The Lenten season is about penitence and reconciliation with God. The Holy Orthodox Faith gives us a prescribed way to achieve this through fasting, prayer and almsgiving. During the time of Lent we endeavour to prepare ourselves in holiness that we might properly greet the Risen Christ at the greatest of all Christian Feast Days, Pascha (also known as Easter). Let's learn more about the purpose of Lent, the weeks of remembrance during Lent, and how Lent is practiced.
During Lent we are encouraged to “Lay aside all earthly care that we may receive the King of all.”
The Lenten season is about reconciliation with God. It is a time to learn the inner discipline of abstinence, not just from rich foods but also, more importantly, from vain and empty language and activities.
It is also a time of repentance. All of the Lenten services inspire within us penitent thoughts and hope in the compassion of God. So we are encouraged to unclutter our crowded calendars and replace our activities with the special Lenten services, to return to God from the “far country” of worldly concerns. This will benefit us in numerous ways.
Lent should not be viewed as a kind of inconvenience which, if we suffer through it will automatically credit us with merits. This is a Pharisaic way of thinking. Rather it is a time where we return to Eden in a spiritual sense. It is a spiritual spring season — a time of joy and light.
Sundays before Lent
The five Sundays prior to Lent prepare us for this time of spiritual renewal.
On the fifth Sunday we learn about “Desire for God” from the story of Zacchaeus.
On the fourth Sunday we learn “humility” from the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee was so proud of his righteousness while the Publican could only ask mercy for his sin.
On the third Sunday we learn from the Prodigal Son to return to God our Father and be reconciled.
The second Sunday before Lent is called “Meat fare.” Those who wish to fast — and whose health permits — will have their last feast of meat on this day. They will then fast from meat until the feast on Pascha night. It is also the day when we study passages in the Bible which refer to the last judgment.
The first Sunday before Lent is “Cheesefare,” when those who are fasting have their last feast on dairy products, fasting all through Lent until Pascha. The subject for this week is “Forgiveness,” and we try to enter Lent having forgiven those who have offended us, so that we might be forgiven for our trespasses.
Sundays of Lent
Each Sunday in Lent has special significance.
The first Sunday of Lent is called “Orthodox Sunday,” when we celebrate the triumph over the Iconoclasts (who tried to prevent the veneration of icons). This celebration is purely historical but has become part of tradition.
Saint Gregory Palamas
St Gregory Palamas is remembered on the second Sunday. He was a 14th century saint who emphasised mystical prayer and greatly influenced the spirituality in Orthodoxy and advocated the frequent use of the Jesus prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
The Veneration of the Cross
This occurs on the third Sunday of Lent, when a cross is brought in solemn procession to the centre of the church and remains there for the entire week. We are reminded of Christ’s words in Mark 8:34, ”if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Our personal discipline during Lent is seen as a limited experience of this.
Saint John of the Ladder
Remembered on the fourth Sunday of Lent, St. John of the Ladder (sometimes known as St. John Climacus — using the Greek word for ladder) lived in the sixth and seventh centuries (580-650). He was the saintly Abbot of the Monastery of St Catherine of Mt. Sinai. His famous work, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” is still read at mealtimes in monasteries during Lent.
St John of the Ladder's work, reminiscent of the ladder in Jacob’s dream that extended from heaven to earth, is made up of 30 steps enabling us to progress in our journey towards Christ's likeness (30 steps represent the 30 years of Christ’s life up to His baptism). This ladder is a profound illustration. It was not Jacob who built the ladder to God, it was God Who let down the ladder from heaven and came to where sinful Jacob was. In the same way God came to us through the incarnation and meets us as sinners on the bottom rung of the ladder and climes with us. To be baptised marks the first step of the ladder we then need to make spiritual progress. Christ Himself is the ladder, without His grace we could not make progress at all. But we do have to make some effort to climb.
The icon of Saint John's Ladder shows a constant stream of monks ascending the ladder, demons representing the temptations that attempt to hinder their ascent, and angels who are helping them climb higher, while Christ is waiting at the top of the ladder to welcome the monks home.
Saint Mary of Egypt
St. Mary of Egypt is remembered on the fifth Sunday. She was a fifth century penitent who is an example in repentance. She lived a life of infamy before being dramatically converted and fleeing to the desert in deep repentance.
Palm Sunday is celebrated on the sixth Sunday of Lent. It is celebrating the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, and is a major Feast Day, which means fish can be eaten by those fasting on this day! There is usually a procession through the streets with palms and children carrying candles.
The Lenten Journey
During Lent, many people may choose to fast. Abstaining from animal products (meat) and dairy foods is considered to be fasting in the Orthodox Church.
A total fast — which is different from fasting — may be observed on Good Friday, which means abstaining from all food. (Learn more about fasting.)
There is no legalism whatsoever about fasting, it is for those who wish to partake for their own spiritual discipline. There are some who must not fast: those with certain medical conditions, pregnant and nursing mothers and children under seven.
Generally, concerning food, the Church Fathers taught that we should eat all kinds of foods so that:
On the one hand, we avoid boastful pride and on the other, not show distain for God’s creation which is most excellent.
(St. Gregory of Sinai)
However, periods of fasting are encouraged to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh (not to please God, or to afflict ourselves, or to repair for sin). Self control is one of the fruits of the Spirit and fasting is believed to be a part of gaining the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus Himself fasted and taught His disciples to fast. He also taught that some forms of evil could not be overcome without it. He taught that fasting should be in secret, like giving. In other words — we are not to draw attention to ourselves. There are times when it is better to eat what has been prepared for us rather than to draw attention to our abstinence. We are to avoid pride in fasting, and judging others who are not fasting would be quite wrong.
The church’s song in the Lenten fast is “Fasting in the body, brethren, let us also fast from sin.” The tongue also needs to fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, denigrating one’s brother and anger. The eyes need to fast from looking at vain things. The hands and feet should be kept from every evil action.
The Spiritual Fathers are very clear in their teaching about fasting. They insist with the Lord and the Scriptures that men must fast in order to be free from passions and lust. But they insist as well that the most critical thing is to be free from all sin, including the pride, vanity and hypocrisy — which can come through foolish and sinful fasting!
The Lenten Services
During Lent, there are extra services that may be held each week, such as Great Compline each Wednesday, and Laudations on Fridays (Laudations are hymns of praise to venerate the Mother of God). Used during Lent is a book called the Triodion, which contains the hymns and biblical readings for every day of the Lenten season and Holy Week. The Lenten Canon is a beautifully written penitential lamentation, and many extra prayers are said during this time, such as the prayer of Saint Ephraim:
O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk,
But give to me, your servant, a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love,
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.
During Lent, prostrations are often made. Prostrations are an act of devotion and reverence, made in penitence. There are two kinds of prostrations, the “Great Prostration” — crossing ourselves and then kneeling to touch our foreheads on the floor (the Muslims learnt this from the Christians) — and the “Little Prostration” — crossing ourselves, then bending at the waist and touching the floor (or just reaching towards the floor for those less limber).
He who knows his own sin is higher than the man who resurrects the dead by his prayers. He who is granted the gift of seeing himself is superior to the man who has the gift of seeing angels.
(Saint Isaac the Syrian, 7th century)