Thursday, February 09, 2006

Preparing Lent in the Byzantine Liturgy

The Lenten-Paschal season is the most important of the entire liturgical year, comprising about a third of it. In the Byzantine liturgical set-up, the Lenten time of preparation for Easter is so important that we have a time of preparation for the time of preparation! Every year there are five Sundays that help prepare the faithful for the spiritual and ascetical efforts of Great Lent, helping us acquire the appropriate inner dispositions.

The first Sunday is called the Sunday of Zacchaeus, because the gospel of his conversion is read. This sets us on the course toward Lent for it speaks to us of the desire to see Jesus. We cannot get anywhere without that. But we cannot see Him without Him seeing us, as the story makes clear; we cannot look from afar, uncommitted. Christ will make an invitation to bring salvation to us, and He will expect us to make the necessary changes in our own behavior.

The next Sunday is that of the Publican and the Pharisee (this is the weekend on which we first open the Lenten Triodion, the main service book of the season). Here we are instructed to abandon the pride that cancels out the spiritual fruitfulness of virtuous acts and to embrace the spirit of humility and clear self-knowledge that paves the way to true repentance, of which the Pharisee rendered himself incapable.

Once we have recognized our sin and cried out for mercy like the Publican, we can begin our journey home to the Father, so the following Sunday is that of the Prodigal Son. This is a great encouragement to undertake the difficult labors of repentance (which means changing our ways of thinking and acting), for nothing can be more inviting or consoling than the open arms and heart of the Father, full of love and forgiveness.

Now just in case all of this has not moved us to get serious about repentance, the Church brings out her heavy artillery. The next Sunday is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, on which we read the appropriate section of Matthew 25. The Offices for this Sunday are definitely not “church-pc,” as we read of frightening images of hellfire and worms and the agonies of the damned, who are “ground to powder,” among other things. Some good old-fashioned fire and brimstone preaching, that!

This Sunday is also called “Meat-fare Sunday,” since it is the last day on which the eating of meat is permitted. Now this is a full week before Lent begins, but the Church is trying to let us down gently. First we learn how to do without meat, then without dairy products (the next Sunday is subtitled, “Cheese-fare Sunday”). The Lenten fast is strict: no meat or dairy products at all for the whole of Lent, and no fish either, except shellfish (fish with backbones are considered “animals” and hence are not eaten—except on the feast of the Annunciation, Palm Sunday, and Holy Thursday).

On the following Saturday we celebrate all the God-bearing ascetical fathers and mothers of the faith, the monks and nuns who excelled in the virtues, in fasting and spiritual warfare. We implore their intercession for the coming contest.

The final Sunday is called Forgiveness Sunday. (The gospel is a series of passages from the Sermon on the Mount on fasting and forgiveness.) The Offices for Vespers and Matins recall the original creation, sin, and banishment from Paradise. So the repeated refrain is: “I am fallen, call me back!” During Matins on this Sunday (as well as on the two previous ones) we sing Psalm 136(137) to a haunting melody. It is the song of God’s people in exile, grieving over their sins and vowing to keep their holy land and temple always in their hearts and thoughts. It heightens our awareness of our state of banishment from Paradise and motivates us to begin the journey home.

In the Byzantine tradition there is no Ash Wednesday. Lent begins on the Monday before, or, more precisely, at Vespers on Sunday evening, for our liturgical day begins at Vespers of the previous day. More precisely still, the season of Lent begins in the middle of Vespers! At the “great prokimenon,” a psalm verse that usually precedes a reading (it means “that which is placed before”), the celebrant’s vestments and other church coverings are changed from bright to dark colors as we cry out, from Psalm 68(69): “Turn not Your face away from Your servant, for I am in distress! Hear me speedily, listen to my soul and deliver me!” Thus the Byzantine Church begins Great Lent.

But the service is not finished yet. At the end of Vespers there is a rite of mutual forgiveness. Everyone (our monastery is small enough so we can all do this individually to all present) prostrates before each other saying, “Brother (or sister), pray for me and forgive me; I am a sinner.” And the other responds: “May God forgive you.” The traditional kiss of peace (on both shoulders) is then given. Then the roles are reversed and the other asks forgiveness. This is a very powerful rite, and is an excellent way to begin Lent, for it clears away the spiritual sludge of the past year and enables one to go forth in peace in the name of the Lord into the desert of fasting and spiritual struggles. Even if this isn’t part of your liturgical tradition, you may wish to incorporate a similar rite into your own family or community.

I remember one year I had many difficulties in my relationship to one of the Brothers. As I approached to prostrate before him, I couldn’t even get the words out but immediately burst into tears right there in church. No words were needed as the reconciliation took place. Another year I remember that almost everyone was weeping in the church. The power of repentance and forgiveness is great, and this profound and healing rite is the anteroom to the Kingdom of Heaven.

One final touch: as everyone is prostrating and forgiving each other, the canon of the Resurrection softly sung in the background. That is the goal of Lent, and it is presented to us at the outset, lest we forget and faint on the way. Even with the arduous ascetical and liturgical practices of Lent, the exclamation, “Christ is risen!” is never far from the consciousness of the Eastern Christian.

God willing, I’ll write more about Lent itself in a few weeks.

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