Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries

Home Page

On Orthodoxy

Great Lent: The course towards Pascha

By Michael Houlis, theologian Professor

Source: Spiritual gleanings from the excellent book of the select theologian (Dr. of Theology) Nicholas G. Nevrakis, THE SOLEMN TRIODION, Athens, 1995



520 years ago, the renowned explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the new world - America - after a 70-day journey and a tough struggle with relentless waves and the difficult characters of the rest of the crew.  The same applies to Christians, when they struggle against their own passions during the 70 days of the most spiritual period of the Triodion (from the Sunday of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee, through to the evening of Holy Saturday), and succeed in discovering the bright new world of Christs Resurrection.  The period of Lent is approximately 1/10 of the year (if we take it to consist of approximately 400 days).  It was the custom of the Judeans and Christians later on to offer their tithe (the one tenth of their earnings) to the poor. If everyone observed this golden rule today, there would no longer be anyone in need.  The Great Lent is called Great, because it is one week longer than the Lenten period of Christmas.  The last week is also referred to as Great Holy Week, because it reenacts the last, world-saving events of Christs life.  The period of Great Lent is a unique and distinct period of the ecclesiastic year.  It is an oasis in a contemporary Saharan desert.  In Russia, the courts and theatres used to remain closed as a sign of respect.  Even children limited their games in the streets (Alex. Schmemann, Great Lent).

It includes excellent and extremely theological Services like Sunday Vespers, Evening Services, the Liturgies of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, the Salutations to the Theotokos, the Saturday Vespers and Sunday Matins, the Liturgies of Basil the Great, the Great Canon:

The Sunday Vespers include the familiar, ancient hymn, Joyous Light, wonderful psalms (103, 140, 141), solemn hymns e.a..   Vespers and Matins were created in the Monastery of Saint Savvas in Jerusalem and were propagated from there to the entire Church.

The Evening Service is performed throughout Lent and the words O Lord of Powers, be with us, which comes from Psalm 45: The Lord of Powers is with us.  This psalm had inspired the freedom fighter Lycourgos Logothetis in 1822 and fortified the spirits of the people of Samos when they averted the Turkish onslaught on the island (K.Kallinikos, The Sacred Psalms in practice, Thessaloniki, 1927).

The Liturgies of the Pre-sanctified Gifts (usually on Wednesdays and Fridays). Given that the entire period is one of mourning and no Liturgy is performed on weekdays (except for Saturday), and in order for the faithful to be able to receive Holy Communion, the Gifts have been offered from the previous Sunday Liturgy, and have been transported by the Priest (with covered head), slowly and very solemnly, from the side portal, through the Royal Gate, to the Holy Altar. Fifteen Psalms are read (119-133) which are called To the Lord; the Readings are from Genesis, Proverbs and Job, as well as 10 Troparia Hymns of that day.  Especially sweet is the prayer Let my prayer be directed like incense before You..  When the famed musician Camille Saint-Saëns heard byzantine music for the first time in Alexandria, he was amazed, and declared that he would gladly sacrifice his music to write byzantine melodies (see N.Tsigoulis Byzantine Music as a Hellenic-Christian Tradition, Athens, 1967).

The Salutations to the Theotokos, which are chanted every Friday evening (an exceptional hymn is the To the General Defender the victory thanks) had begun to be composed after August of 626, when the Avars  were besieging Constantinople and the City was saved miraculously. The Theotokos was named Prophetess by the Fathers of the Church, also god after God, and the greatest wonder of the world.  She was praised by the archangel Gabriel and was referred to as Full of Grace during Her conception of Jesus (Luke 1:28).  At the end, the wonderful prayers of the Evening Service are read: and give us, O Lord, who are departing for sleep, as well as the Spotless, Undefiled, Incorrupt, Immaculate, Pure Virgin, God-bride Lady works of the 11th century.  The last Troparion, The beauty of Your Virginity best portrays the importance of the celebration.

The Saturday Vespers and the Sunday Matins are dedicated to the Resurrection of the Lord. Prayers that are heard include: When You descended, Let the heavens delight and From above did You the merciful descend. The Church, and Christianity in general, relies on the empty Tomb of Christ. According to Chrysostom, the biggest proof of the Resurrection was the martyred death of the 10  Apostles (with the exception of John, who died at a very advanced age, and Judas, who hanged himself), as well as the many other disciples of Christ, who saw the resurrected Christ with their own eyes and who were not afraid of losing fortunes, families, even their very lives for Him.

