For most of us, unaccustomed as we are to real spiritual struggle, Great Lent can be uncomfortably demanding. After the first week of fast in one’s prayers and prostrations, we begin to tire and may even feel despondent at the thought of the weeks ahead. But the Church in her wisdom knows well our human frailty and encourages us to persevere in our struggles by giving us along the way inspiring examples, incentive s and even glimpses of that which awaits us at our journey's end. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday, we are !ed deeper into the spirit of repentance and self-denial, while we see growing brighter before us the radiance of Christ's resurrection.
The first Sunday of Great Lent, called the Sunday of Orthodoxy, celebrates the ending of the iconoclast heresy and the restoration of icons to the Churches in 813 A .D. by the blessed Empress Theodora. Icons are important in that they affirm the dogma of the Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—the Word of God made flesh. As this dogma is central to Christianity, the victory over the Iconoclasts came to broadly represent the victory of the true faith over all errors. The Epistle reading (Heb. 11:24-26, 32-12:2) presents us with examples of saints, "icons" of Christ, who struggled and suffered, many enduring martyrdom for the sake of defending and preserving the Faith whose triumph we celebrate on this day.
The Gospel reading (John 1:13-51) is also appropriate in this early stage of our lenten journey. Inanswer to Nathaniel's question, "Whence knowest thou me?" Jesus replies mysteriously, 'When thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee," whereupon Nathanicl confesses Him to be the Son of God. What it was that Nathaniel was thinking under the fig tree we do not know, but Christ penetrated his innermost thoughts, just as He mysteriously penetrates our hearts when He calls us to Himself. And He calls us now, during this lenten period, to rededicate ourselves to Him, to the true faith of holy Orthodoxy, and to declare with all the saints: "One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, One God of all."
After the Divine Liturgy, the celebration of this day u s u all y includes a procession around the church, with many of the faithful carrying icons.
The second Sunday is dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), the Athonite ascetic who became Archbishop of Thessaloniea. In many ways it is a continuation of the celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy.
St. Gregory successfully fought against a prevailing heresy of his day which denied the possibility of ever experiencing or knowing God--in a way surpassing the knowledge of the mind. Adherents of this heresy claimed that in this life one could only know about God. St. Gregory made a distinction between the divine essence of God, which remains inaccessible to men, and the divine energies, such as the light of Mt. Tabor, which are uncreated but accessible to human vision. From his own mystical experience, St. Gregory defended the possibility of attaining true union with God, which is, in fact, the aim of all Christian endeavor: "The kingdom of God lies within" (Luke 17:21). This is the essence of the teaching called hesychasm which advocates the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer and quieting of both soul and body in order that the prayer might act to warm the heart with unceasing remembrance and burning love for God. What greater incentive can there be in our struggle for perfection during Lent--and throughout our lives?
Midway through the fast, on the Third Sunday of Lent, we are given the image of the holy Cross. This serves to remind us of Our Lord's Passion through which we were redeemed and which we are soon to witness. At the Vigil, after the Great Doxology, the priest raises the Cross above his head and carries it from the altar to the middle of the church where he places it, surrounded by flowers, on a table or analogion. The choir, meanwhile, slowly chants "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us." The Cross is censed and then everyone prostrates before it singing, "Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O Master..."
The Gospel reading for this Sunday (Mark 8:34-9:l) impresses upon us the importance of carrying our own cross. We too must be crucified, we must die to our passions, to our egos, if we wish to reign with Christ. More than a symbol of death, however, the Cross is an emblem of victory, and the dominant tone of this Sunday and the week that follows is one of joy, that through His death on the Cross, Christ destroyed the power of death and reopened unto fallen mankind the doors of Paradise. The irmoi of the canon for this Sunday are the same as for Pascha, strengthening the faithful by giving them a foretaste of the joy that awaits those who successfully complete the course of the Fast.
The fourth Sunday is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the seventh-century ascetic desert father who wrote the book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent ("Klimacos" in Greek means ladder). This is a handbook which sets forth various steps in the progress towards Christian perfection, thereby leading those who faithfully practice these instructions to mount step by step to heaven. Although originally written for monks, The Ladder is a spiritual classic appointed by the Church to be read during the weekday lenten services. The importance of ascetic struggle--which should be of particular concern to us during the Holy Lent--is supported by the Gospel reading (Mark 9:17-31) which stresses the need for prayer and fasting.
The fifth Sunday presents us with another example of an ascetic struggler, St. Mary of Egypt. The emphasis here is on repentance and on God's abundant mercy towards repentant sinners. On Thursday of the fifth week there is a service called "St. Mary' s vigil ," during which the entire Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is read, together with the life of St. Mary. After many years of debauchery, St. Mary repented, and spent the rest of her life in a desert in prayer and fasting. The Church holds her as an example that no one should despair of their sins; even the greatest sinner can become a saint through repentance.
The forty days of Lent end the following Friday, as we prepare for Lazarus' Saturday, followed by Palm Sunday and Passion Week. During this Friday service we sing "Having now finished the soul-healing forty days, grant us, Lover of mankind, to witness the holy week of Thy Passion." With what is left to us of this holy lenten season, may we truly give ourselves over to the cleansing of our souls that we may with enlightened minds and hearts shout Hosanna to our King and worthily celebrate His glorious Resurrection.