This beautiful period of Lent – an opportunity to deepen our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ through ascetic practice, fasting, prayer, worship and almsgiving – offers us the chance to participate in several unique services. Many of us may not be aware of the magnificent yet humble beauty and penitential nature of the Lenten services and the way in which they cultivate prayerfulness, stillness and, vitally, repentance. Let us summarise and briefly explain some of the services taking place throughout this holy period in the parishes of our Archdiocese.
This past Sunday marked the commencement of the series of Lenten Vespers – beginning with the ‘Vespers of Forgiveness.’ The liturgical colours change, from white to purple, highlighting the great sense of repentance and solemnness, as we begin the Lenten fast. The hymns remind us of our fallen nature, our distance from God’s love and Kingdom and, consequently, the calling to repentance and spiritual renewal.
One of the most characteristic hymns chanted every week during this service is the following Prokeimenon:
“Turn not away Thy face from Thy child, for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!”
Furthermore, we hear the most important prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian – perhaps the perfect summary of the ethos, the spirit and the goal of this entire period of Great Lent:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Prostrations (or bows) are made at this stage of the service, and at other points, such as during the Lenten hymns of intercessions, to the Mother of God, to St John the Baptist and to all the Apostles and Saints. These prostrations are yet another act of worship, of both soul and body (1 Thess 5:23) expressing our repentance, bowing down before our Lord, in humility and acceptance of our sinfulness and unworthiness.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, the service of the Presanctified Gifts takes place. This service consists of Vespers followed by the distribution of Holy Communion. The Divine Liturgy does not take place on weekdays during Great Lent due to the sombre nature of this period. Therefore the Church offers us this opportunity to receive the Holy Eucharist during the week. The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy is truly a unique, an uplifting and humbling experience. The presiding priest, dressed in dark vestments, prepares the (already sanctified from the previous Sunday) Body and Blood of Christ with such reverence, leading the congregation in fervent prayer with further prostrations and bows before the Holy Mysteries. The priest, while censing the Sacred Gifts on the Altar (and then the chanters in turn) sings the following:
‘Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.’
On Friday evenings the well-known ‘Salutations’ to the Theotokos take place. As Orthodox Christians we must not forget the intercessory role and place of the Mother of God especially during this period of the Lenten Fast. These poetic stanzas, comprising the ‘Akathist Hymn,’ express the joy, the beauty, the life and the love brought about through the ‘Mother of Light,’ Who gave birth to the source of Life and Salvation of our souls.
The following hymn concludes this service:
‘Seeing the beauty of your Virginity, and how resplendently shone forth your chastity, amazed was Gabriel who cried to you thus, O Theotokos: What shall I present to you as a worthy encomium? What shall I address you as? At a loss and perplexed am I. As ordered, therefore, thus do I shout to you: Rejoice, O Maiden who are full of grace!’
As we try to attend these spiritually beneficial services during this holy period of Lent, let us revere the Mother of God, as our refuge and example of chastity, of obedience to God’s will, of purity of heart and fundamentally of sacrificial love, as we struggle to grow in virtue and faithfulness to Christ.
Wishing you all a blessed, fruitful and joyful Lenten Fast. Let us make the most of our rich, prayerful liturgical life as we commence this most significant and powerful time in the Ecclesiastical Year.
– In one of our following Meditations we will discuss the service of the Great Compline and Canon of St Andrew of Crete