My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE GREAT FAST
Lent, as it exists today in the Orthodox Church, is the result of a long historical development, of which no more than a brief summary can be offered here. The portion of the Church's Year covered by the Lenten Triodion falls into three periods:
(1) The Pre-Lenten Period: three preparatory Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee [this past Sunday]; the Prodigal Son [this coming Sunday]; the Last Judgment), followed by a preliminary week of partial fasting, ending with the Sunday of Forgiveness.
(2) The Forty Days of the Great Fast, beginning on Monday in the first week (or, more exactly, at Sunday Vespers on the evening before), and ending with the Ninth Hour on Friday in the sixth week.
(3) Holy and Great Week, preceded by the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday.
The third of these three periods, the Paschal fast of Holy and Great Week, is the most ancient, for it was already in existence during the second and third centuries. The fast of forty days is mentioned in sources from the first half of the 4th century onwards. The pre-Lenten period developed latest of all: the earliest references to a preliminary week of partial fasting are in the 6th or even 7th century, but the observance of the other preparatory Sundays did not become universal in the Greek East until the 10th century.
THE INNER UNITY OF THE TRIODION
The Triodion possesses an inner coherence and unity that are not at once apparent. Why, for example, should St. Theodore the Recruit be commemorated on Saturday in the first week, the holy icons on the First Sunday, and Saint Gregory Palamas on the second? What special connection have these three observances with the ascetic fast of Lent? Let us consider briefly the pattern which links into a single whole the different commemorations during the ten weeks of Triodion. We shall not enter into details, but shall simply seek to indicate the place of each observance in the general structure of Lent.
(1) The Pre-Lenten Period. The Sunday of Zacchaeus. One week before the Triodion enters into use, there is a Sunday Gospel reading which looks forward directly to the coming fast-St. Luke 19:1-10, describing how Zacchaeus climbed a tree beside the road where Christ was to pass. In this reading we note Zacchaeus' "sense of eager expectation, the intensity of his desire" to see our Lord, and we apply this to ourselves. If, as we prepare for Lent, there is real eagerness in our hearts, if we have an intense desire for a clearer vision of Christ, then our hopes will be fulfilled during the fast; indeed, we shall, like Zaccheaus, receive far more than we expect. But if there is within us no eager expectation and no sincere desire, we shall see and receive nothing. And so we ask ourselves: What is my state of mind and will as I prepare to embark on the Lenten journey.
(2) The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (Gospel reading: St. Luke 18:10-14). On this and the following two Sundays, the theme is repentance. Repentance is the door through which we enter Lent, the starting point of our journey to Pascha. And to repent signifies far more than self-pity or futile regret over things done in the past. The Greek term Metanoia means 'change of mind': to repent is to be renewed, to be transformed in our inward viewpoint, to attain a fresh way of looking at our relationship to God and to others. The fault of the Pharisee is that he has no desire to change his outlook; he is complacent, self-satisfied, and so he allows no place for God to act within him. The Publican, on the other hand, truly longs for a 'change of mind': he is self-dissatisfied, 'poor in spirit', and where there this saving self-dissatisfaction there is room for God to act. Unless we learn the secret of the Publican's inward poverty, we shall not share in the Lenten springtime. The theme of the day can be summed up in a saying of the Desert Fathers: "Better a man who has sinned, if he knows that he has sinned and repents, than a man who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous."
(3) The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Gospel reading: St. Luke 15:11-32). The Parable of the Prodigal forms an exact icon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger. Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father's house. But repentance implies action: "I will rise up and go…" (verse 18). To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but take a decision and to act upon it.
On this and the next Sundays, after the solemn and joyful words of the Polyeleos at Orthros (Matins), we add the sorrowful verses of Psalm 136, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept..." This Psalm of exile, sung by the children of Israel in their Babylonian captivity, has a special appropriateness on the Sunday of the Prodigal, when we call to mind our present exile in sin and make the resolve to return home.
(4) The Saturday of the Dead. On the day before the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and in close connection with the theme of this Sunday, there is a universal commemoration of the dead "from all the ages." (There are further commemorations of the dead on the second, third, and fourth Saturdays in Lent.) [Orthodox Christians bring the Orthodox baptismal names of the deceased members of their family and given to the priest to pray for their forgiveness and salvation.] Before we call to mind the Second Coming of Christ in the services on Sunday, we commend to God all those departed before us, who are now awaiting the Last Judgment. In the texts for this Saturday there is a strong sense of the continuing bond of mutual love that links together all the members of the Church, whether alive or dead. For those who believe in the risen Christ, death does not constitute an impassible barrier, since all are alive in Him; the departed are still our brethren, members of the same family with us, and so we are conscious of the need to pray insistently on their behalf.
(5) The Sunday of the Last Judgment (Gospel reading: St. Matthew 25:31-46). The two past Sundays spoke to us of God's patience and limitless compassion, of His readiness to accept every sinner who returns to Him. On this Third Sunday, we are powerfully reminded of a complementary truth: no one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come as our judge. "Behold the goodness and severity of God" (Romans 11:22). Such is the message of Holy and Great Lent to each of us: turn back while there is still time, repent before the end comes. In the words of the Great Canon:
"The end draws near, my soul, the end draws near; Yet thou dost not care or make ready. The time grows short, rise up: the Judge is at the door. The days of our life pass swiftly, as a dream, as a flower."
This Sunday sets before us the 'eschatological' dimension of Lent: the Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Savior, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come. (This is theme that will be taken up in the first three days of Holy Week.) Nor is the judgment merely in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts towards others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.
(Source: The Lenten Triodion by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware)
[To be continued]
MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God