Father Panagiotis Lekkas
Beloved brothers and sisters,
On February 19 the Greek Orthodox Church observes the beginning of Great Lent. Great Lent is a time for self-examination and self-denial – a time for taking control of our lives and our bodies. The purpose of the fast is to give us a greater awareness of our dependence on God. It is a time to improve ourselves and our relationship with God.
Lent is a time for greater works of mercy and charity for those less fortunate than us. It is a time for visitation of the sick and assistance to the poor, and generally a more joyful relationship with those who are close to us – our family and friends.
Most of all, Lent is a time of joy and a new beginning. We cleanse ourselves –mind, body and soul– through the physical and spiritual fast, keeping a Christian attitude in all that we do. All this is done to prepare us for the Great Feast of Pascha – the Resurrection of Christ.
The Greek Orthodox Church with the various weekly Services attains to assist us on our Lenten Journey, encouraging us in fasting, prayer, repentance & confession, Bible reading and in receiving Holy Communion.
The weekday services of Great Lent are characterized by special Lenten melodies of a penitential character. The royal gates to the altar area remain closed to signify man’s separation through sin from the Kingdom of God. The church vesting is of a somber color, usually purple. The daily troparia are also of an intercessory character, entreating God through his saints to have mercy on us sinners.
At the Matins the long Alleluia replaces the psalm: God is the Lord… The Psalmody is increased. The hymnology refers to the Lenten effort. Scripture readings from Genesis and Proverbs are added to Vespers, and the Prophecy of Isaiah to the Sixth Hour. Each of these books is read nearly in its entirety during the Lenten period. Epistle and gospel readings are absent because there are no Divine Liturgies.
At all of the Lenten services the Prayer of St Ephraim of Syria is read. It supplicates God for those virtues especially necessary to the Christian life.
O Lord and Master of my life: take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk.
But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
The Vesper service, which begins the Lenten season, is called the Vespers of Forgiveness. It is customary at this service for the faithful to ask forgiveness and to forgive each other. At the Compline services of the first week of lent the Canon of St Andrew of Crete is read. This is a long series of penitential verses based on Biblical themes, to each of which the people respond: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me. This canon is repeated at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week.
On Friday evening of this same fifth week, the Akathistos Hymn to the Mother of God is sung; and the Saturday Divine Liturgy also honors the Theotokos.
The first Saturday of Great Lent is dedicated to the memory of St Theodore of Tyre. The second, and third Saturdays are called Memorial Saturdays since they are dedicated to the remembrance of the dead.
On Memorial Saturdays the liturgical hymns pray universally for all of the departed, and the Matins for the dead, popularly called the parastasis or panikhida, is served with specific mention of the deceased by name. Litanies and prayers are also added to the Divine Liturgy at which the scripture readings refer to the dead and their salvation by Christ.
Saturday, even during the non-Lenten season, is the Church’s day for remembering the dead. This is so because Saturday, the Sabbath Day, stands as the day which God blessed for life in this world. Because of sin, however, this day now symbolizes all of earthly life as naturally fulfilled in death. Even Christ the Lord lay dead on the Sabbath Day, “resting from all of his works” and “trampling down death by death.” Thus, in the New Testament Church of Christ, Saturday becomes the proper day for remembering the dead and for offering prayers for their eternal salvation.
Each of the Sundays of Great Lent has its own special theme. The first Sunday is called the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It is a historical feast commemorating the return of the icons to the churches in the year 843 after the heresy of iconoclasm was overcome. The spiritual theme of the day is first of all the victory of the True Faith. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 Jon. 5:4). Secondly, the icons of the saints’ bear witness that man, “created in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26), becomes holy and godlike through the purification of himself as God’s living image.
The Second Sunday of Lent is the commemoration of St Gregory Palamas. It was St. Gregory (ad.1359) who bore living witness that men can become divine through the grace of God in the Holy Spirit; and that even in this life, by prayer and fasting, human beings can become participants of the uncreated light of God’s divine glory.
The Third Sunday of Lent is that of the Veneration of the Cross. The cross stands in the midst of the church in the middle of the Lenten season not merely to remind men of Christ’s redemption and to keep before them the goal of their efforts, but also to be venerated as that reality by which man must live to be saved. “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). For in the Cross of Christ Crucified lie both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” for those being saved (1 Cor. 1:24).
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St John of the Ladder (Climacus), the author of the work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai (6th century) stands as a witness to the violent effort needed for entrance into God’s Kingdom (Mt 10: 12). The spiritual struggle of the Christian life is a real one, “not against flesh and blood, but against… the rulers of the present darkness… the hosts of wickedness in heavenly places…” (Eph. 6:12). Saint John encourages the faithful in their efforts for, according to the Lord, only “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13).
The Fifth Sunday recalls the memory of Saint Mary of Egypt, the repentant harlot. Mary tells us, first of all, that no amount of sin and wickedness can keep a person from God if he truly repents. Christ himself has come “to call sinners to repentance” and to save them from their sins (Luk. 5:32). In addition, Saint Mary tells us that it is never too late in life—or in Lent—to repent. Christ will gladly receive all who come to him even at the eleventh hour of their lives. But their coming must be in serious and sincere repentance.
May God bless you and guide you, and may you reach your Paschal destination with the joy of renewed faith in Christ.
With respect and love in Christ,
† Rev. Fr. Panagiotis Lekkas