Friday, March 10, 2006

Great Lent in the Byzantine Tradition

The time of preparation for Pascha is called “Great Lent” in the Byzantine tradition.Sometimes lesser fasts are also called “lents” (e.g. Advent is sometimes called the “Christmas Lent”).But this one is “great” not only because it prepares the Feast of Feasts, but also because it is the longest and strictest in terms of fasting.

In the first week of Lent we are met with some of the longest Offices of the season (perhaps so that the other Lenten services, which are also longer than usual, will seem moderate by comparison—a bit of ascetical psychology there).At Great Compline on the first four days of the week we sing a portion of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete (everything seems to be “great” during Lent!), a long penitential service with many prostrations.This canon will be sung in its entirety on Thursday of the fifth week at Matins, during which we also read the entire life of St Mary of Egypt, a model of repentance and ascetical life.That service lasts a good four hours (probably longer in some places).

On the Sundays of Lent we celebrate the Liturgy of St Basil the Great—it’s longer that that of St John Chrysostom, but the prayers of the priest, especially from the Great Entrance to the end of the Liturgy, are profoundly beautiful.The first Sunday is a general celebration of the triumph of the true faith over heresies, the specific event being the definitive restoration (in 843) of the veneration of the holy icons, an imperial confirmation of the canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.Other Sundays are given to honoring certain saints who shone forth in the ascetical or mystical life, but the middle Sunday, the third, is set aside for the veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.It’s sort of a mid-Lent reminder that our destination is the death and resurrection of Christ, and we draw strength to persevere unto the end as the mystery of the Cross is placed before us.

The Divine Liturgy is traditionally not celebrated on weekdays of Lent, but on Wednesdays and Fridays the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts is served.It is a way of emphasizing the ascetical nature of Lenten weekdays and the Paschal character of every Sunday.The liturgy is basically Vespers with a Communion service.The Eucharist is consecrated on the previous Sunday and reserved for distribution during the week.As usual for Lenten services, there are many prostrations, unlike our Sunday or Feast-day liturgies.The Feast of the Annunciation usually occurs during Lent, and while it is a great feast, it is celebrated with what we might call a somewhat muted exuberance—if it falls on a weekday, anyway—with the Divine Liturgy being celebrated in conjunction with Vespers.

The most frequently repeated prayer during Lent is the Prayer of St Ephrem, which is done at all the weekday liturgical services in the following way: “O Lord and Master of my life, dispel from me the spirit of discouragement and slothfulness, ambition and vain talk (prostration); but rather grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of purity and lowliness, of patience and brotherly love (prostration); O Lord and King, make me aware of my own faults, and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed both now and forever.Amen” (prostration).Then: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner and have pity on me” (12 times, with a deep bow each time).Then we say the whole prayer again, with another prostration at the end.Tends to humble the soul and keep the body limber as well!

Lent is also a time for extra prayers for the deceased.During the liturgical year we have five “Saturdays of the Dead” (roughly akin to All Souls’ Day in the West), three of which occur during Lent.Long Offices and memorial services for the faithful departed are offered on these days.Perhaps after a few weeks of fasting and prostrations we feel as if we’ll likely join them soon!

One aspect of Byzantine Lenten worship will perhaps sound strange to Western ears: we do not suppress the “Alleluia” during Lent.If anything, it is increased, replacing certain texts usually sung in ordinary time, added to the Communion prayer at the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, etc. “Alleluia” is not considered a strictly resurrectional acclamation, but is simply used as a general expression of divine praise, according to its literal meaning: Praise the Lord!We go on praising the Lord even during Lent, when perhaps we most need the encouragement of a few joyful acclamations—to balance the relentless penitential laments.

On the fifth Saturday of Lent we have a special day for the Mother of God, on which we sing the Akathist Hymn in her honor at Matins.After that we are getting ready to go up to Jerusalem, and the liturgical texts of the sixth week open up the drama of the dying of Lazarus and the Lord’s coming to raise him from the dead.Lent technically ends on Friday of the sixth week, even though the fasting continues through Great and Holy Saturday, and the services of the first part of Holy Week still have a Lenten character.Holy Week is considered a liturgical entity unto itself.

Between the last Friday of Lent and Great and Holy Monday, we have a kind of festal interlude, with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.Both are considered feast days, and bright vestments are worn.Lazarus Saturday is a celebration of Christ’s power over death, as well as a kind of prefiguration of Christ’s own resurrection.Palm Sunday is our opportunity to proclaim his triumph as He prepares to sacrifice his life for our salvation.

There’s more that can be said, but that is the Byzantine Great Lent in a nutshell.Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity (if I don’t join the dead after all the fasting and prostrations) to say more at another time about Holy Week and Pascha.

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