Great Lent is before us! Sunday afternoon we will serve Forgiveness Vespers and Monday begins the Great Fast.
The Church has always understood this season as a spiritual springtime, a season when our cold hearts are thawed and the new life of Christ begins to bloom within us. For this to happen, though, it is essential for us to expose ourselves to the warmth and light that the Lenten season brings us. Fasting is an important component of this, but mere dietary restrictions alone will not accomplish the spiritual work within us. Our fasting, in other words, must be spiritual, not just bodily.
A good and spiritual fast is one in which we take advantage of the church services of Lent. Many people do not realize that the normal Saturday Vespers and Sunday Liturgy during Lent are not really Lenten services even though they are thematic days: The Sunday of the Cross; Saint John of the Ladder; Saint Mary of Egypt; etc. The Lenten services are those served on the weekdays of Great Lent. In particular, attending the Great Canon served during the first week of Lent and the Presanctified Liturgy served on Wednesday evenings of Lent are vital to keeping a spiritual fast.
The Great Canon is a remarkable work of spiritual hymnography composed by Saint Andrew of Crete. This extended contemplation of repentance in the light of numerous scriptural stories and texts introduces us into the fast with profound prayers of repentance and with bodily prostrations. As we hear Saint Andrew’s words and sing the hymns, bowing our hearts and bodies before the Lord, the stories and words of scripture become for us what they are in truth: living and active words, piercing us (“compunction”) to the heart.
The Presanctified Liturgy also deserves special mention. This service is essentially Vespers with Holy Communion which, after the Lenten days of fasting, awakens within us a hunger for Christ which is precisely the purpose of the fast. If possible, we fast all day before the service, but at a minimum we fast for at least six hours before receiving Communion. To come to church after fasting all day, to sing the hymns and say the prayers of repentance and to bow our souls and bodies before the Lord, all of this opens the heart to receive Christ with profound thanksgiving and humility. And if we are truly keeping the fast, we need to receive Holy Communion for spiritual strength and as the medicine of immortality.
The fifth week of Lent also has extra services with the Great Canon being read in full and the Akathist to the Theotokos sung. And the importance of the services of Holy Week goes without saying.
All of this to say, brothers and sisters, that we need to set aside time this Lenten season to come to church and attend the Lenten services. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are a three-legged stool, and we need to stand on all three in this holy season as we prepare for the Holy Week and Pascha of our Lord. Bodily fasting is good, but without the Lenten services its benefits are sorely limited.
Let us begin the all-holy season of fasting with joy; let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God. With the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, the strength of good courage and the purity of holiness! So, clothed in garments of light, let us hasten to the holy resurrection on the third day, that shineth on the world with the glory of eternal life!
-The Lenten Triodion
With love in Christ,