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´╗┐Title: Great Lent: A School of Repentance - Its Meaning for Orthodox Christians
Author: Schmemann, Alexander
Language: English
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[Illustration: GREAT LENT A SCHOOL OF REPENTANCE (front cover)]



_Its Meaning for Orthodox Christians_


The Rt. Rev. Alexander Schmemann


  New York 1970
  Second Printing 1977


  GREAT LENT                                             5
    The Time of Repentance

  SUNDAYS OF PREPARATION                                 7

  LENTEN WORSHIP                                        13

  HOW CAN WE KEEP GREAT LENT?                           23



    "Brethren, while fasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually;
    let us loosen every bond of injustice; let us destroy the strong
    fetters of violence; let us tear up every unjust writing; let us
    give bread to the hungry and let us welcome the homeless poor to
    our houses, that from Christ our God we may receive the great mercy."

                           (=Stichira, Wednesday of the First Week=)

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. "Repent!" was the first
word of Christ when He began to preach (Matt. 4:17). 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.

In this brief explanation of Lent we shall deal with:

    --the preparation for Great Lent,

    --the Lenten worship of the Orthodox Church,

    --the Orthodox teaching on fasting, prayer and other spiritual
      efforts prescribed during Lent.


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.

1. Humility

(Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee)

On the eve of this day (i.e. on Saturday at Vespers) the liturgical book
of the Lenten season--the =Triodion= makes its first appearance and texts
from it are added to the usual liturgical material of the weekly
Resurrection service. They develop the first major theme of repentance:

The Gospel lesson (Luke 18:10-14) teaches us that humility is the
condition of repentance. The parable of the Publican and Pharisee
pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he
complies with all the requirements of religion. 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.

"Let us avoid the high-flown speech of the Pharisee"--says the Kontakion
of the day--"and learn the majesty of the Publican's humble words."

2. Return to the Father

(Sunday of the Prodigal Son)

The Gospel reading of this day (Luke 15:11-32) 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." At Matins we sing Psalm 137: "By
the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered
Zion.... If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her
cunning." The Christian remembers and knows that he has lost communion
with God, the peace and the joy of His Kingdom, the purity of the new
life. 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...."

                                               (=Kontakion of the day=)

3. The Last Judgment

(Meat Fare Sunday)

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 13:35). Liturgically this commemoration
includes Vespers on Friday, Matins and Divine Liturgy on Saturday.

The Sunday Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46) 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...." The parable
of the Last Judgment gives us the "terms of reference" for our
self-evaluation as Christians.

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. On Cheese-Fare Saturday the Church commemorates
all men and women who were "illumined through fasting"--the Holy
Ascetics and Fosters. They are the patterns we must follow, our guides
in the difficult art of fasting and repentance.

4. Forgiveness

(Cheese Fare Sunday)

This is the last day before Lent. Its liturgy develops three themes:
(a) "=the expulsion of Adam from the paradise of bliss.=" Man was created
for paradise--for knowledge of God and communion with Him. 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.

(b) Our fast must not be hypocritical, a show off. We must "appear not
unto men to fast, but unto our Father who is in secret" (cf. Sunday
lesson from Matthew: 6:14-21).

(c) The condition for such real fasting is that we =forgive each other=
as God forgives us--"If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly
Father will also forgive you...."

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." At the
end of the service the faithful ask forgiveness from one another and
the Church begins her pilgrimage towards the joyful and glorious day
of Easter.


The Great Lent consists of six weeks or forty days. It begins on Monday
after Cheese Fare Sunday and ends on Friday evening before Palm Sunday.
The Saturday of Lazarus' Resurrection, Palm Sunday and the Holy Week
form a special liturgical cycle with which we shall deal in a special

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.

1. The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

The Lent begins with the Great Penitential Canon of St. 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:

  "How shall I begin to deplore the deeds of my miserable life?
  What beginning shall I make, O Christ, to this lament?
  But since Thou art compassionate, grant me remission of my trespasses."

  "Like as the potter gives life to his clay,
    Thou hast bestowed upon me
  Flesh and bones, breath and life;
  Today, O my Creator, my Redeemer and
    My Judge,
  Receive me a penitent..."

  "I have lost my first made beauty and dignity,
  And now I lie naked and covered with shame..."

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.

2. The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

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:

    "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 sins and not
    to judge my brother; for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages.


Then all bow twelve times saying: "O God cleanse me, a sinner."

And the whole prayer is read again, with one prostration at the end.

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

3. Biblical Readings[2]

A characteristic feature of Lenten services is the use of the Old
Testament, normally absent from the daily cycle of worship. Lessons from
three books of the Bible are read daily throughout Lent: =Genesis= and
=Proverbs= at Vespers, =Isaiah= at the Sixth Hour. 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.

4. The Lenten Hymns

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 begin, O people the spotless fast, for it is the
    salvation of our souls.

    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,

    Not many worded in prayer, but saying as we have been taught
    to say.

    Our Father Who art in heaven! Forgive us our trespasses,

    For Thou art the lover of mankind."