The Liturgy of Basil the Great is performed 10 times in the year (Feast of St.Basil, Christmas Eve, and Theophany, the 5 Sundays of Great Lent, Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday).  The Divine Liturgy is the most beautiful poem of the ages.  Nicholas Gogol, the prominent Russian man of literature, wrote the following: If the world has not yet been destroyed, it is thanks to the Divine Liturgy (from his book Liturgy).  Saint John the Chrysostom had observed the following:  Of the seven days of the week, God asked us to dedicate just two hours of a Sunday liturgy, and yet, we cant even offer that to Him! (EP 49,363). This is truly indicative of ingratitude.

The Great Canon is performed on Wednesday afternoon in the 5th week of Lent.  It consists of 250 Troparions and other ones, in honour of the blessed Mary of Egypt and Saint Andrew (Bishop) of Crete (+740 A.D.), inventor of the Canons (8 groups of very solemn hymns; the first hymn of each group is called Eirmos, because it gives its melody to the pursuant troparions).  It is a hymn of repentance. Tens of figures from the Old Testament and the New parade within this poetic masterpiece.  The heart of the Great Canon is the  prayer:  o my soul, my soul, rise up! Why do you sleep?   


Two words below, on the stations of our ecclesiastic hymnography: From the very first Christian years, up until 300 A.D. the Troparions were valid, simple hymns that were later named that way because they were dependent on the manner they were chanted (but also their content: Glorification Hymns, Theotokos Hymns, Closing Hymns, e.a.) An excellent example is the Hymn Bright Light of Vespers.  In the 2nd period (3rd 8th A.D., of the major Fathers of the Church) the Kontakia group of Hymns dedicated to a certain celebrated event prevailed. They were named that way because their paper was wrapped around a wooden rod (konton). From the 8th century onwards, during the years of Saint John the Damascene and Theodore the Studite, the Canons prevailed.

The Salvific Messages that are derived from this most spiritual period are the following:

The Church is an ongoing miracle:  It is the most precious of treasures, where we experience liturgical or condensed Time. In the Atlantic Ocean, the captain of a large ship sent his son, an experienced navigator, to a ship in danger. But the captain of that endangered ship refused the offer of salvation, which resulted in the drowning of all on board. This event signifies the Supreme Captain (God), His Emissary Son, and the refusal of many people to be saved.  In Aristotles time, savage robbers used to bind a living person to a dead one, until the living one eventually died. Christ is by far a superior liberator that would unbind and save the unfortunate arrested ones.


The Divine Eucharist is also an ongoing miracle:  In ancient Rome, twelve-year old Tarsizius had receive the Precious Gifts from the Priest and bring them to a prison. He died on the street, beaten up by other youngsters for protecting the Holy Eucharist in his bosom. He succeeded in delivering the Precious Gifts to a Christian officer and the Bishop sent the Holy Communion to the prison with a Deacon.  In there, a chain-bound Priest performed the Divine Liturgy and gave Holy Communion to the prisoners, with the Deacon offering his chest as a Holy Altar. The next day, all of them were martyred for Christ, with the undefeatable Majestic Blood of the Lord. During the Last Supper, Christ said to His disciples: Whatever you ask for in My Name, I will do it for you (John 1413).  The ships Supreme Captain may not be visible, however the ship is governed. A childs kite may be lost among the clouds, but with the tugging of its string, it becomes perceptible. This is the case with the kite of the Holy Spirit, which happens to be Christ.  He is perceived, thanks to His inner, spiritual presence in the heart. Indeed, when Christ stated that thenceforth they would eat His Body and drink His Blood, there were some who departed from Him.  Turing to His disciples, Christ asked: Do you too want to leave? Then the Apostle Peter replied: Lord, who should we go to? Only You have words of eternal life. (John 668) 


Prayer: It is the souls breath. Why do you call out to me? God asks Moses (Exod.14:15) when he was praying within himself.  The power of his prayer was immense; his heart was crying out, the voice of his soul reached the heavens (Chrysostom).  The blind man who called out to Christ, the hemorrhaging woman, the robber on the cross, the tax-collector, the Apostle Peter and the earthquake in his prison, the earthquake in Saint Pauls prison (Acts 16) are just a few examples of miracle-working prayers.  The renowned poet and atheist T.S.Elliott became a Christian when he observed simple folks praying while kneeling, filled with celestial joy, in a monastery of England. Doreen Irvin, formerly a queen of black magic, on hearing the faithful praying one night with their melodious voices, converted and returned to Christianity.  Prayer becomes weakened with ritualism (only external expressions of faith), with habit (the prayer of priests should be My God, let me never get used to You!), disrespect (commenting and reproaching of persons) and rare churchgoing. 


