L e n t

A spiritual spring for the soul

Bishop Alexander (Mileant)


Content: The season of the great fast. On the necessity of abstinence. Repentance cleanses the heart. The nature of the lenten services. Conclusion. The Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts. Selected lenten prayers. Prayer at home during lent (Archpriest Sergei Chetverikoff).

The season of the great fast

"This is a favorable time, this is the day of salvation."

Nature revives with the arrival of spring, and during this same season Christians who are serious about salvation are spiritualy renewed through prayer and fasting.

Fasts are special days of the year that are set aside by the Church to motivate believers to concentrate on the salvation of their souls. The most important of the fasts is Lent, which is prior to the Easter. It begins on the Monday following the Sunday of Forgiveness and lasts for forty days (six weeks) until Palm Sunday, continues into Passion Week, and ends on Easter — the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This period is also known as the Forty-day Fast.

In this article we will discuss the outward aspects of Lent and will show that abstinence from food and drink, as well as from other carnal desires, is necessary for spiritual growth. We will talk about the inner aspects of fasting, which consist of repentance, the cleansing of conscience and the strengthening of the will. Afterwards we will briefly show how the religious environment during the days of Lent favors a Christian's repentance and helps his spiritual restoration. Finally, we will explain the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, and present some prayers of Lent.


On the necessity of abstinence

Fasting, by definition, means abstaining from food, drink, and pleasures. Sometimes abstinence is manifested by not eating anything at all (for one or several days). Most frequently, however, it is accomplished by giving up meat and dairy products and switching to vegetarian foods. In medical terms fasting is similar to dieting. It is a diet with an important spiritual goal.

The necessity of abstinence of food arises from the human constitution itself, possessing not only a body but an immortal soul. Because of the sinfulness of our nature, the harmony between our body and soul has been disturbed. As a result, the desires of the flesh often predominate and sometimes completely stifle all the soul's endeavors for righteousness. A person becomes a pitiable slave to his passions and at times worse than an animal. It is possible to restrain one's physical desires and to allow the soul's noble aspirations to bloom and strengthen with the help of prayer and fasting.

It should be noted that the commandment of abstinence was given to our forefathers Adam and Eve when they were still in paradise and, hence, were sinless. We refer here to the commandment forbidding them to eat the fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Fasting became especially necessary after their fall, and we see in the Bible that righteous people throughout the Old and New Testaments fasted during certain periods of their lives. A few examples follow.

The great prophet Moses, the law-giver of the Old Testament, had been fasting for 40 days before he received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:38). The righteous king David fasted frequently as we can conclude from his God-inspired psalms. The great prophet Elijah, (1 Kings ch.19) who was taken up to heaven alive, also used to fast. The prophet Daniel had fasted before he received the revelation from God about the destiny of his people (Acts 10). The prophet John the Baptist fasted to a great extent and also taught his disciples to do so. The prophetess Anna, living at the temple for about fifty years, served God by fasting and praying throughout the day and night. For that she became worthy of God's grace and received His revelation about the birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:37).

Even the sinless God-and-man our Lord Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days to prepare for His mission of the salvation of the world. Following His example, the Apostles and the early Christians used to fast also, as can be found in the epistles of Saint Paul (Acts 13:3; 1 Cor. 7:5 and 9:27; 2 Cor. 6:5 and 11:27). From early Church history we learn that the dedication of particular days of the year to fasting became a widespread practice among Christians in the first few centuries. That is why in our time also the Church gives such great importance to Lent and states that without prayer and fasting spiritual growth is impossible.

The books of the New Testament teach about the benefits of fasting. In answer to the Pharisees' reproach that Christ's disciples did not fast, the Lord answered that the time to fast had not yet arrived because the Bridegroom (Christ) was with them. But when the Bridegroom will be taken away (that is, when Christ dies), then they will fast (Luke 5:33-35). Therefore, since apostolic times it has become customary to fast on Wednesdays, when Judas betrayed Christ, and on Fridays, when Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross. For the same reason the Church timed Lent to the days preceding the Passion Week. To the disciples' question as to why they could not drive out a demon, the Lord answered: "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17:21). In fact, demons for the most part work through our carnal nature, arousing in it improper passions, thus pushing us towards all kinds of sins, and in this way controlling our will.

To free ourselves of their influence, it is necessary to weaken the body and strengthen the soul through abstinence and prayer. Of course, one has to fast for the sake of improving oneself and not to be praised by people, as the Lord explained in his Sermon on the Mount. He said: "So that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:18).

