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Alexander Schmemann. We are approaching again the Great Lent—the time of repentance, the time of our reconciliation with God. Repentance is the beginning and also the condition of a truly Christian life. But what is repentance? In the daily rush of our life we have no time to think about it, we simply take it for granted that we must go to confession, receive  absolution, and then forget all about it until next year. Yet there must be a reason why our Church has set apart seven weeks as a special time of repentance and calls each Orthodox Christian to a special spiritual effort.
And this reason must obviously concern me , my life, my faith, my membership in the Church. I must try to understand it, to follow as much as I can the teachings of my Church, be Orthodox not only by name, but in life itself.
What then is repentance? Great Lent gives the answer to this question. It is indeed a school of repentance , to which each Christian must go every year in order to refresh the understanding of his faith. It is a wonderful pilgrimage to the very sources of Orthodoxy, a rediscovery of a truly Orthodox way of life. Let us try to make these forty days as meaningful, as deep, and as rich, as possible.
Three weeks before Lent proper begins we enter into a period of pre-Lenten preparation. It is a constant feature of the Orthodox tradition of worship that every major liturgical event— Christmas, Easter, Lent —is announced and prepared in advance.
Knowing our lack of concentration, the "worldliness" of our life, the Church calls our attention to the seriousness of the approaching event, invites us to meditate on its significance. Thus, before we can practice Lent, we are given its meaning. This preparation includes four consecutive Sundays preceding Lent, each one of them dedicated to some fundamental aspect of repentance. On the eve of this day i. They develop the first major theme of repentance: humility. The Gospel lesson Luke teaches us that humility is the condition of repentance.
He is proud of himself and self-assured. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he gives to the temple.
Religion is for him a source of self-admiration. The Publican humbles himself and humility justifies him before God. The Gospel reading of this day Luke gives us the second theme of Lent and repentance: that of the return to God. It is not enough to acknowledge sins and to confess them. Repentance remains fruitless without the desire and decision to change life, to go back to God, to begin the movement of ascension and purification.
We must realize that we have lost our spiritual beauty and purity and we  must want to recover them: " I shall return to the compassionate Father crying with tears: Receive me as one of Thy servants. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. For he was baptized, introduced into the Body of Christ, but his sins have driven him away from God. Repentance, therefore, is this desire to return to God, a movement of love and trust: "I have wickedly strayed away from Thy Fatherly glory, and wasted the riches Thou gavest me among sinners.
Then do I raise the prodigal's cry unto Thee, O Bountiful Father, I have sinned against Thee: take me back as a penitent, and make me as one of thy hired servants On Meat Fare Saturday preceding this Sunday the Church prescribes the universal commemoration of all her departed members. The Church is unity and love in Christ. We all  depend on each other, belong to each other, are united by the love of Christ.
Our repentance, therefore, would not be complete without an act of love towards all those who have departed this life before us.
Repentance is primarily the recovery of the spirit of love: "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another" John The Sunday Gospel Matthew reminds us of the third theme of repentance: preparation for Divine Judgment. A Christian lives under Christ's judgment. This means that we must refer our actions, attitudes, judgments to Christ, to His presence in the world, that we must see Christ in our fellow men.
For "inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it to Me On the week following Meat Fare Sunday a limited fasting is prescribed. We must train and prepare ourselves for the great effort of Lent. On Wednesday and Friday the Divine Liturgy is not served and the type of worship  is already Lenten. They are the patterns we must follow, our guides in the difficult art of fasting and repentance. This is the last day before Lent. Its liturgy develops three themes: a " the expulsion of Adam from the paradise of bliss.
His sins have deprived him of this blessed life and his existence on earth is an exile. Christ, the God-man, opens the doors of Paradise to every one who follows Him and the Church is our guide to the heavenly fatherland. We must "appear not unto men to fast, but unto our Father who is in secret" cf. Sunday lesson from Matthew: On the evening of this day, at Vespers, Lent is inaugurated with the Great Prokimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily.
Attend to my soul and deliver it. The Great Lent consists of six weeks or forty days. The Saturday of Lazarus' Resurrection, Palm Sunday and the Holy Week form a special liturgical cycle with which we shall deal in a special pamphlet.
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 analyze the most important of the liturgical particularities of Lent. Andrew of Crete. Written in the seventh century by one of the greatest hymn-writers of the 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 lamentation 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:.
And to each one of these troparia the congregation answers: "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me. 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. On weekdays of Lent this prayer is read twice at the end of each service: first, with a prostration after each of its petitions, then with one final prostration. Here is the text:.
This prayer, 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. A characteristic feature of Lenten services is the use of the Old Testament, normally absent from the daily cycle of worship. 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 history 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 and Salvation, the announcer of the Kingdom of God. 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 a 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.
Here are a few examples:. Let us make our devotion to the Lord in fear, anointing our heads with the oil of good works and washing our faces with pure water,. Let us walk honestly as in the day, let us cast away from ourselves every unjust writing against our neighbor, and not put a stumbling block as an occasion for his falling on the way;.
And why dost thou dedicate thyself to sin? Wash thyself in the tears of repentance and enlighten thy lamp with the oil of good works,. And hoping for a glimpse of that day when Abraham caught up Isaac from the grave. The Triodion unfortunately has not yet been translated into English.
Its wonderful riches are still hidden: short three-ode canons hence the name "Triodion" , kathismata stanzas sung after the psalms , 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. 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 the Church considers the psalms to be an essential spiritual food for the Lenten season.
On weekdays of Lent Monday through 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, on Wednesday and Fridays, the Church prescribes the celebration after Vespers, i. It consists of solemn Great Vespers and communion with the Holy Gifts consecrated on the previous Sunday.
Great Lent: Journey to Pascha
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Schmemann draws on the Church's sacramental and liturgical tradition to suggest the meaning of "Lent in our life. The Lenten season is meant to kindle a "bright sadness" within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection. Father Alexander Schmemann was a prolific writer, brilliant lecturer, and dedicated pastor. Former dean and professor of liturgical theology at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary , his insight into contemporary culture and liturgical celebration left an indelible mark on the Christian community worldwide.
Excerpts from Great Lent
It is the pleasure of the Antiochian. The Lenten season is meant to kindle a "bright sadness" within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
To understand the various liturgical particularities of the Lenten period, we must remember that they express and convey to us the spiritual meaning of Lent and are related to the central idea of Lent, to its function in the liturgical life of the Church. It is the idea of repentance. In the teaching of the Orthodox Church however, repentance means much more than a mere enumeration of sins and transgressions to the priest. Confession and absolution are but the result, the fruit, the "climax" of true repentance.