The Orthodox Pages



  6th March 2008



















































































































oday is our last talk until after Easter and as with our previous two talks where we saw the Gospel readings for the following Sundays, we should today look at this Sunday’s Gospel reading, which is the last of the Sundays of Preparation before the onset of Holy and Great Lent. But I don’t want to look at the Gospel reading in depth or the meaning of the day because we covered these last year in our talk on the Preparation for Lent. The fact that we stop the talks during Lent means that we never get the chance to look at this great spiritual period and how we should take it seriously in our life. So today I will recap on the messages we receive with this Sunday’s Gospel reading, but concentrate more on the first week of Great Lent and a little on the following Sundays.
This coming Sunday is known by two names: Cheesefare Sunday and Forgiveness Sunday, but is also known as “the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of bliss.” It is called Cheesefare Sunday because as I’m sure you are all aware, all this week we were allowed to eat fish, eggs, cheese and all dairy products and Sunday is the last day we may eat these foods, because with Monday, we begin the great fast of Lent. It is called Forgiveness Sunday because the Gospel reading tells us that we must forgive others the wrongs they do to us if we want our heavenly Father to forgive us. But it also lends it name to the special Vespers service held in the evening called the Vespers of Forgiveness. At the end of the Service, the faithful come one by one to the Priest, kiss the Cross and his hand and exchange a mutual forgiveness. Having done this the faithful also asks forgiveness of one another. Thus we begin Lent by asking forgiveness from everyone and not only from those who we know have wronged us, because many times we upset our fellow men without realizing. So let’s listen to the Gospel reading which also tells us the proper way to fast.
The Lord said: if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; That you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret: and your Father, which sees in secret, shall reward you openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:14-21)
If you remember in the previous Sunday Gospels we were taught that we must have humility and love for all mankind, and see in everyone the image of Christ and treat them with the same love we would have for Christ. We saw that love is the criterion with which we will be judged at the Last Judgement “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Christ is now telling us that love means to be able to forgive all the wrongs people have done to us. If we can’t show this love and humility and forgive those who have sinned against us, then don’t bother asking forgiveness for yourself because God will not hear us: He will turn away from us as we turn away from others. Christ then tells us that if we want our fast to be affective then it must not be hypocritical, in other words we shouldn’t fast as the Pharisees did who fasted because the law told them that they must fast and took pride in showing off to others that they were righteous, because they obeyed the law and fasted. Fasting must always be accompanied with humility, prayer and repentance. Fasting is not an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. Christ tells us to keep our fast a secret that only the heavenly Father who knows the secrets of men can see and who will reward us openly. If our fast has the element of pride with the feeling that we want to be rewarded for our effort with praises from others, then don’t expect any reward from God: it is a false fast and you might just as well not fast at all.
As I mentioned earlier, this Sunday is also known as the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of bliss. This is a theme we hear in the hymns during Vespers and Mattins. Throughout the entire preparation period for Lent, the message we should have received is that man’s sin has deprived him of the blessed life in Paradise and his life on earth is in exile: a self imposed exile in that far away land of the Prodigal Son, distant from the fatherland which is our true home. Great Lent is our effort to return to paradise: a pilgrimage towards our heavenly fatherland. Thus, as we approach the start of our journey through Lent, we are reminded of how great a loss Paradise was for mankind: what beauty and sweetness, what blessings and delight Adam lost when he fell from grace and how much Adam must have wept bitterly knowing what he had lost. This is the message we hear in the hymns for the day, hymns like the following:

Adam sat before Paradise and lamenting his nakedness, he wept: Woe is me! By evil deceit was I persuaded and led astray, and now I am an exile from glory. Woe is me! In my simplicity I was stripped naked, and now I am in want. O Paradise, no more shall I take pleasure in thy joy; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken. O merciful and compassionate Lord, to thee I cry aloud; I am fallen, have mercy on me”.