                                         (=Tuesday Matins, First Week=)

    "O come ye faithful, let us work the works of God in light,

    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;

    Let us put away the pleasures of the flesh;

    Let us increase the graces of our souls;

    Let us give bread to those in need;

    Let us draw near to Christ in penitence, crying out:

    "Have mercy on us, O our God!"

                                         (=Friday Vespers, First Week=)

    "Why art thou idle, O my soul? And why dost thou dedicate thyself
    to sin?

    Why art thou weak yet not come to the physician?

    Now is the fruitful time, and now is the real day of salvation.

    Arise! Wash thyself in the tears of repentance and enlighten thy
    lamp with the oil of good works,

    That thou mayest obtain from God forgiveness and great mercy."

                                        (=Tuesday Matins, Second Week=)

    "Arriving midway on that road of fasting which leads to Thy
    venerable cross,

    And hoping for a glimpse of that day when Abraham caught up
    Isaac from the grave

    We entreat Thee to make us partakers of Thy mystical supper

    Who are saved by faith and cry out to Thee:

    O our Light and our Saviour, glory to Thee."

                                      (=Wednesday Matins, Fourth Week=)

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.

5. The Psalter

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.

6. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

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.e., in the
evening, of the =Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts=. It consists of
solemn Great Vespers and communion with the Holy Gifts consecrated on the
previous Sunday. These days being days of =strict fasting= (theoretically:
complete abstinence), are "crowned" with the partaking of the Bread of
life, the ultimate fulfillment of our efforts....

    "... When Thou has freed us and Thy faithful people from all
    impurities, sanctify the souls and bodies of all of us with
    a sanctification not to be taken away; that with a clear
    conscience, peaceful presence and enlightened hearts we may
    participate in those divine Sacraments, and be quickened
    through them and become one with Thy Christ Himself, our
    true God, Who said: Who so eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood,
    abides in Me and I in Him. So that by Thy Word dwelling in us
    and walking with us we may become, O Lord, a temple of Thine
    all-holy and adored spirit ..."

                                (=Prayer at the Presanctified Liturgy=)

7.  Liturgical Music and Vestments

The spirit of Lent is also expressed in the liturgical music. Special
lenten tones and melodies are used for responses at litanies, for the
"Alleluias" and the hymns of the Presanctified Liturgy. Slow, deep and
solemn, these melodies provoke in us a longing for purity, and also the
sadness for not living up to the "pristine beauty" for which we were

And finally, as an external symbol of this state of repentance,
preparation and humility, dark =purple vestments= are used in the Church.

8.  Saturdays and Sundays of Lent

Lenten Saturdays, with the exception of the first, dedicated to the
memory of the Holy Martyr Theodore Tyron, and the fifth, the Saturday
of the Akathistos, are days of =commemoration of the departed=. And
it would be good to restore this practice of one weekly universal
commemoration of all Orthodox Christians departed this life, of their
integration in the Eucharist which is always offered "on behalf of all
and for all."

Each Sunday in Lent, although it preserves its basic meaning: that of
the weekly feast of Resurrection, has its own special theme:

The First Sunday--=Triumph of Orthodoxy=--commemorates the victory of
the Church over the last major heresy: Iconoclasm (842).

The second Sunday is dedicated to the memory of =St. Gregory Palamas=,
a great Byzantine mystic and theologian of the 14th century, who
centered his teaching on the high calling of man, on his "deification"
in Christ.

The third Sunday is the Sunday "=of the Veneration of the Holy Cross=."
At Matins the Cross is brought in a solemn procession from the sanctuary
and placed in the center of the Church, where it remains for the whole
week. This rite announces the approaching of the Holy Week, with its
commemoration of Christ's Passion. A special veneration of the Cross
takes place at the end of each service.

Fourth Sunday--=St. John of the Ladder=, one of the greatest Ascetics,
who in his "Spiritual Ladder" described the various stages of spiritual

Fifth Sunday--=St. Mary of Egypt=, whose life is a most wonderful example
of repentance.

On Saturdays and Sundays, days of Eucharistic celebration, the dark
vestments are replaced by light ones, the Lenten melodies are not sung
and the prayer of St. Ephrem with prostrations is omitted. The order of
services is not of the Lenten type, yet =fasting= remains a rule and
cannot be broken. Each Sunday night at Great Vespers a special =Great
Prokimenon= (verses from a psalm) inaugurates a new week in the
penitential effort.


It is obviously impossible for us to go to Church every day. And since
we cannot keep the Lent liturgically, the question arises: what is our
participation in Lent, how can we spiritually profit by it? The Church
calls us to deepen our religious conscience, to increase and strengthen
the spiritual contents of our life, to follow her in her pilgrimage
towards renewal and rededication to God.