The Holy Bible is the letter of God:  Even major philosophers had felt an earthquake inside them when reading the Holy Bible. For example, when Voltaire read the 50th Psalm (Have mercy on me, o God).  Kant never found happiness in the thousands of books he had read, except only in Psalm 22 (Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I shall not be afraid, for You are with me, Lord). If by receiving wishing cards, letters, mobile phone messages or emails from friends and relatives we are filled with emotions and love, imagine how much more warmth of heart we must feel for the heavenly book of our greatest relative God!  Finally, Napoleon and Dostoevsky met Christ through the New Testament, which the former had read on the island of his exile, Saint Helen, and the latter when a copy of it was gifted to him by an elderly lady, on his way to his exile in Siberia. 


Repentance-Confession implies a change in course.  In 1966, the ship Falkonera sank in the waters north of Crete.  220 passengers were lost.  The Piraeus Port Authority had issued a bad weather warning which the captain had disregarded, overestimating the capabilities of the vessel.  However, another vessel, the Phaistos (on course from Chania to Piraeus) made a timely change in course and was saved in Piraeus.  The sea is contemporary society.  We are the all-weather vessels.  The Port Authority (God) issues urgent warnings signals and prompts us to change course.  The tempests are the passions of the soul, our malices, our weaknesses. We are saved, only if Christ governs us, inside His Church.  Christ is the harmless Lamb of the Gospels, Who was slaughtered for our sake.  What will be our excuse, if we become wolves when eating the Lamb?  A Russian criminal who had been given reprieve in the last century had confessed to the holy Abbott of a distant monastery.  The Abbott later said that he had been the superior visitor, as he had repented with a pained soul.  Confession is the best medicine for spiritual ailments, according to the Swiss psychiatrist, Jung. The queen of the Assyrians, Semiramis, murdered her husband after being allowed to reign for one day only. That is what sin does. It entices you temporarily in order to disappoint you immediately after. The workers in a metal processing factory in Europe were subjected to a painful therapy when iron shavings struck their eyes.  The doctors interventions brought a positive result, even though the therapy was painful for them.  The same applies with Confession, because it cleanses the soul, albeit with pain and shame.  


Finally, good deeds will accompany us eternally:  The parable of the ten bridesmaids shows this very clearly (Matth.25). In there, the 5 foolish virgins fell asleep, their lamps were extinguished since they didnt have enough oil in them, and thus they were unable to attend the wedding. On the contrary, the 5 prudent bridesmaids had arranged in time to have enough oil with them and so were able to welcome the Bridegroom and attend the wedding.  The number ten symbolizes all of mankind. The five prudent maidens represent the virtuous people.  The lamps represent faith, and the oil represents their good deeds.  The five foolish maidens symbolize those who do not have any good deeds.  Their sleep symbolizes death, and the marriage symbolizes Gods eternal kingdom.  From contemporary life, Professor of Medicine, Rigas Nikolaides, became a Christian thanks to the example of his maid, who felt immense joy in her faith, even though she was illiterate and poor, and lived very virtuously.  Papoulakos, a lay preacher of the past century, used to say the following story:  Once, there was a man who was in danger of being condemned.  Of his three friends, on the day of his trial, the first one remained calm, the second one accompanied him to the door of the courthouse, whereas the third friend pleaded in court and saved him from imprisonment.  Every person is an accused in the presence of Gods final Judgment.  The first friend symbolizes money, which remains indifferent. The second friend symbolizes friends and relatives, who accompany him to the grave. They cannot go any further.  The third friend is symbolic of ones good deeds, his love and his sanctity, which lead him into eternal life.

The road, therefore, to the kingdom of Heaven passes through piety, love, sacramental living, and humility. With these, we will be happy in both this life, and the one to come.

Translation:  K.N.

Article published in English on: 9-4-2017.

Last update: 9-4-2017.