With the season of Holy and Great Lent soon upon us, we are entering upon a special season of repentance. This season of repentance is necessary for us in these days and times we are living. Great Lent is the Spiritual Doctor’s orders, that is, Christ’s orders, and it behooves us to be attentive, that is, to pay attention to the spiritual treatment being offered. I do truly believe repentance can make both our local situation better as well as our state, national, and global situations. And what is repentance? Not simply a change of mind but a change of our ways, a change in our way of thinking and acting, reorienting ourselves towards God and growing closer to Him. When we grow closer to the Lord, we grow closer to one another.
The Church gives us this extended period of time during the year to refocus and reorient ourselves so we can find Christ and discover the joy and peace of the Resurrection of Christ, which is the victory of Christ over the enemies of sin, death (both physical and spiritual), and the devil. The Resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our Orthodox Faith and it can transform every single facet of our lives, if only we allow it to.
If we are physically well and capable, all of us should be fasting in some way, shape, or form during Lent. The Church has her standard and the standard will not change. Perhaps we have to slowly work up to that standard, but the standard will not change. Fasting from food though means also fasting from sin. Perhaps we need to fast in various ways or even completely from our televisions, from the news media, from social media, from the Internet too? We should all be working on increasing our acts of love, kindness, and charity. We should all be growing closer to the Saints, especially Panagia, and the Scriptures.
We should also increase our presence at the liturgical services, as Great Lent is a time all our parishes increase the prayer services. We can participate in the Forgiveness Vespers, Great Compline, Great Canon, Presanctified Liturgies, the Salutations of the Theotokos (Akathist Hymn), and Saturday Vespers. See what your local parish offers. Prayer assists us in our discipline of fasting. With Lent around the corner, it is spiritually beneficial for all of us to increase our prayer life, both personal and at the parish.
Here is some brief information regarding the liturgical services that can be offered during Lent:
1) Some parishes may have Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday evening, March 6, commencing the start of Lent by asking forgiveness from one another, from every person who is present for the prayer service.
2) Praying at night is spiritually beneficial, as Christ Himself prayed at night, and, with the service of Great Compline, we can make an inventory of the events of the day and self-evaluate ourselves. Self-evaluation can stir repentance.
3) During the first four nights of Lent, together with Great Compline, some parishes might also have the Great Canon of Saint Andrew, Archbishop of Crete, who uses the events of salvation history, so many Saints and stories from both the Old and New Testaments in his hymns, to stir us to repentance and reflect upon our own lives. The Great Canon is called great because it has many hymns and is high in its spiritual content. During the 5th week of Lent, we repeat the Great Canon in its entirety and ask ourselves where do we find ourselves since the first week of Lent.
We are reminded through the Great Canon that everybody is called to be an ascetic in some capacity. Asceticism is not just for the monks and nuns. Are we not fasting from foods? Are we not trying to discipline ourselves? Are we not trying to increase our participation in the liturgical services during Lent? Are we not called to fast from sin during the Lenten season? All this is asceticism.
4) With the exception of the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, there are no weekday Liturgies during Lent, which is a more somber period, a period of repentance. This is a reason why in the Orthodox Church weddings are not performed during Lent. Nevertheless, during Lent especially, we need strength and that strength we receive from Holy Communion, the nourishment for our souls and spiritual lives. Thus, the Church offers the Pre-Sanctified Liturgies during the week, which is essentially Vespers with the opportunity to receive Holy Communion that has been previously consecrated as such from a previous Saturday or Sunday Liturgy. Proper spiritual preparation and guidance from a spiritual father of course is still needed for Holy Communion, but this opportunity is given. Depending on the parish, Pre-Sanctified Liturgies will occur on Wednesday evening, sometimes on Wednesday morning, and in some parishes weekly on Friday mornings, throughout Great Lent.
5) We all need the prayers of the Panagia, the Virgin Mary, as the Mother of God and the Mother of us all, as the holiest Saint, who always guides us in the direction of Her Son and whom Her Son never turns away. We all need the prayers of the Panagia, both young and old, not just the grandparents and elderly of our parishes. The Akathist Hymn, as an ancient hymn dedicated to the Panagia, is prayed during the first four Fridays of Lent in four parts and is prayed in its entirety on the fifth Friday of Lent. The Akathist Hymn is closely associated with the feast of the Annunciation, always celebrated during Lent, when the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Panagia that She was going to give birth to the Son of God.
6) Additionally, some parishes might have Saturday Vespers as a preparation for the celebration of the Liturgy on Sunday.
Saint Paisios the Athonite had said that our souls, through prayer, need to always be in contact with God, the spiritual headquarters, in order to feel secure and full of hope and joy. When we join in prayer as Church with other members of the Body of Christ, our prayer is more powerful. When we pray on our own, our prayer is like a flame, but when we pray together with our fellow Orthodox Christians, especially during the Divine Liturgy, joining with the Panagia, with the Angels, with the Saints, with our Orthodox departed, the flame becomes a powerful fire.
These ancient Christian practices within our ancient Orthodox Church should not and do not need to die out. Orthodoxy Christianity is as much for America as it is for Greece, Russia, and Romania. It is as much for the 21st century, as it was for the first century.
We must remember that Orthodox Christianity is a way of life that requires effort. May the Panagia guide us in these efforts.