The heirs of the Apostles, the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church, impressed on Christians the importance of fasting during Lent. "Do not scorn the Forty day Fast," writes Saint Ignatius of Antioch to the Philippians. "It is the imitation of the life of Christ." The Blessed Jerome in the name of all Christians of his time said, "We fast during Lent according to the tradition of the Apostles." "The longer the abstinence, the easier the acquirement of salvation," teaches Blessed Augustine. According to the teachings of St. Asterius of Amasis, Lent is "the teacher of moderation, the mother of virtue, the tutor of God's children, the instructor of the confused, the tranquility of thoughts, the support of life, a lasting and undisturbed peace; its strictness and importance weaken passion, extinguish anger and rage, quench and calm any worries which arise from overeating."

Blessed John Kolov said: "When a king plans to capture an enemy's city, he first of all stops its supply of provisions. Then its citizens, pressed by hunger, submit to him. Something similar happens with carnal desires: if a person will spend his life in fasting and hunger then improper desires will fade away." According to the teaching of John Chrysostom, "Just as non-restraint from food is, at times, the cause of countless evils for humanity, so fasting and contempt for carnal pleasures were always the cause of great blessings … As light sailing vessels speedily cross the seas and those overburdened with cargo sink, so fasting, clearing up our mind, helps us to cross the turmoils of our present life and to strive for heaven and spiritual things."

Fasting, according to the teaching of Basil the Great, brings forth prophets, strengthens the warriors of Christ, and makes the law-givers wiser. Fasting is the good guardian of the soul, the weapon of the valiant. It repels temptations, is the cohabitant of sobriety and the foundation of chastity. Fasting carries prayer to heaven, becoming its wings.

The Holy Fathers, explaining the importance of abstaining from food, insisted that one should abstain simultaneously from vices because the moral improvement of a Christian is the main goal of fasting.

"The benefit of fasting," teaches Saint Basil the Great, "is not limited by the abstinence of food alone, because true fasting is the eradication of evil deeds. Everyone should become liberated from lies. Forgive your neighbor when he insults you; forgive him his debts. You don't eat meat, but hurt your brother … We will fast in a way that is pleasing to God. A true fast is the elimination of evil, restraint of what one says, suppression of anger, the alienation of lust, malignant gossip, lies, and perjury. Abstinence from all these is true fasting." In summary, just as we fell into sin and lost heavenly bliss because of the lack of restraint of our forefathers, so through voluntary fasting we can restore in ourselves the grace of God.


Repentance cleanses the heart

As a general rule fasting and praying awaken in a person the desire for a more spiritual way of life. When the passions of the body become pacified, a person's mind is enlightened, and he begins to see his own shortcomings better. He becomes ashamed of his sinful deeds and bad habits, and he feels a strong desire to cleanse his soul through repentance before God.

We can appreciate better the importance of repentance when we remember that Christian teaching began precisely with the call to repent. The prophet John the Baptist preached: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:1-2). The Lord Jesus Christ began his preaching with the same words. "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance," John the Baptist continues, "but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11). That was a prophecy about the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and the divine rebirth of Christians through their faith and repentance.

Indeed, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, the teaching of the Apostles was, first of all, the calling for repentance and the beginning of a new life in Jesus. The believers had to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior from the evil dominating the world. This is the very essence of Christianity. After the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, when the crowd asked, "What shall we do, brothers?" The Apostle Peter answered: "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit … Save yourselves from this corrupt generation!" (Acts 2:37-40). These words pointed out the deep, sinful sore in humanity, which can be healed only through repentance, rebirth in Christ, and unity with Him.

So, as we see, the Apostles called for profound changes in people's attitudes, a break with their past, and suppression of passions. The acceptance of Christ as our Savior requires a fundamental transfiguration of our thoughts and feelings: a sincere desire for a New Life in Christ. That is why the Church is so persistent in its calling to repentance during Lent. Repentance is the beginning of salvation. And fasting — being a restraint from gluttony, all kinds of excesses, and worldly concerns — contributes to true repentance! That is how the goal of our faith is reached, as Saint Paul teaches: "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature: former things have gone" (2 Corinthians 5:17).


The nature of the

Lenten services

During the period of Lent the Church helps Christians to renew themselves by creating conditions which predispose them towards fasting and repentance. Everything looks and is done differently during church services. This includes the structure and length of the services, the content of prayers, the melodies, the frequent kneeling, and the entire atmosphere inside the church. All splendor and festivity are reduced to a minimum. Clergymen wear dark vestments, the Royal Gates are opened less frequently, lighting is diminished, church bells are rung rarely and cheerlessly; there is less singing and more reading of prayers which predispose to repentance.

