Faces of Lent: moments of sacred time

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Preparatory Sundays are milestones on the way to Lent

Augustine Sokolovski, doctor of theology, priest

Lent begins on Monday, 18 March. It will last until 4 May. Easter in 2024 is celebrated on 5 May. This date for celebrating Easter is one of the latest. The coincidence of the Resurrection of Christ and the onset of truly warm and festive springtime carries special semantics. “Today spring is fragrant,” says one of the Easter chants.

The Orthodox liturgical calendar allows the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ from 4 April to 8 May. This range is determined by the ancient rule that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, which occurs no earlier than the vernal equinox on 21 March. This clear principle is important to remember. It helps understand why the date of celebration varies from year to year and how this happens. Admiring the birth of the full moon in the night sky, our thoughts are carried away into the distant past, like the hero of Chekhov’s story The Student: “At just such a fire the Apostle Peter warmed himself,” said the student, stretching out his hands to the fire, “so it must have been cold then, too. Ah, what a terrible night it must have been <…> They began to question Jesus, and meantime the labourers made a fire in the yard as it was cold and warmed themselves. Peter, too, stood with them near the fire and warmed himself as I am doing.”  Such a special look at nature, at everyday phenomena, is a real spiritual exercise. It is amazing how Chekhov briefly and brilliantly expressed its biblical essence. Believers of the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans, Lutherans and members of various Protestant churches and church communities celebrate Easter at the same time. As a rule, their accepted date of celebration almost never coincides with the Orthodox one. This happens because in determining the Easter cycle, the Orthodox Churches take the Julian calendar as a basis.

The latter lags behind the modern Gregorian calendar by thirteen days, and therefore the spring equinox in it actually falls not on 21 March, but on 3 April. Hence the first possible date for Easter is 4 April, and the last possible date is 8 May. In turn, among Catholics and Protestants, Easter can be celebrated between 22 March and 25 April. This year, Western, or Latin Easter, as it is sometimes called, is celebrated on 31 March. This is a very early date.

The difference in the dates of Easter celebrations between Christians should not be confusing. Indeed, in the first centuries of Christianity, there were different principles for determining the date of Easter. This did not prevent the various local churches of the time from being in communion and coexisting peacefully. At times, there was a desire among churches to unify the date of celebration, which gave rise to controversy.

It is generally accepted that the end to disagreements was put at the First Ecumenical Council in 325. Then the Orthodox bishops of the Roman Empire and some outside of it established in the city of Nicaea the principle of determining the date of Easter, which is familiar to us today. Although the difference in the dates of Easter between Orthodox and Catholics is not related to that ancient dispute, there is currently talk of arriving at a single date for Easter in time for the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea.

Christ Pantocrator from Vysotsky chin. Byzantine anonymous master. 1387–1395

In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, the celebration of Easter is preceded by Great Lent. It is generally accepted that it consists of two parts. The first is called “Great 40 Days” in the liturgical charter. It begins on the first Monday of Lenten, which is traditionally called “Clean Monday”. In 1944, Ivan Bunin created a story of the same name. This and many other examples from our literature show how deeply the great Russian writers were rooted in church tradition and culture.

 The Great 40 Days continue until Friday of the 6th week of Great Lent. Then, during the service, the texts of hymns and prayers say that the period was accomplished by the faithful.

Exactly forty days must pass from the first day of Great Lent to the end of its first part. This is a time of personal repentance, ascetic exercises, radical self-limitation in entertainment, food, and drink. This year, the Great 40 Days will continue from 18 March to 26 April.

The second part of Great Lent is called Holy Week. It begins on the Monday after the Great 40 Days and continues until Holy Saturday, that is, an incomplete week. This is the most valuable and precious time of the church year for believers. All attention in everyday life and in worship is given to the remembrance of the Sacred Passion of Christ the Saviour. Persecution of Him by those in power in Israel, the betrayal of Judas, the Last Supper, the Trial and sentence, the Crucifixion, the Cross, death in agony and the descent into hell make up the semantic outline of the events of this sacred time of the last days of the earthly Life of the Lord. On the night between the Holy Saturday and Sunday, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ begins.

Thus, Lent consists of two parts. Two periods exist in it and complement each other. One of them is a time of personal efforts of believers in repentance, self-restraint, work on oneself and correction.

The second part of Lent is a period of remembrance of the Passion of the Lord, which has the most powerful universal Christological gravity. It is important not to forget about this mysterious diachrony to consciously pass the Lenten season for the benefit of the mind, spirit and soul, and not just for the limitation of the body.

It is extremely important to remember that there is another period during Great Lent, which, as a rule, remains unnoticed by secular people. These are the so-called preparatory Sundays. They are milestones on the way to entering Great Lent.

The first sign of the approaching Great Lent is Sunday, during the liturgy of which an excerpt from the Gospel of Luke, dedicated to the conversion of Zacchaeus, is read. This is chapter 19, verses 1‑10. In just ten lines, the Evangelist talks about how “Jesus entered Jericho and passed through it” (1).

