the inner cleansing of the heart which is the essence of Great Lent.
the vigil service for Sunday, the moving stichera "Open to me the doors of
repentance'' is sung for the first time; this is repeated each Sunday vigil
thereafter until the fifth week of the Fast.
The following Sunday is named after the Prodigal Son, and begins "Meatfare Week," the last week during which meat may be eaten before the Fast. The themes of the stichera hymns this week focus on repentance. Just as in sinning--through following our own will and the dictates of our passions--we forsake our Father's house, we are called like the Prodigal Son to return through repentance. How comforting it is to know that no matter how far we have strayed, our Heavenly Father awaits our return with love and forgiveness. During Matins we sing the moving psalm "By the waters of Babylon..." (Ps. 137), echoing' the theme of exile and the longing for the true homeland which is heaven.
The third week before Great Lent is "Cheese-fare" or "meatless week"--the last week when dairy products may be eaten before the Fast. The Sunday Gospel deals with the Lord's prophecy concerning the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. The stichera dwell on the Last Judgment, calling us to be vigilant over our souls.
On the Saturday before "meatless" Sunday there is a special service for the dead, remembering especially those who died suddenly. Because they have no more opportunity for repentance, it is left to us here on earth to offer prayers asking God's mercy on their souls.
On Wednesday and Friday of this week there are no Liturgies, and the services are similar to those of Great Lent; they are rather longer than usual, and the prayer of St. Ephraim is said with bows and prostrations. In the prayers and hymns of this week the Church brings to mind the fall of Adam from Paradise through eating the forbidden fruit. The stichera verses urge us to keep watch over ourselves and fight our greed and self-indulgence.
The last Sunday before Great Lent is called "Forgiveness Sunday." The Gospel reading (Matt. 6:14-21,) gives us the Lord's teaching on fasting: we should fast cheerfully and so as not to make a show before others.
At Vespers, during the reading of the prayer "Vouchsafe O Lord," the priest' s vestments and church coverings are changed to a dark color (usually black or purple), symbolizing the beginning of a period of penitence and mourning for our sins. "Lord have mercy" and other responses are sung in a minor, plaintive tone which is sad but beautiful. At the end of the service the priest reads a special prayer asking God to grant true repentance to everyone. He then faces the people and asks forgiveness, making prostrations to one and all. Then the people turn to each other, beg forgiveness, and wish one another a good and fruitful Lent.
In some placed it is customary to sing "Christ is risen" or to chant the P a s c ha 1 canon while the forgiveness service takes place. The bright image of Christ's Resurrection encourages everyone to run bravely the course of the Fast and not to grow fainthearted. This custom dates from the practice of the early monastic desert-dwellers who, after begging one another's forgiveness, chanted the Paschal canon together before going each one his separate way into the desert to spend the 40 days of the Fast in solitary struggle, not knowing if perhaps this would be their last opportunity to share the Paschal joy here on earth; some never returned to their monasteries--either they were eaten by wild beasts or perished from hunger or thirst.
Humility, repentance, vigilance, self control.., the preparatory weeks instill in us the importance of these virtues which we must struggle to implant in ourselves during the coming weeks of Lent. But our efforts will be in vain unless we begin by sincerely forgiving one another. For how can we expect the Lord to accept our cries of repentance and grant us forgiveness if we do not first forgive our brother? Once having cleansed our minds and hearts from all grudges, we can proceed to work on overcoming our passions and weaknesses--which is the aim of this "springtime of our souls."
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