Adam was cast out of Paradise through eating from the tree. Seated before the gates he wept, lamenting with a pitiful voice and saying: ‘Woe is me, what have I suffered in my misery! I transgressed one commandment of the Master, and now I am deprived of every blessing. O most holy Paradise, planted for my sake and shut because of Eve, pray to Him that made thee and fashioned me, that once more I may take pleasure in thy flowers.’ Then the Saviour said to him: ‘I desire not the loss of the creature which I fashioned, but that he should be saved and come to knowledge of the truth; and when he comes to me I will not cast him out.”
As we begin our Lenten effort we are reminded that we are Adam, but Christ, the Saviour of the world has re-opened the gates of Paradise to everyone who would follow him. But to follow means to deny ourselves as Christ himself said “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Lent is the period where we are asked to deny ourselves, but this involves not only denying ourselves the pleasures of certain foods, but also other passions and carnal pleasures. True fasting helps us to calm these passions. It bridles the lust of the stomach and of that below the stomach, meaning the removal of the passions, the mortification of the body and the destruction of the sting of lust. Thus, it is necessary to first overcome the stomach for the healing of the other passions. Certain passions can be controlled by prayer, but others need the spiritual effort of both prayer and fasting as Christ said, concerning the casting-out of certain demons: “This kind never cometh out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matt. 17:21)
Holy and Great Lent is therefore not only a period of fasting, but also a period of intense prayer and this we see in the daily services which we are asked to make a special effort and attend. In parishes there are only two types of services held during the weekdays of Lent: Great compline, which is sung every evening and the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays and Fridays, which should be served in the afternoon, but in most places are held in the mornings. Great Compline (Μέγα Απόδειπνο) is the last service in the day’s liturgical cycle. It consists of many readings from the Psalms and prayers to Christ and the Mother of God with a few hymns sung in between.
On the Thursday of the fifth week in Lent, we sing the great penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, but during the first week of Lent this canon is divided into four parts and sung during Great Compline – from Monday to Thursday. The Canon is best described as a penitential lamentation revealing to us the depth of sin and bringing us to the realization of our despair, repentance and hope. In writing the Canon, St. Andrew used all the biblical themes from Adam and Eve, Paradise and the Fall, Cain and Abel, the Patriarchs, Noah and the flood, David, the Promised Land, Christ and the Church, and confession and repentance. All the events of Biblical history are revealed as thou they are events of our lives or more correctly “My Life” and how God acted to these events as acts aimed at me and my salvation. Thus my life is shown to me as part of the great and all-embracing fight between God and the powers of darkness which rebel against Him. Before each verse of the Canon we hear the constant refrain “Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me”: a constant reminder that the story of man’s fall is my story and the sins revealed in the Canon are my sins. After the first week, St. Andrew’s Canon is replaced with canons to the Mother of God found in a book called the Theotokarion.
The other service held every Wednesday and Friday is the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. What then is this service? During Lent it is forbidden to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The rubrics say clearly that under no circumstances can the Divine Liturgy be celebrated in Lent Monday through Friday, with only one exception – the Feast of the Annunciation, if it falls on one of these days. But why are we not allowed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on weekdays in Lent? We have mentioned before that the period of Lent is a period of deep mourning and fasting, a period of sadness. In Orthodox tradition, the celebration of the Eucharist has always preserved its festal and joyful character. Is it the sacrament of Christ’s coming and presence among his disciples and therefore a celebration of the Resurrection. But it is also the celebration of the Wedding banquet of the New Kingdom, the feast that we will partake of at the Second Coming of Christ. Every time the Church celebrates the Eucharist she transcends to the heavenly kingdom and we find ourselves standing with Christ after the General Resurrection. If we are with Christ then how can we fast? Did he not say that the “Children of the Kingdom cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with them.” One understands then why the Eucharist is incompatible with Great Lent, incompatible with fasting. Great lent is the period of our pilgrimage: we are on our way to return to the heavenly kingdom, we haven’t reach there yet, let alone celebrate as though we are sitting around the Great Table laden with the fatted calf.