In Scripture, the city of Jericho was considered one of the personifications of human sin, and therefore the mention of it in the context of the earthly life of the Lord had a special meaning. At the time of Jesus, there lived in the city “one named Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a rich man” and a sinner (2). “He was small in stature” (3) and in the crowd he could not see Jesus passing by. Then, contrary to the opinion of the people, who, without a doubt, already despised him for collaborating with the authorities of the pagan Roman Empire due to his profession, Zacchaeus climbed the fig tree. “Because He had to pass by,” says the Gospel (4). But the Lord did not pass by. He saw a formidable man, who had previously inspired fear in those around him, absurdly perched on a tree. “Zacchaeus! Come down quickly, for today I need to be in your house” (6). As before, in other places in the Gospel, Jesus Himself goes to sinful people, seeking their conversion.

This Gospel reading, which emphasizes the blessing of Zacchaeus’ house, is always read during the blessing of the home. Perhaps this is the only liturgical service that everyone asks the priest to perform, both convinced believers and people who do not regularly go to church. In this community of fearless likening to Zacchaeus in the spontaneous gesture of seeking blessing, the Church unites people. Reading about this event at Sunday liturgy indicates the approach of Lenten time. “Jesus said to Zacchaeus, ‘Now salvation has come to this house, for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost’” (9–10).

The main liturgical book used during Great Lent is a collection called the Triodion. Since the Triodion is not yet used during the service on Zacchaeus Sunday, the Sunday of Zacchaeus is not always perceived as preparatory. However, the content of the Gospel reading, which contains a call to repentance and a promise of forgiveness, is already addressed to Lenten themes.

The next preparatory Sunday is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. On this day, during the liturgy, the text from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, verses 14‑18 is read. In this text, the Lord Jesus taught those listening to Him a lesson in attitude towards God and neighbours, the Gospel image of doing good, inseparable from humility and repentance.

According to the sacred text, “two people entered the Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, and the other is a publican” (10). The appeal to the image of the tax collector – the publican, which in the words about Zacchaeus was a real event, in this Gospel reading becomes a parable. In his prayer, the Pharisee thanked God, described his external virtues – fasting, tithing, etc. – and condemned his neighbours for their sins. “The publican, standing in the distance, did not even dare to raise his eyes to the sky; but, hitting himself on the chest, he said: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’”  (13).

These short words were miraculously imprinted in the memory of the Church. In the Eastern monastic tradition, the practice of constantly repeating the words of the publican arose, which over time became the Jesus Prayer. And the refusal to imitate the self-praise of the Pharisee has as its consequence the fact that in the Orthodox Church, fasting on Wednesday and Friday, during the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, is strictly abolished.

This reading also has a different, sad connotation. The Pharisee and the Publican prayed in the Jerusalem Temple. In fact, this prayer of theirs was one of the farewell prayers in this sacred place, which was the only Temple of God on earth, which, soon after the Crucifixion of the Lord, was destined to be destroyed under the blows of the Roman army. From now on, the temple of God will be the hearts of people who believe in Christ.

Following the Week of the Publican and the Pharisee comes the third preparatory Sunday before Great Lent. During the liturgy the Parable of the Prodigal Son is read.

This is the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verses 11–32. This text is of great importance. We can say that it largely shaped the existence of the entire Christian world. This small fragment of the Gospel narrative created the most important elements of secular culture and Christian spirituality.

Thus, the main hymn of monastic tonsure is dedicated to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A person who becomes a monk takes on his image. Theology tells us that monasticism is not a sacrament, but a continuation of baptism. Thus, this parable reflects the life of every Christian. Images in culture, paintings, works of art, and literature are dedicated to the prodigal son. The phrase “Prodigal Son” has become a common expression in different languages. It is surprising that without this parable it is impossible to imagine the history of mankind. This parable can have many interpretations. The first one reminds us of Christianity. According to Scripture and the Fathers, the Church was constituted from Jews and pagans. The pagans are the prodigal son. They turned to God later than the biblical people of the Old Testament. The second interpretation is the spiritual life of each person. Most of us turned to faith consciously. We rejected our previous mistakes and came to Christ. Heavenly Father took us into His arms. Another interpretation reminds us of the names and images of God. God has many names. But the most important thing is the conviction that God is our Father. We talk about this in the Lord’s Prayer. God became our Father in baptism. The Creed begins with the words that God is our Father. “I believe in One God, Father, Almighty,” it says. One of the ancient patericons, that is, collections about the life and sayings of ascetics, tells how a man from the city came to one of the monks in the desert and said: “Your father is dead.” “You are lying, my Father is immortal,” replied the monk. God is our Father, “God is the Father” is not just a name, but a dogma, the essence of Christian Orthodoxy. Thirdly, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son is All Saints’ Day. After all, every saint went through conversion and repentance. Each saint received forgiveness and blessing, was clothed in robes of light, and was received into the arms of the Heavenly Father. Finally, the parable has a new moral meaning. We live in the postmodern era. One of its symbols is constant changeability. There is nothing permanent, says our time. Changeability has become a kind of virtue of postmodernity. Therefore, we must understand that the return of the prodigal son to God will be repeated. People, peoples, countries and civilisations will forget about God, leave Him, come again, leave again and return again to the Church, which is the Father’s House. The parable teaches us each time again and again to return to God quickly and without doubt; it teaches us to rejoice every time at the return of our neighbours to God, to be able to thank, accept and not judge.

