This article is updated and expanded from an earlier version.
In the earliest days of the Church the Lenten Fast was no more than Holy Friday, on which a total fast and abstinence was kept due to the fact that the Bridegroom had been taken from His Bride. Holy Saturday (The Blessed Sabbath from which the Lord rested from all His works) was also observed in an ascetical manner, but the fast was broken with the reception of the Holy Mysteries at sunset…the Vesperal Divine Liturgy. Eventually a five-day period of Holy Week was added to this “triduum” in order to commemorate the final days of the Savior’s earthly life. Then the Saturday commemoration of the Raising of Lazarus and the Triumphal Sunday Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem was celebrated immediately before this.
By the 5th century the preparatory period for Pascha had been extended to include an additional 40 days (in solidarity with the Lord’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness). This 40 days was meant to be a retreat for the Catechumens who were expected to turn away from every wicked occupation in preparation for their Baptism — a time for them to “leave material things in order to gain spiritual things.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Baptismal Instructions)
Since at least the 9th century the Church has added an additional four-week period to our annual Journey to Pascha. With the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church commences the season of The Lenten Triodion. Although Great Lent doesn’t begin until the Vespers of Forgiveness on Sunday evening we are given a four-week preparation to gear-up for the Great and Holy Fast. As with the Sundays of Lent, this preparation period is also punctuated particular themes each Sunday.
Pride and Humility
The Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) gives us a verbal icon of humility (and pride). As we prepare for Lent (and for our Lenten confession) all of us would do well to look at our lives in light of this theme — a reality check to address our own humility and pride. It is also at this time that we sing the Matins hymn “Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life…” There is a general dispensation from all fasting and abstinence during the week that follows — our own version of a pre-lenten Mardi Gras.
On the following Sunday we hear the Gospel lesson of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Here the Savior provides us with an example of the consequences of a self-willed alienation, a coming to one’s senses, and a desire to return to one’s true homeland. This provides us with another reality check: How have I wandered away from God and the Kingdom in pursuit of my own will and comfort? At Matins we sing Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon” — the song of exile and nostalgia for home.
Next comes the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). In stark contrast to the popularized concept that the God of the Old Testament was seen as a vengeful God and the Savior of the New Testament is loving and affirming, Jesus Himself tells us that “When the Son of Man comes in glory…he will separate the sheep from the goats…” The goatish self-absorbed head off to eternal punishment and the flock of God’s just and righteous head off to eternal life. Although He lovingly and tenderly identifies Himself with the oppressed “least of the brethren” — bringing peace and reconciliation, the Savior is also the One Who pronounces our ultimate destiny: the joy of Heaven and paradise or the despair of Hell and torment. But that destiny is actually in our hands (and actions and attitudes).
The final pre-Lenten Sunday, known as Forgiveness Sunday, has as its theme the expulsion of Adam from Paradise. The Gospel passage appointed for Liturgy is Matthew 6:14-21. In this passage, the Lord teaches about forgiveness and fasting. He also reminds us that where our treasure is, our heart is to be found: if our treasure is on earth, then our heart is earthbound; if our treasure is in heaven, then our heart is heaven-bound. It is up to us to decide where we want ultimately to reside. (See the previous Sunday’s theme.) The Rite of Mutual Forgiveness is appointed for this day. This inaugurates the season of Great Lent. Fr. Alexander Schmemann refers to this transition point as a movement of love, reunion and brotherhood. While we ask and receive (and are asked and give) mutual forgiveness, the choir sings the hymns of Pascha — announcing to us the destination of our Lenten journey.
Entering into the Great Fast
Lent is characterized by what the Church calls “bright sadness” — a seemingly contradictory term. Services are sober, somber, quiet, monotonous. Yet as Lent progresses, we sense that this sadness is “bright.” A mysterious transformation is offered to take place within us. As we become used to quieting down and centering-in, we begin to see restored in us a God-given inner stability and equilibrium. Fr. Schmemann writes “What first appears as monotony is now revealed as peace.” What sounded like sadness is now experienced as joy. What was initially felt to be burdensome can now be seen as light and liberating. Monotony and sadness can be transfigured — they are given a new significance.
The Great Fast
Continuing with the investigation into the theme of each Sunday, it is interesting to note that there are two levels of meaning to be found during Lent. The deeper level consists of the ancient themes given by the Church. The superficial (i.e., surface) thematic level is a later layer of commemorations by which each Sunday is now called. As meaningful and important as these newer commemorations are, writes Fr. Schmemann, they are largely independent from Lent. They have been popularized as central themes over the course of the Church’s historical development. While looking at these latter themes we should spend time investigating the deeper, earlier layer: the layer that makes the essential connection between Lent, the preparation of the Catechumens, and the Paschal Mystery of Baptism and Resurrection.
First Sunday: Victory and New Life
The First Sunday of Great Lent, since the 9th century, has been called “The Sunday of Orthodoxy.” This is due to the fact that on the first Sunday of Lent in the year 843, (a purely historical coincidence, having little to do with our Journey to Pascha per se) the icons, frescoes, mosaics and other liturgical graphic art were restored to the churches after nearly 95 years of iconoclasm between 730 and 843 (there was a respite of about 25 years in the middle).