In spite of this understanding, Holy Communion is still distributed to the faithful during the fasting days at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Some might say that this is a contradiction to what we have just said, but it isn’t because the Liturgy of the Presanctified is not a Liturgy in the normal sense where the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Basically all that we do is distribute to the faithful, the holy Gifts which have been consecrated on the previous Saturday or Sunday. That is why the service is called the Presanctified. On the previous Saturday or Sunday the Priest takes out an extra Lamb from a different prosphoron (bread) that the one used for the day. After the consecration of the Gifts he takes this extra Lamb and dips it into the Blood and then places it in a special container to be saved for its use on the Wednesday or Friday during the service of the Presanctified. The Priest must foresee how many such services he will perform during the coming week and take out a separate Lamb for each. Thus he usually takes out another two Lambs for Wednesday and Friday, but he can if he wants, serve the Presanctified Liturgy everyday from Monday to Friday, but that means that he has to have five extra prosphora and take out five extra Lambs which then have to be preserved carefully on the Holy Altar until their use.

Holy Communion is the source and sustaining power of our spiritual effort, the fulfilment of all our efforts. As we have said before, Great Lent is our spiritual journey which will take us to the Lord’s Day of His Resurrection and to our homeland. The journey is often painful and tiring with many temptations along the way. As we increase our spiritual effort so too does the devil increase his war against God by trying to tear us away from him. In this fight, we need help, strength and support and we find this spiritual help in the Body and Blood of Christ. It is that essential food which will help keep us spiritually alive and help us overcome the many dangers and temptations we will encounter on our journey through Lent. Distribution of the Eucharist during Lent therefore became essential for the spiritual welfare of the faithful and the Presanctified Liturgy was introduced into the Lenten cycle for this exact purpose. But it was also introduced to replace a custom of the early Church that was becoming a problem. In the early Church when Christians were fewer, there existed the practice of distributing the consecrated Gifts to the faithful at the end of the Sunday Eucharist for their daily individual Communion at home. This caused practical problems and there was also the problem that people would misuse the Holy Gifts. As the Church grew, so did the problems and the practice of taking home the Holy Gifts was discontinued. The people at this time had been used to having a daily Communion so the Presanctified Liturgy was introduced to allow them Communion on at least two weekdays during Lent.
Before we explain something about the Sundays of Lent there is another service sung on Friday evenings, which although has nothing to do with Lent itself, has found a special place in the Lenten Triodion and in the hearts of the faithful. The service in question is the Akathist Hymn of more appropriately the “Χαιρετισμοί” The Akathist Hymn is actually appointed to be sung on the Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent, but in the Greek practice the hymn consisting of 24 stanzas is divided into four parts, with each part sung on the first four Fridays with the Service of Small Compline and then on the Fifth Friday the complete service is sung. The Akathist has been described as one of the greatest marvels of Greek religious poetry, but how did it find itself into the Lenten worship? The hymn is made up of praises addressed to the Mother of God, each beginning with the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel Hail “Χαίρε” which is why the hymn is called “Χαιρετισμοί”. Its proper name of Akathist means “not sitting” and is so called because everyone should remain standing while it is sung. The hymn makes mention of all the main events connected with Christ’s incarnation beginning with the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin, all the events of the Nativity, the flight into Egypt and the Presentation of our Lord in the temple. In the early Church, the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated together with the Nativity on Christmas day. The day after on the 26th December, the Church celebrates the Synaxis of the Mother of God and the hymn was probably composed to be sung on this day. Later the Feast of the Annunciation was moved to the 25th March and when this happened the Akathist Hymn was also appointed for this day. During the Ottoman Empire the Hymn was transferred from the fixed calendar and instead of it being sung on the 25th March, it was appointed to be sung on the fifth Saturday of Lent. The custom of singing a portion on the first four Fridays is even more recent and is only observed by the Greeks. It became part of the Lenten tradition because the Feast of the Annunciation on the 25th March almost always falls within the period of the Great Fast. If any of you have never attended these services you should make the effort: the Akathist Hymn is truly one of the most beautiful hymns of the Orthodox Church which is verified by the fact that so many people come to hear it.