St. Ephraim's repentance prayer "O Lord and Master of my life" is the prayer most frequently said during Lent. The Divine Liturgy, the most solemn of all church services, is performed only on Saturdays and Sundays. The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which has a repentant character, is performed twice a week during Lent, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The first week of Lent is noted particularly for the strictness and length of its services. From Monday to Thursday during all evening services (the Grand Compline) the spiritually moving Great Canon of Archbishop Andrew of Crete is read. This canon softens even the most hardened soul and inclines it towards repentance. On Saturday of the first week the miracle of the great martyr Theodore Tyron is remembered. This Saint appeared in a dream to a bishop of Constantinople and warned him about food in the market being defiled by the blood of animals sacrificed to idols. This was done on purpose by the pagan emperor to defile the Christian Lent. The Saint commanded the bishop that Christians should eat cooked wheat instead of market foods.

On the first Sunday of Lent the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is celebrated. This feast commemorates the restoration of reverence to the holy icons which had been pursued by iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries. After the Liturgy there is a special service for the conversion of those who have gone astray.

The third Sunday of the Lent is called the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross. At the vespers service, after the Grand Doxology, the Holy Cross is carried out to the center of the church and is placed on the icon stand for veneration. By bringing out the cross, the Church inspires believers to continue the fasting effort, for with the cross the Lord took away the power of the devil and delivered us from our sins. The cross remains in the center of the church throughout the following week. During worship that week the choir sings, "To Thy Cross we bow down, O Lord, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify."

On Wednesday of the fifth week Saint Andrew of Crete's canon of repentance is read, and believers are reminded of the life of Saint Mary of Egypt. First she was a great sinner, but after having repented, she became a holy woman and an example of true repentance and a pious life. On Friday evening of the same week an Akathist (a series of hymns and prayers) is sung to the Holy Virgin Theotokos (Mother of God). The Virgin Mary surpassed all Saints in spiritual perfection, and Her virtues are an inspiration to all Christians.

On Friday of the sixth week the 40-day period of repentance ends. The Lord's entrance into Jerusalem is commemorated, and Passion Week, the remembrance of the Lord's last days on Earth, begins. The faithful are prepared for the glorification of the Savior Jesus Christ, who went to Jerusalem to voluntarily suffer and redeem the world.

In summary, restraint from food, in quantity and quality, restraint from any amusements, earnest prayer at home and during the church services — all these contribute to the reform of an individual. Since the old days it has become a custom to complete the Lenten effort by confession and partaking of the Holy Mysteries. Confession in church should not be carried out in haste, but sufficient time should to be allocated for it. The best time for confession is during or after the vespers service preceding the day of communion. It is important to prepare for this sacrament with meditation, prayer, and a deep contrition for committed sins. There should be a sincere desire to change one's life for the better. Since partaking of the Holy Mysteries gives a Christian much spiritual strength, it is preferable to take communion several times during Lent.


Thus, during Lent the Church frees believers from the bustle and commotion of daily life, fills their hearts with holy impressions, surrounds them with a holy environment, and leads them along a new spiritual path. Not without reason this period is referred to by the Fathers of the Church as a fasting spring. It is indeed a time when believers' souls are sown with seeds of grace which bring forth good deeds throughout the whole year that follows.

Dear Christian! Do not miss this saving period! As the Apostle Paul said, "This is a favorable time, this is the day of salvation." The Church does not force anyone but calls each of us to voluntarily strive for moral revival. Listen carefully to its prayers and hymns, and you will feel your soul coming to life and cleaving to righteous living. The Lenten struggle seems dull and burdensome only when it is done without the remembrance of Christ, but when it is done in the name of the Lord, with faith and love for Him, then it becomes both favorable and easy.


The Liturgy

of Presanctified Gifts

Among the church services held during Lent, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, performed on Wednesdays and Fridays, holds an important place. During this service the Holy Elements, blessed during the previous Sunday's Liturgy and saved in the artophorion (gold plated box on the Holy Table). The Table in the middle of the Sanctuary are offered for communion to believers. The origin of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts goes back to the first centuries of Christianity. During the constant persecutions by the pagans, the Christians wished to receive the Body and Blood of Christ as often as possible. However, the fulfillment of the Liturgy as a service of thanksgiving does not conform to the fast and the grief over sins during Lent. Therefore, the normal Liturgy was replaced during week days by the service of the Presanctified Gifts during which one can receive sacraments blessed earlier.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts in those ancient times was performed in the evening, which explains why vespers were included with it. The making up of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is attributed to Saint Gregory Dialogos, Bishop of Rome (604 AD).

