Clean Monday begins with the Vespers of Forgiveness (held on Cheesefare Sunday evening). This Vespers service is a little different from most, with certain prayers being said at the end. They include the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. After these prayers, a very beautiful liturgical custom takes place. Starting from the highest ranking cleric to the last person in Church, everyone passes by and greets each other. They ask forgiveness from each other in preparation for Great Lent. This “greeting” is a wonderful way to begin Great Lent, in the spirit of forgiveness and Christian love. Clean Monday is the first full day of fasting. It is a custom of certain monasteries and people to fast from everything (except water) for the first 3 days of Great Lent, to commune during the first Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It is important to note that fasting for each person is determined by their spiritual father. Fasting and our participation in the services are ways for us to get closer to God.
About the Sundays of Great Lent...
1st Sunday of Lent - Sunday of Orthodoxy The 1st Sunday of Lent is dedicated to something that is close to our hearts: our Orthodox Church! Specifically, it’s dedicated to the times where the Church defeated iconoclasm. The heresy of iconoclasm was one started by Emperor Leo the Assyrian, who said that icons should not be allowed in Churches. Iconoclasts destroyed all kinds of icons, and said that Holy Communion and the Cross were the only valid kinds of icons. The Church declared this a heresy because Holy Communion is not a symbol, but is the actual Body and Blood of Christ! When a person kisses an icon or the Cross, they do not worship them, but venerate them (in other words, show them respect). The 7th Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea, declared that it is honorable and right to declare our Faith in such a way, depicting our Lord, the Theotokos and the Saints in icons. To commemorate this great day, Churches across the world have a special service that takes place at the end of the Divine Liturgy. The Altar Boys and various others process around the Church with icons, showing that “this is the Faith of the Apostles! This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox! This is the Faith on which has established the Universe!” May God bless our Church always!
2nd Sunday of Lent - Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas The city of Thessaloniki is known for its many Saints. One of them, the one to whom the Cathedral is dedicated to, is celebrated this Sunday. St. Gregory Palamas was Archbishop of Thessaloniki in the 14th century, and defended the Faith against Barlaam the Calabrian (who was against monasticism). He taught that divine grace is not created, but the uncreated energies of God are poured out throughout creation; otherwise, humanity could never have authentic communication with God. He reposed in the Lord in 1359. As we celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy last week, the Church decided to celebrate the memory of a man who was dedicated to the Faith and was one of its chief defenders at a time where heresy was threatening the Church. We also read the Gospel of Christ healing and forgiving the sins of the paralytic. We see in this Gospel reading that Christ is not only a man, but the God-Man who came to save us from corruption. He is the one to forgive our sins, and to bring us back to Paradise. Biblical Readings: Epistle: Hebrews 1:10-2:3, Gospel: Mark 2:1-12
3rd Sunday of Lent - Cross-Adoring Sunday In the middle of Great Lent, the Church gives its faithful a sign of victory, one that can bring strength to them in this time of fasting. The Sunday of the Holy Cross is one that brings everything into perspective, especially with the Gospel reading, the Lord saying to all His disciples: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" With us “bearing our crosses” during Great Lent, we also come to venerate the Holy Cross of the Lord on this day. After the Doxology (or, in some Churches, at the end of the Divine Liturgy), the Priest and Altar Boys will process with the Holy Cross (surrounded by beautiful flowers) in the Church. The entire Church will chant the hymn of the Cross when the procession is finished: “Lord, save Your people and bless Your inheritance. Grant victory to our rulers over the enemy, and protect Your commonwealth by the might of Your cross!” At the end of the Liturgy, the Priest will give out the flowers by the Holy Cross to the people as a blessing. Biblical Readings: Epistle: Hebrews 4:14-5:6, Gospel: Mark 8:34-38, 9:1
4th Sunday of Lent - St. John of the Ladder Many of our Saints, from the time they were born to the time they fell asleep in the Lord, lived lives that were dedicated to God. One of those Saints includes St. John “of the Ladder”, who is commemorated on the 4th Sunday of Lent. St. John St. John “of the Ladder” was only 16 years old when he left Palestine and went to St. Catherine’s monastery (at Mt. Sinai, Egypt). He lived there for 50 years, where he wrote his famous book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. This is a “spiritual ladder”; Christians follow certain rules so that they can get closer to God, and symbolically climb to heaven. He had struggles, like any person does, but he won over those struggles that the Devil put for him. That’s why we celebrate his memory on this Sunday of Lent: St. John is a perfect example of how a person could be faithful all of their life, and be together with God in the Kingdom of Heaven. His prayer and fasting got him closer to God, and had him to realize that love of God that only those together with God can feel. Getting closer to God can be done so many different ways, each with the same result. From praying and fasting, to going to Sunday School and reading our Bibles, to going for Holy Communion every Sunday, it’s about saying in our own way, “thank you God for me waking up; for coming to Church; for my entire family; for my friends; for my teachers; that I have food and drink; that I have so many people that care for me; thank you that I have You to care for me, so that You may guide me throughout my life, so I may enter Your Kingdom.”
5th Sunday of Lent - St. Mary of Egypt When people think of Saints, the majority see them as St. John “of the Ladder” : a Saint is someone that is together with God all of their lives, incapable of sin. Yet, they are so misguided. Saints are regular human beings with passions, that sinned throughout their lives. We see the same thing with St. Mary of Egypt, the Saint we commemorate on the 5th Sunday of Lent. St. Mary of Egypt was anything but a Saint throughout the first part of her life. From a very young age, she was a prostitute. Being from Egypt, she decided that she wanted to see the Holy Land and the Tomb of Christ (also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). As she went to enter the Church, a force kept her outside. She was unable to enter, while so many others did. She realized that God had done this to have her stop her sinning. She promised to God that day she would stop. She repented with a pure heart, and she was allowed to enter. She went for Confession, received Holy Communion, and then went to the desert to live for years in repentance. Years after, she was visited by a Priest-monk, Zosimas (later a Saint in our Church). He gave her Holy Communion, and they discussed her trials and tribulations. Although she suffered much, she was so happy to be with Christ. Later that same day, she fell asleep in the Lord. Moral of today’s Sunday: It’s never too late to be reunited with God. He wants us to be in His Loving Embrace. He will forgive us… all we have to do is ask.
Lazarus Saturday The Gospel of St. John tells us that a few days before this Saturday, Jesus was informed that his friend, Lazarus, was very ill. Jesus did not rush to Lazarus, but waited for him to pass away. Four days after Lazarus’ death, Jesus appeared at the house of Lazarus. Upon his arrival, Mary and Martha (Lazarus’ sisters) met Him and asked Him why He didn’t save their brother. Even though they said this, they still believed that they would see Lazarus again at the General Resurrection (when all the people who passed away will be brought back to life, and be judged at the Second Coming). After this encounter, Jesus went to see Lazarus’ tomb. It is here we find the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) This shows us that Jesus was a human being: He had emotions, just like everyone else, and He felt the pain of a friend being lost. Yet, Jesus does not cry like those who have no hope; rather, He shows everyone that He is “the Resurrection and the Life,” (John 11:25) by commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. People initially didn’t believe; yet, in moments everyone saw Lazarus come out from the tomb! This miracle shows us that Jesus is also God, having power over the living and the dead. From this day until Thomas Sunday, we do not perform memorials in Church.