So now let’s take a quick look at the Sundays of Lent. The first Sunday is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On this day the Church commemorates the victory over Iconoclasm and the restoration of the veneration of the Icons which occurred on 11 March 843 in Constantinople. There is no connection of this celebration with Lent and the Feast is purely historical as the first “Triumph of Orthodoxy” took place on the first Sunday of Lent and the Orthodox Church continued to celebrate this feast every year on the same Sunday. We have talked about this special feast before in the talk on Icons and in the talks on the History of the Church. There we mentioned that the Church continues to celebrate this feast because it was not only the Icon that was being defended, but also the very dogma of the Incarnation [the church’s beliefs concerning God becoming man]. The Icon is directly connected to this dogma, which is the very foundation of Christianity and which all our hopes of salvation depend on. The feast then is a celebration of the victory of the true faith over all the heresies and errors that the Church has had to do battle with. At the end of the Liturgy the priest will stand by the royal Doors and say in a loud voice: “A yearly thanksgiving is due to God on account of that day when we recovered the Church of God, with the manifestation of the pious dogmas and the overthrowing of the blasphemies of wickedness.” After this a procession with the holy Icons is made around the Church and at intervals the priests says petitions on behalf of all those that defended the Orthodox faith. When he reaches the main entrance again, he reads extracts from the synodical decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The service is said in an abbreviated form leaving out the 60 anathemas against the various heretics from the third to the fourteenth century.
The Second Sunday is dedicated to the memory of St. Gregory Palamas. Again this has nothing to do with Great Lent, but is actually a continuation of the previous Sunday’s feast for the Triumph of Orthodoxy. If you remember our last talk on the History of the Church we mentioned the Hesychast controversy in the 14th century. St. Gregory Palamas defended the Orthodox practice of Hesychast spirituality from the attacks of Barlaam, Akindynos and other heretics of his time. His victory is seen as a renewed Triumph of Orthodoxy and so is celebrated on the next Sunday after the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
The Third Sunday is dedicated to the Life-giving Cross and is called “Κυριακή της Σταυροπροσκυνήσεως” Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. We are now in Mid-Lent, we have been fasting for 20 days and if our physical and spiritual efforts have been sincere and consistent, we should begin to feel tired and even think that the fast is somewhat a burden on our way of life. We need help to carry on and some form of encouragement. At the same time we begin to see that our pilgrimage, our journey to the fatherland is not so far away. In the Gospel reading for this Sunday we hear Christ’s commandment “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34) Lent for us is our self crucifixion and our experience of this commandment, but it is not our cross that saves us, but the Life-giving Cross of our Saviour Jesus Christ and so this is now placed in our midst to remind us that the day of his Crucifixion is approaching, but also his glorious Resurrection. Thus with the Cross we are encouraged to continue our Lenten effort. This is the message we are given in the synaxarion for the day, it says:
“On this Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, we celebrate the veneration of the honourable and Life-Giving Cross, and for this reason: inasmuch as in the forty days of fasting we in a way crucify ourselves…and become bitter and despondent and failing, the Life-Giving Cross is presented to us for refreshment and assurance, for remembrance of our Lords Passion, and for comfort… We are like those following a long and cruel path, who become tired, see a beautiful tree with many leaves, sit in its shadow and rest for a while and then, as if rejuvenated, continue their journey; likewise today, in the time of fasting and difficult journey and effort, the Life-Giving Cross was planted in our midst by the holy fathers to give us rest and refreshment, to make us light and courageous for the remaining task… Or, to give another example: when a king is coming, at first his banner and symbols appear, then he himself comes glad and rejoicing about his victory and filling with joy those under him; likewise, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is about to show us His victory over death, and appear to us in the glory of the Resurrection Day, is sending to us in advance His sceptre, the royal symbol—the Life-Giving Cross—and it fills us with joy and makes us ready to meet, inasmuch as it is possible for us, the King himself, and to render glory to His victory…. All this in the midst of Lent which is like a bitter source because of its tears, because also of its efforts and despondency…but Christ comforts us who are as it were in a desert until He shall lead us up to the spiritual Jerusalem by His Resurrection… for the Cross is called the Tree of Life, it is the tree that was planted in Paradise, and for this reason our fathers have planted it in the midst of Holy Lent, remembering both Adam’s bliss and how he was deprived of it, remembering also that partaking of this Tree we no longer die but are kept alive….”
