The Six Weeks of the Great and Holy Lent
Fr. George Dion. Dragas
The Great and Holy Lent (Megalé Sarakosté) comprises nearly 6 full weeks, actually 40 days, which precede the Great and Holy Week. It starts on a Monday, known as the Clean Monday (Kathara Deutera) and is terminated on a Saturday, known as Lazarus Saturday (the Saturday before Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week). The 40 days of Lent include the 5 Sundays that precede the Great and Holy Week.
The Western Church counts the 40 days of Lent differently. She includes the Great and Holy Week, and subtracts all the Sundays that precede the Sunday of Pascha. This is why, for Roman Catholics and other Western Christians, Lent begins on a Wednesday, indeed the Wednesday of the 7th Week before Pascha.
A Period of fasting and prayer
The first week of Lent, which begins with the Pure Monday and is also called Pure Week, has always been distinguished from the other weeks by its severe fast. Even today, in spite of the tendency that exists among many Orthodox Christians not to observe the Lenten fast, the fast of the first week is largely kept. This is especially the case with the first three days of this week, when people abstain from all kinds of food and some even from wine and oil.
As for the meaning of the Fast, the Orthodox Church has always stressed the need that it must not be merely material, but also spiritual, for it should not be just mere fasting from food, but fasting from vices and passions.
The period of Great Lent is primarily a period of intense and fervent prayer. The sacred Services (Acolouthies) are more numerous and lengthier and so are the readings from the Holy Scriptures. At least four Divine Liturgies are celebrated each week: the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (Proégiasmené) on Wednesdays and Fridays, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Saturdays and the Liturgy of St. Basil on Sundays.
A Period of special hymns
The hymns of the Great Lent are richer and have been clearly composed on the basis of a certain plan. This is why they present an inner coherence and unity of themes each week. Thus, during the first two weeks the benefits of fasting are exalted, while the true manner of spiritual exercise (asceticism) and the virtues that should accompany it (i.e., humility, brotherly love, mercy, etc.) are clearly indicated.
During the four weeks that follow, the hymnography borrows its themes from Gospel parables. The third week develops the theme of the return of the Prodigal Son. The fourth week borrows its themes from the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The fifth week is connected with the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Workers of the Vineyard. The sixth week is based on the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus. This choice reflects the ancient practice of using these Parables as Gospel readings of these Lenten Sundays.
The hymns also reflect the theme of the weekly cycle of the feasts. Thus the hymnody of some of the weeks has a special character; for instance, the hymns of the third week echo the fore-feast of the Feast of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. The hymns of the fourth week echo the post-feast of the same Feast. Those of the sixth week echo the themes of the fore-feasts of the Feasts of the Raising of Lazarus and of the Sunday of the Palms.
A Period of special feasts
Special significance among the days of the Great Lent is attached to the Sundays and to some of the Saturdays by dedicating them to important church Events and Persons.
The Saturday of the first week is dedicated to the Great Martyr Theodore of Tyre and to the memory of the miracle he performed with kolyva. According to the tradition he sustained the Christians with kolyva and so prevented them from eating foods, which according to an Edict of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, had been contaminated with the blood of meat offered to idols.
The first Sunday of the Great Lent was originally connected with the memory of the Prophets and especially of Moses and Aaron. This is still reflected in the Bible readings specified for this day: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40 and John 1:44-52. Since, however, the restoration of the Holy Icons by Queen Theodora in AD 842 took place on this Sunday; a new connection overrode the old one. It was dedicated to the commemoration of the triumph of the Church against the Iconoclasts and generally all heresies and took the new name of S u n d a y o f O r t h o d o x y. On this Sunday a special Litany was celebrated in the Church of Panagia of Vlachernes in Constantinople, which began there and went on in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia. This Litany is still kept to this day in the form of a procession of the Holy Icons by which Orthodox Christians declare their persistence in and dedication to Orthodoxy.
The second Sunday of the Great Lent was not initially connected with any special commemoration. Since 1368, however, this Sunday was dedicated to the memory of S t . G r e g o r y P a l a- m a s Archbishop of Thessaloniki—the most wise and erudite theologian and fighter against the heresies of his own time. St. Gregory fell asleep on the 14 of November in 1359 and his memory was appointed for this Sunday as a continuation of the Sunday of Orthodoxy on account of his fight for the Orthodox Faith against rationalist scholasticism.
The third Sunday of the Great Lent is called S u n d a y o f t h e V e n e r a t i o n o f t h e C r o s s (Stavroproskynéseós), because the Church invites the faithful on that day to Venerate the Holy Cross in order to be strengthened by it to continue their exercise of fasting. It is possible, however, that this feast was appointed because it is stated in the Ménaia that on the 6th of March a commemoration is made of the Discovery of the Holy Cross. It should be noted that, according to the Typikon (the Book of the Liturgical Rubrics) of St. Sabas, the veneration of the Holy Cross is observed not only on this Sunday but also on the Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the following week. This is, as it were, a post-feast period of the Feast of the Veneration of the Holy Cross.
The fourth and the fifth Sundays of Great Lent did not, originally, have any sort of festal character. Thus, on these days the acolouthy of the Saint of the day was sung together with the acolouthy of the Resurrection. Later on, however, it was determined that the fourth Sunday should be linked with the memory of S t. J o h n C l i m a c u s, whose book the Ladder (Climax) is read during Great Lent in the monasteries. Similarly, the fifth Sunday was linked with the memory of S t. M a r y o f E g y p t, who is the most brilliant example of repentance. Both commemorations seem to have been appointed most probably by transference from their original dates (the 30th of March and the 1st of April).
The week before these two Sundays the fifth week of the fasts is further adorned with two exceptional Services. At Matins on Thursday the Great Canon is sung. This wonderful poem of A n d r e w o f C r e t e which presents to us the saintly figures of the Old and New Testaments in order to teach us how to imitate the acts of the righteous and how to avoid the acts of the sinners. At Mat ins on Saturday the A c a t h i s t H y m n is sung. This is a hymn dedi cated to the Annunciation of the Theotokos and was ordered to be sung, according to the Synaxarion, during this Saturday in memory of the Salvation of Constantinople in 626 from the attack of the Arabs which was attributed to the Theotokos. This hymn was not composed at that time but preexisted and its poet remains unknown to this day. Both the Great Canon and the Acathist Hymn are sung first in parts – the first one during the first week of the Great Lent and the second one on the Fridays of the first four weeks of Lent – but on the fifth week they are both sung in their complete form. Usually, however, they are not sung in the Matins as the Triodion appoints, but in the evening at Compline in order to facilitate the people to follow them.
The fast of Great Lent ends on the Friday of the sixth week. For this reason on this day we sing: “Having completed the lifesaving Lent …” It is followed by the fast and celebration of the Great and Holy Week. The Saturday of the sixth week is dedicated to the commemoration of the raising of Lazarus and the Sunday following to the commemoration of the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. This is why they are respectively called “Saturday of Lazarus” and “Palm Sunday.” This is a fitting arrangement in view of the last events which are commemorated during the Holy Week. On Palm Sunday we use palms (and branches of laurel among the Greeks) which are blessed and distributed to the people.