The fourth preparatory Sunday before Great Lent is called the Week of the Last Judgment. During the liturgy of this day, the final part of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is read, verses 31‑46. In this passage the Evangelist speaks about the Judgment through the mouth of the Lord Jesus, or, better, the Lord Jesus Himself, in the Holy Spirit, by the hand of the Evangelist. This Judgment will take place at the end of history.

The picture of the Judgment, an event that will forever determine the fate of all mankind, unfolds in just sixteen verses. Hardly any of the Gospel texts, besides the stories of the Nativity, the Cross and the Resurrection, has shaped and continues to determine the development of the entire world to such an extent for the past two thousand years.

“Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you accepted me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me,” says the Lord (34–36).

Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son, circa 1668

Everyone is called to salvation. This corresponds to the common criteria of justification and condemnation.

The very idea of charity, service to others, selflessness and self-sacrifice, not for the sake of selfishness or profit, but for the sake of the neighbour and for the sake of God, over time created a system of health care and social assistance that continues to save millions of lives, even if its original biblical rationale has faded into the shadows over time. The thought of the Last Judgment shaped the contours of human conscience and gave specific, great, unique features to culture, art and literature. The image of the Last Judgment is the only image of the future in iconography. It adorns the great cathedrals of antiquity.

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory, and all nations will be gathered before Him” (31–32). Thus, the Lord Himself testifies to the universality of the upcoming Judgment. “All nations” is also a prophecy that faith in the One True God will become universal and will no longer be limited to one chosen people, as it was in the Old Testament.

The words about “all nations” are evidence that the preaching of the good news about Christ will be worldwide, and the Lord Jesus is the Messiah who came to the salvation of all. Belief in the Second Coming of the Lord and the Last Judgment is part of the biblical New Testament Revelation and Christian dogma. “I believe in the Lord Jesus, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” says the Creed. The Lord Jesus will return to earth in glory and bring judgment upon all the nations of the earth.

The content of the Parable of the Last Judgment is extremely clear. Cases for which the righteous are acquitted and the condemned are rejected do not require allegory. However, this text is one of the most difficult to understand.

Theologians and preachers of all times, starting from the patristic era, have asked the question why the Lord Jesus said nothing about faith or dogma. He spoke only about elementary human needs – food, drink, clothing and shelter, as well as duty towards the sick and deprived of liberty – as criteria for justification or condemnation. This deliberate contradiction in the Gospel text, one of the few contradictions introduced into Scripture by the Holy Spirit Himself, will forever remain without a final answer.

Paul Gustave Dore. The Pharisee and the Publican. Between 1866 and 1870

Perhaps, if the Lord, in one form or another, mentioned the truths of faith, this would become a colossal and insurmountable reason for sinful pride and vanity for all future Christians. But before the tragic complexity of contact with one’s neighbour in help and service, everyone is equal. Doing good deeds without any self-interest is the essence of the moral teaching of the New Testament.

At the same time, the entire story about the Last Judgment is, in fact, a testimony about Christ Himself. An important feature of the Gospel of Matthew is its extreme attention to detail. The fact that the Parable of the Last Judgment, as this text is often called by interpreters, was placed by the evangelist immediately before the beginning of the story of the Passion and Death of the Lord on the Cross, speaks of its extreme importance. In fact, it sums up the entire earthly life of Jesus.

Jesus bids farewell to His Disciples, those who believed and, most importantly, those who rejected Him, and declares that He will henceforth return in glory at the end of history for Judgment. The apostolic circle will see Him after the Resurrection. Those who did not believe in Him during His earthly preaching will never see Him on earth again. The sixteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew became the foundation of human relationships and a guide to salvation. It is important to learn them by heart and repeat them constantly, like a prayer for help.

The last preparatory Sunday before Lent (this year it falls on 17 March) is called Forgiveness Sunday. This time the topic of thought for believers is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. During the liturgy, the text is read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 14–21, where the Lord Jesus speaks about the need for mutual forgiveness. “If you forgive people their sins, then your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive people their sins, then your Father will not forgive you your sins” (14–15). Fulfilling what is written, in the evening, after a special Lenten Vespers, believers ask each other for forgiveness in order to begin a new, repentant time for themselves and for the Church. Forgiveness Sunday, the Day of Forgiveness reveals to us the essence of the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is God’s self-revelation in accepting His people, in mutual forgiveness and blessing. We peer at the faces of Great Lent, revealed in divine services and gospel readings, we learn to understand and rejoice in the fact that God is the true future of every person and all people in Jesus Christ.

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