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the memory of St. John Climacus or St. John of the Ladder. Most saint-days which fall on weekdays during Lent are transferred to be celebrated on the Saturday or Sunday of that week. St. John’s feast-day is 30th March which almost always falls in Great Lent, but he has been assigned a special Sunday in Lent because, by virtue of his writings and his own life, he forms a pattern, a model, an example of the true Christian ascetic. St. John is the author of the Book called the Ladder of Divine Ascent or just simply the Ladder. In this work, we see how, by means of thirty steps, in other words 30 steps of a spiritual ladder from earth to heaven, the Christian gradually ascends from below to the heights of supreme spiritual perfection. We see how one virtue leads to another, as a man rises higher and higher and finally attains to that height where there abides the crown of the virtues which is called Christian love.
The Fifth Sunday is like the Fourth in that it is dedicated to another great ascetic of the Church - St. Mary of Egypt - possibly one of the greatest examples of repentance. Like that of St. John of the Ladder, her feast day is on the 1st April, but is assigned to this special Sunday. Her life story which is also read on the previous Thursday is truly a remarkable account of how a person can change from his evil ways and with true repentance can reach Christian perfection. At the age of Twelve, Mary left her home and went to Alexandria where she lost her virginity. From then on, for seventeen years, she lived a life of sexual depravity. But she didn’t do it for the money, but because she wanted it and enjoyed it. One day she saw a big crowd hurrying towards the sea and asked where everyone was going. She was informed that they were all off to Jerusalem for the feast of the Elevation of the Life-giving Cross, which was in a few days. Drawn by curiosity she decided to board one of the ships and although she had no money for the fare or provisions for the journey, she found a group of ten young men who were waiting for even more of their company and asked them to pay her fare and in return they would not find her useless. What took place on the journey I’ll leave to your imagination, but in her own words she even forced men against their own will to take part in her depravity. When they reached Jerusalem she spent the days before the feast in a similar manner. As she says herself “I was not satisfied with the young men and seduced many others – citizens of Jerusalem and strangers.”

When the day for the feast came she rushed with the others to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But when she tried to enter the Church with the others some invisible force pushed her back from the threshold. This happened three or four times and she realized the reason for not being allowed to see the Life-giving Cross was her impurity. She began to weep, beating her breast and groaning from the depths of her heart. Above where she stood was an Icon of the Mother of God. She began to plead with the Mother of God and asked her to command the entrance of the Church to be opened to her and that after she has seen and venerated the Cross she would renounce the world and everything in it and go to a place where the Mother of God would lead her. Gaining hope from her prayer, she again tries to enter the Church and this time nothing stopped her entering. After this she left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan and settled in a remote region of the desert. Here, for the next forty seven years she remained hidden from the world until she was eventually found by the ascetic St. Zossima, who was able to give her Holy Communion shortly before her death. St. Mary’s life is truly a remarkable story and is a must for everyone to read. She describes how she suffered from the scorching heat and the bitter cold, but also the many torments and temptations she suffered for the first seventeen years in the desert naked and without food, except for various edible plants she came across. But because English books are not so readily available in Cyprus, maybe at some later date, I should make copies of it for all of you.
This Fifth Sunday is actually the last Sunday of Great Lent. There remains another five days of Lent in the week called the week of the Palms and ends with the Friday before Lazarus Saturday. During this week the hymns centre on Lazarus. Monday and Tuesday make mention of his sickness then on Wednesday his death is announced, Thursday we are told that he has been dead for two days and on Friday we are told that on the morrow Christ comes to raise the dead brother of Martha and Mary.
That then is all we have time for. It would have been good to have another week to talk about Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and holy Week, but as I said at the very beginning, this is our last talk until after Easter.
Kalo Stadio to everyone and hope to see you all at the Liturgies.