The Great Lent consists of six weeks or forty days. It begins on Monday after Cheese Fare Sunday and ends on Friday evening before Palm Sunday. The Saturday of Lazarus Resurrection, Palm Sunday and the Holy Week form a special Iiturgical cycle. The meaning and the spirit of the Great Lent find their first and most important expression in worship. Not only individuals but the whole Church acquires a penitential spirit, and the beautiful Lenten services more than anything else help us to deepen our spiritual vision, to reconsider our life in the light of the Orthodox teaching about man. We shall briefly analyse the most important of the liturgical particularities of Lent.
1. The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete
The Lent begins with the Great Penitential Canon. Written in the seventh century by one of the greatest hymnwriters of Orthodox Church, this canon is the purest expression of repentance. The author contemplates the great history of salvation, recorded in the Old and the New Testaments and applies its various images to the state of his sinful soul. It is a long, pathetic Iamentation of a Christian who discovers again and again how much God has loved him, how much He has done for him and how little response came from the man. The Great Canon is sung and read twice during Lent: in four parts at Great Compline on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the first week; and again completely at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week: It is a real introduction to Lent, it sets its tone and spirit, it gives us - from the very beginning - the true dimension of repentance.
2. The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.
On weekdays of Lent this prayer is constantly repeated throughout the services, is the simplest and purest expression of repentance in all its dimensions: desire for purification, desire for improvement, desire for a real change in relations with other people. The Lenten rules of the Orthodox Church pay great attention to prostrations: through them the body participates in the effort of breaking down our pride and self satisfaction.
3. Biblical Readings.
A characteristic feature of Lenten service is the use of Old Testament, normally absent the daily cycle of worship. Lessons from three books of the bible are read daily throughout Lent: Genesis and Proverbs at Vespers, Isaiah at the Sixth Hour. These readings indicate that Lent is a time of preparation, a spiritual return to the Old Testament, which announced and prepared the coming of Christ and the inauguration in Him of a new life. The book of Genesis tells us the story of Creation, Fall and the beginnings of the hi story of salvation. Proverbs teach us the Wisdom of God as revealed to man and leading him to repentance and renewal. Finally, Isaiah is the great prophet of Redemption an d Salvation, the announcer of the Kingdom of God.
4. The Lenten Hymns.
The liturgical book of Lent is the Triodion. Besides the biblical readings, it contains special Lenten hymns to be sung every day at Matins and Vespers. Of special beauty are the "idiomela" of St. Theodore of Stoudion, short penitential hymns, one sung at Matins and one at Vespers, which more than anything else express the Lenten spirituality of the Orthodox Church: The Triodion unfortunately has not yet been completely translated into English. Its wonderful riches are still hidden: short three-ode canons (hence the name "Triodion"), kathismata (stanzas sung after the psalm), hymns to the Holy Trinity, etc. Of all the liturgical books, it is one of the most inspiring most directly connected with the spiritual needs of man.
5. The Psalter.
The Psalms occupy a very central position in Orthodox Worship. But in Lent the use of the psalter is doubled. Normally it is read once every week; during Lent it is read twice. Of course this is done mainly in monasteries, yet it is important to know that ·he Church considers the psalms to be an essential spiritual food for the Lent season.
6. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
On weekdays of Lent (Monday to Friday) the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is strictly forbidden. They are non-liturgical days (with one possible exception, the Feast of Annunciation). The reason for this rule is that the Eucharist is by its very nature a festal celebration, the ·joyful commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection and glorification and His presence among His disciples. But twice a week, i.e., in the evening, of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It consists of solemn Great Vespers and communion with the Holy Gifts consecrated on the previous Sunday. These days being days of strict fasting (theoretically: complete abstinence), are “crowned” with the partaking of the Bread of life, the ultimate fulfilment of our efforts.
7. Liturgical Music and Vestments.
The spirit of Lentis also expressed in the liturgical music. Special lenten tones and melodies are used for responses at litanies, for the “Alleluias” and hymns of the Presanctified Liturgy. Slow, deep and solemn, these melodies provoke in us a longing for purity, and also the sadness for not living up to the “pristine beauty” for which we were created... And finally, as an external symbol of this state of repentance, preparation and humility, dark purple or black vestments are used in the Church.
8. Sundays of Lent.
Each Sunday in Lent, although it preserves its basic meaning: that of the weekly feast of Resurrection, has its own special theme:
The first Sunday - Triumph of Orthodoxy commemorates the victory of the Church over the last major heresy: Iconoclasm (842).
The second Sunday is dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas, a great Byzantine mystic and theologian of the l4th century, who centred his teaching on the high calling of man, on his "deification" in Christ.
The third Sunday is the Sunday "of the Veneration of the Holy Cross". At Matins the Cross is brought in solemn procession from the sanctuary and placed in the centre of the Church, where it remains for the whole week. This rite announces the approaching of the Holy Week, with its commemoration of Christ’s Passion. A special veneration of the Cross takes place at the of each service.
The fourth Sunday - St. John of the Ladder, one of the greatest Ascetics, who in his "Spiritual Ladder" describes the various states of spiritual life.
The fifth Sunday - St. Mary of Egypt, whose life is a most wonderful example of repentance.
On Saturdays and Sundays, days of Eucharistic celebration, the dark vestments are replaced by light ones, the Lenten melodies are not sung and the prayer of St. Ephrem with prostrations is omitted. The order of services is not of the Lenten type, yet fasting remains a rule and cannot be broken. Each Sunday night at Great Vespers a special Great Prokeimenon (verses from a psalm) inaugurates a new week in the penitential effort.