Russian Orthodox Church and
Skete of the Resurrection of Christ
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Preparing for Great Lent

The center of the liturgical year in the Orthodox Church is Pascha, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection.  It is extolled in the services as the Feast of feasts and Triumph of triumphs. Justifiably so, for as the Apostle Paul declares, if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain (I Cor. 15:14). Through His redeeming Passion, Christ freed us from the tyranny of death and opened for us the door to Paradise and eternal life.  This is the goal of our life-long spiritual journey, a journey from death to life, from darkness to light.  It is a long journey and we travellers get weary; we get distracted and wander off or even lose sight of the road.  To help keep us focussed, the Church every year compresses for us this journey as it prepares us to greet the Feast of Christ's Resurrection, which is a foretaste of that eternal  Pascha.

The third preparatory week begins with the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. We should all be familiar with the parable, found in St. Luke's Gospel. How does it apply to us, to our spiritual life? The younger son was bored at home.  He took his inheritance and went off into a far country, where he squandered what he had on riotous living. How often do we find ourselves enticed by the ways and the pleasures of this world, our hearts indifferent to the things of God, our minds wandering "in a far country" as we stand in church?   The result?  We become spiritually parched, like the prodigal son who experienced "a severe famine" in the land of his sojourning.  Finally, when he was reduced to feeding swine, i.e., when he was in desperate circumstances, "he came to himself."  He saw what kind of person he was; he realized he had deeply wounded his father, and he  was willing to admit his error and ask his father's forgiveness.  The fact that he had to travel a long way, without money, to return home demonstrates his strong resolve. We must have the same determination and show similar exertion in departing from sin and self-indulgence, and in making our way back to God and our true homeland which is in heaven.  And with what joy the father received him-coming towards him when his son was still a great way off-, with what readiness he forgave him, just as God will greet and forgive us if we come to our senses, repent and have the determination to act upon our repentance.

We cannot, however, take God's mercy for granted, and the Church makes this clear to us the following Sunday, when it speaks to us about the Last Judgment, reminding us that God is not only a loving Father but also a righteous Judge.  In the appointed Gospel reading, we hear about how the Son of Man will come at the end of the world to judge all men, when He will divide the righteous from the wicked "as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats."  Each man will receive recompense for his deeds: those who have done good-who have shown compassion on their neighbor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the needy-will inherit everlasting life, while those who have neglected works of charity, who have not shown love to their neighbor, will go away into everlasting punishment.

It is not enough to repent in our thoughts or with our feelings, or even to express it in words. the fruit of real repentance is a change in our way of life.  During the Vespers for that Sunday, we chant:

Knowing the commandments of the Lord, let this be our way of life: Let us feed the hungry, let us give the thirsty to drink, Let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers, Let us visit those in prison and the sick.

Then the judge of all the earth will say even to us: 'Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.' On the very threshold of Great Lent, we commemorate the expulsion of Adam  and Eve from Paradise.  Here is an example of what happens when we do not fast, when we do not repent.  Shall we remain outside the gates of Paradise, weeping in the darkness of our sins, far removed from God, or shall we hearken to the voice of the Church inviting us, urging us to "set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat," that cleansed by fasting and the works of repentance, we may be led back into Paradise, into the everlasting joy of our Resurrected Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

For most of us, the dominant feature of Great Lent is fasting from certain foods.  Here, too, these preparatory weeks lead us gradually towards stricter abstinence.  Following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the usual Wednesday and Friday fasts are not observed, that we might not boast in keep in he fasting "rules," and as a reminder that fasting is only a means, an aid on the path to salvation; it is not a ticket to heaven. The next week we return to the wise moderation of the Church's discipline, observing the usual Wednesday and Friday fasts.  It is called Meat-fare Week, because at the end of that week, on Sunday, we stop eating meat for the duration of Great Lent.

The following week, Cheese-fare week, it is customary to eat "cheese fare," i.e., milk products and eggs.  With the exception of meat, it is a fast-free week, although it is desirable to observe the Wednesday and Friday fasts until evening. Cheese-fare week is popularly regarded as a week of entertaining and indulging in the butteriest foods.  But, as noted above, the church services for this week recall the fall of Adam and Eve-the result of indulgence. On Cheese-fare Saturday, the Church commemorates "all the righteous who shone forth in the ascetic life"-in fasting and prayer.  It is a week to use up what dairy products we have in the house before Great Lent, to begin paring down our food intake, not to stuff ourselves as if we were going to starve for the next forty days. We enter Great Lent with the rite of forgiveness following vespers on Cheese-fare Sunday.  Clergy and laity ask one another's forgiveness, and then the priest blesses everyone for their journey through the Great Fast. Strengthening ourselves with the desire of Zacchaeus, the humility of the publican, the resolve of the Prodigal Son, sobriety at the thought of God's righteous judgment and the lesson of Adam's expulsion from Paradise, we are well equipped "for the noble contest of the Fast."

"Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat.  Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion.  Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover." Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness.  

Sources: The Lenten Triodion, Faber & Faber, 1978; Put' k Paskhe in

Pravoslavnaya Beseda, Moscow, 1991 No. 2; The One Thing Needful,  Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveyevo, St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1991; "Ot Pokayaniye k Obnovleniyu" by Archpriest Valery Lukianov, in Pravoslavnaya Rus, Jordanville, 1994, No. 3.  (from Orthodox America)