With this hymn the Byzantine Tradition formally announces the beginning of the Great Fast (Lent, in the Roman Tradition). For Byzantine Christians, Lent begins on Clean Monday. The Fast continues from Clean Monday through the Friday before Palm Sunday. (More will be coming on the accounting of Great Lent and Holy Week in an upcoming post.)
Sundays are technically not part of Lent, thus the Sunday Vespers Service, considered the first service for Monday, is the beginning of the Fast. It marks the change from the more relaxed and joyful celebration of the Resurrection to the more reflective time of fasting, prayer and repentance.
The actual moment that marks the beginning of the Fast is the singing of the Lenten Prokimenon, which occurs about two thirds of the way into the service. It reflects the somber mood of the season.
R. Turn not Your face away from Your servant, for I am in distress. Hear me speedily. Listen to my soul and deliver me.
V. I am poor and in pain, O God! Let Your power save me.
V. Let the poor see and rejoice.
V. Seek the Lord, and your souls shall find life.
With the chanting of these verses in the eighth tone, vestments are changed from bright to dark colors, the mood of the service becomes contemplative and solemn, and we become aware that we are entering a special season having a particular purpose.
The theme of this special season is first defined in the Aposticha.
O Lord, the light of Your grace has risen and shines upon our souls. Behold, now is the acceptable time: the season of repentance is here. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that we may pass through the Great Fast as through a great sea, and reach the goal of the third-day Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and the Savior of our Souls!
The Fast is the season of repentance, the acceptable time. It is a season in which we are invited to turn back ("repent") to the Lord. Fasting and abstinence are not merely vehicles in that process. The reason for fasting is clear: We fast and abstain from various foods to make ourselves poor before God that in identifying with the hungry in the world we also come to recognize our own dependence on God. Fasting incarnates our spiritual commitment and reveals to us the beneficence of God.
The words of the Psalmist become our own:
You open Your hand and they are full.
You send forth Your breath and they live:
You renew the face of the Earth! (Psalm 103)
By recognizing our spiritual impotence, we come to perceive the reality of God’s great mercy in granting us salvation. The sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross is revealed to be an unprompted act of Divine Love.
There is no room for human conceit and posturing. Our Lord challenges us: Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life. (Luke 21.34) We cannot rest on the fantasy that we are so good and wonderful as to command and deserve the grace of God. St Paul warns, Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. (I Cor. 3.18f) We must confront the reality of our own complete dependence on God.
The Great Fast is a time for reassessment in the clear light of the Gospel. It provides us an opportunity to see our lives in proper perspective and to prioritize what is truly important. We find lasting hope in our Lord's assurance that by your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21.18f) Thus, we have confidence that if we sincerely attempt to make the Lenten journey our destination will be not only the Cross, but the glorious Resurrection!
Have a joyous Great Lent!