1. Fasting

The first universal precept is that of fasting. The Orthodox teaching
concerning fasting is different from the Roman Catholic doctrine and it
is essential to understand it. Roman Catholics identify =fasting= with
a "good deed," see in it a sacrifice which earns us a "merit." "What
shall I give up for Lent?"--this question is very typical of such an
attitude toward fasting. Fasting thus is a formal obligation, an act of
obedience to the Church, and its value comes precisely from obedience.
The Orthodox idea of fasting is first of all that of an =ascetical
effort=. It is the effort to subdue the physical, the fleshly man to
the spiritual one, the "natural" to the "supernatural." Limitations in
food are =instrumental=; they are not ends in themselves. Fasting thus
is but a means of reaching a spiritual goal and, therefore, an integral
part of a wide spiritual effort. Fasting, in the Orthodox understanding,
includes more than abstinence from certain types of food. It implies
prayer, silence, an internal disposition of mind, an attempt to be
charitable, kind, and--in one word--=spiritual=. "Brethren, while
fasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually...."

And because of this the Orthodox doctrine of fasting excludes the
evaluation of fasting in terms of a "maximum" or "minimum." Every one
must find =his= maximum, weigh his conscience and find in it his
"pattern of fasting." But this pattern must necessarily include the
spiritual as well as the "bodily" elements. The Typicon and the canons
of the Church give the description of an ideal fast: no dairy products,
total abstinence on certain days. "He that is able to receive it, let
him receive it" (Matt. 19:12). But, whatever is our measure--our fasting
must be a total effort of our total being.

According to the rules of the Church the fast cannot be broken for
the entire Lenten period of forty days: Saturdays and Sundays are no

2. Prayer

We must always pray. But Lent is the time of an increase of prayer and
also of its deepening. The simplest way is, first, to add the Lenten
prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian to our private morning and evening
prayers. Then, it is good and profitable to set certain hours of the day
for a short prayer: this can be done "internally"--at the office, in the
car, everywhere. The important thing here is to remember constantly that
we are in Lent, to be spiritually "referred" to its final goal: renewal,
penitence, closer contact with God.

3. Spiritual Reading

We cannot be in church daily, but it is still possible for us to follow
the Church's progress in Lent by reading those lessons and books which
the Church reads in her worship. A chapter of the Book of Genesis, some
passages from Proverbs and Isaiah do not take much time, and yet they
help us in understanding the spirit of Lent and its various dimensions.
It is also good to read a few Psalms--in connection with prayer or
separately. Nowhere else can we find such concentration of true
repentance, of thirst for communion with God, of desire to permeate the
whole of life with religion. Finally, a religious book: Lives of the
Saints, History of the Church, Orthodox Spirituality, etc. is a "must"
while we are in Lent. It takes us from our daily life to a higher level
of interests, it feeds us with ideas and facts which are usually absent
from our "practical" and "efficient" world.

4. Change of Life

And, last but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to
=slow down= our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation,
meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, social gatherings--all these things,
however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a
real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something
=more important= to do, and it is impossible to do without a change
of life, without some degree of =concentration= and discipline. Lent
is the time when we =re-evaluate= our life in the light of our faith,
and this requires a very real effort and discipline. Christ says that a
=narrow path= leads to the kingdom of God and we must make our life as
narrow as possible. At first the natural and selfish man in us revolts
against these limitations. He wants his usual "easy life" with all its
pleasures and relaxations. But once we have tasted of such spiritual
effort, once we have made by it one step towards God, the reward is
great! We discover a joy that cannot be compared to any other joy.
We discover the reality of the spiritual world in us. We begin to
understand what St. Paul meant by "the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit."
=God Himself enters our soul=: and it is this wonderful coming that
constitutes the ultimate end of Lent:

    "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will
    love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with
    him." (John 14:23)

Let us make =this= Lent a real Lent!

       *       *       *       *       *

For a fuller treatment of the meaning of Lent, cf. the book =GREAT
LENT=, also written by Rev. Alexander Schmemann.

       *       *       *       *       *


[Footnote 1: Cf. =Holy Week=, by Alexander Schmemann]

[Footnote 2: For a guide to the reading of the Bible, cf. =Reading
the Bible=, by Rev. Thomas Hopko.]


=Forgiveness Sunday Vespers.= Complete text of the service of
    Vespers on the eve of Great Lent, with music for the Great
    Prokimenon of the day. Introduction by Father Alexander
    Schmemann. 27 pp.                                              $.50

=The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.= The full text of the
    lenten service of Holy Communion with appendices for the
    movable verses and readings. Contains complete text with
    musical notation for the antiphonal chanting of the Psalms.
    Introduction by Father Thomas Hopko. 62 pp.                    $.75

=Passion Gospels.= The twelve readings from the Gospel for the
    Matins service of Great and Holy Friday. Contains a valuable
    introduction by Father Paul Lazor on the meaning of the
    texts. 60 pp.                                                  $.50

=Great and Holy Friday.= Complete text of the service of Vespers
    of Holy Friday, with music for the major hymns of the day.
    Introduction by Father Paul Lazor. 54 pp.                      $.75

=The Praises.= The complete text of Psalm 119 and the verses
    of the Praises for the Matins service of Great and Holy
    Saturday. Includes a brief introduction to the meaning of
    the hymns. 47 pp.                                              $.50

=Great and Holy Saturday: Vespers and Liturgy.= The text of
    Vespers with the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, complete
    with all the readings, verses, and music for the Prokimena.   $1.00

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