Before the 9th century, the Church commemorated Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the prophets on the First Sunday of Lent. Traces of this can be seen in the lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews, appointed for the day (11:24 – 12:2) as well as other liturgical material.
At the deepest level, the focus of Great Lent was (and should still be) Catechetical preparation of the Catechumen for the Paschal Mystery of Baptism. Thus, the first and essential theme of the First Sunday of Lent is the proclamation that New Life in Christ comes after a long period of preparation. The Gospel reading for Liturgy that day (John 1:43-51 — a dialogue between Jesus, Philip and Nathaniel) affirm — even promise — that the Catechumens who are preparing themselves for Baptism at Pascha will behold great things: they will lay aside the Old Creation and embrace the New Creation; they will leave behind the Old Aeon and enter into the New Age; they will give up the kingdom of this world, replacing it with the Kingdom of which the Old Testament Righteous, by faith, experienced only as a fore-shadowing. The Catechumens (and all the faithful) will experience not in shadow but in truth. We are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses who urge us to throw off everything that weighs us down and clings to us. We will see the heavens open up and we are to look to the Lord Jesus.
Second Sunday: Perseverance
This Sunday is dedicated to St. Gregory Palamas, (+ 1359). The choice of St. Gregory as the secondary theme is likely due to his theological assertion that the presence of God can be experienced personally by those to whom He reveals himself.
According to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an earlier commemoration on this Sunday was of the martyred bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (+ 115).
The ancient (and deeper) theme for this Sunday is discovered in the readings from Hebrews 1:10-2:3 and Mark 2:1-12 (the healing of the paralytic of Capernaum). These readings stress the necessity of closely attending to our salvation, putting faith into action and making the effort progress on the Lenten Journey to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb of God. After two full weeks of Lent, our resolve usually weakens and our focus usually blurs. We are called to stay on task and not drift away from the goal. We are given encouragement that although we have fallen far short of the mark, the Lord offers us forgiveness.
Third Sunday: Through Calvary to the Empty Tomb
The Third Sunday of Lent has as its theme the Holy Cross. In the middle of the Great Fast the Cross of the Lord makes its appearance in our midst and we sing portions of the beloved Easter hymnography. This is a breather, as it were. We are given a slight respite from the somber monotony of the 40 days with a glimpse of the Three-Day Pascha of the Lord. We are provided with a re-sighting and little fore-taste of the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb of God. Metropolitan Kallistos states that there is no separation between the death of Christ and His resurrection: the Cross is an emblem of victory; Calvary is seen in the light of the empty tomb. The Epistle is taken from Hebrews 4:14-5:6 and the Gospel is Mark 8:34-9:1. The hymns for this day remind us that in addition to an instrument of excruciating suffering, the Cross is also the sign of victory, the trophy of godliness and weapon of peace.
Fourth Sunday: The One Who Offers and is Offered
St. John Climacus (7th century), abbot of the monastery at Mt. Sinai is the commemoration made on this Sunday. He was the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, a work appointed to be read during Great Lent which describes the perfect ascetic. It is a book intended for monks, but it has great significance for all Christians.
The deeper theme of this Sunday is found in the readings from Hebrews (6:13-20) and Mark (9:17-31). These passages announce the voluntary Passion of the Christ. They set the stage for Holy Week. In the Epistle we are reminded that (by His Resurrection and Ascension), Jesus the High Priest and sacrificial Passover Lamb, has entered “inside the curtain” of the celestial Holy of Holies, taking us with Him. In the Gospel we hear the Savior declare that He, “The Son of Man” (the messianic title He takes as His Own) will be delivered into the power of men and they will put Him to death — nonetheless in three days He will rise again.
Fifth Sunday: To Jerusalem
As with John of the Ladder on the Fourth Sunday, so also Mary of Egypt (5th century) on this Fifth Sunday — St. Mary is considered to be an ascetic par excellence: the model of all penitents. This is why the season of Lent can be summed up on this Sunday by a dedication to her memory.
But on the deeper level, we now draw to a close the annual catechesis / formation / preparation for the great mystery of the Pascha of the Lord. Hebrews 9:11-14 tells us that the Savior’s sacrifice on the Cross wins eternal redemption for us and His blood (not that of sheep) will purify us from dead actions. Mark 10:32-45 relates yet another prophecy of the Lord’s Passion. The Savior tells His disciples “Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man is about to be handed over…they will condemn Him to death…and after three days He will rise again.” He also states that His followers must drink of the cup that He shall drink and be baptized with the baptism which He shall be baptized (i.e., taking up the Cross). Finally, in this passage, Jesus teaches that His disciples must also be servants, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
And so we are led though Lent, up to the commemoration of the Raising of Lazarus; the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem; the final days of His earthly ministry; His Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. — the subject for another study.