The order of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is as follows. After the intonement of the priest "Blessed is the Kingdom," the 103rd Psalm "Bless the Lord, O my soul" is read. The Great Litany is then intoned and the 18th Kathismata (Psalms 119–133) is read. Then the choir sings "Lord I have called unto Thee" with stichiras. The priest makes an entrance with the censor. The choir sings "O Joyful Light," and the first Paremiae (a selection from the Bible, in this case the book of Genesis) is read. When the priest intones "Wisdom, let us attend. The Light of Christ enlighteneth all men," those praying prostrate themselves. The second Paremiae (a selection from the book of Proverbs) is read.

Then a trio sings a spiritually moving prayer "Let my prayer be directed as incense before Thee," after which the prayer of St. Ephraim is read. After a litany the choir sings "Now the powers of Heaven with us invisibly do worship," and the Great entrance with the Presanctified Gifts takes place. The prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is repeated, and the Litany of Petition is proclaimed. The choir sings the Lord's prayer, after which the priest intones: "The Presanctified Holy Things (Communion) are for the holy." The Holy Sacraments are brought out through the Royal Gates, and the believers receive Holy Communion. After the Litany of Thanksgiving and the prayer before the Ambo, the believers venerate the Holy Cross and are free to go home.

Selected Lenten prayers

A Vesper's song

Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.

Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Theotokos: for I have befouled my soul with shameful sins and have wasted all my life in slothfulness. By Thine intercessions deliver me from all uncleanness.

Have mercy upon me, O God, in Thy great mercy: and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

As I ponder in my wretchedness the many evil things that I have done, I tremble for the fearful day of judgment. But trusting in Thy merciful compassion, like David do I cry to Thee: Have mercy upon me, O God, in Thy great mercy.

The Prayer of

St. Ephraim the Syrian

This prayer should be read during the whole of Lent, Monday through Friday, at the end of morning and evening prayers. This prayer is also read in Church during the weekday services.

O Lord and Master of my life, drive away from me the spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition and idle talk. (Prostration).

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant. (Prostration).

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen. (Prostration).

Prayers from the Liturgy

of the of the Presanctified Gifts

Let my prayer be directed as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

Lord, I have called unto Thee, hear me; attend to the voice of my prayer, when I call unto Thee.

Set a watch, O Lord, upon my mouth, and a door of enclosure about my lips.

Incline not my heart to words of evil, to contrive excuses for sins.

Now the Powers of heaven with us invisibly do worship. For, behold, the King of glory doth enter. Behold, the mystical sacrifice all accomplished is escorted in. Let us with faith and longing draw near that we may become partakers of life eternal. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Prayer at home during Lent

Archpriest Sergei Chetverikoff

In the contemporary situation of Orthodox people, who are often completely cut off from the Church of God, who have no opportunity to experience within themselves the beneficial influence of the Church services and the whole prayerful atmosphere of the Church, it is very important to create, even in one’s solitude, some likeness of the churchly atmosphere. How can this be accomplished?

First of all, set aside some special place for prayer. In your home, perhaps above your bed, hang two or three icons and a vigil lamp before them... It is imperative to establish a permanent order of prayer at home. Select a rule of prayer – evening, morning and during the day. Let the rule not be too long so as not to become tired of it because of the newness of the experience. The rule must always be observed with fear, effort and attention. Here also will be demanded certain external: standing, prostrations, kneeling, the sign of the Cross, reading... The more often one prays in this manner, the better. It is well to become accustomed to one such prayer, so that on beginning, one’s spirit is immediately enkindled. One should pray simply: on arising to pray, say the prayer with fear and trembling, as into the ear of God, accompanying the prayer with the sign of the Cross, prostrations and kneeling. The adopted rule must always be fulfilled without fail.

There are degrees of prayer: the first degree – physical prayer, which consists mostly of reading, standing, prostration; the attention wavers; the heart is not sensitive, there is no inclination towards prayer: toil and patience are required; this is active prayer. The second degree – attentive prayer: the mind becomes accustomed to concentrate in the hour of prayer and to utter the whole prayer without absentmindedness. The third degree – the prayer of feeling: the heart becomes warm with feeling, and what previously is thought now becomes feeling. One who has reached this feeling prays without words, for God is the God of hearts.

Read the Word of God, the New Testament, and before reading address yourself to God in prayer, that the Lord may help you to understand, accept and fulfill that which you have read. Do not be frightened by the asceticism, effort, fasting, prayer, abstinence to which the Church calls you. All this is boring and burdensome only when it is done without memory of Christ, but when it is done in the name of Christ, with faith and love, then the yoke becomes easy and the burden becomes light...

May the Lord help us in the course of the Great Lent to fulfill it well so that we may worthily adore the Shining Resurrection!

Archpriest Sergei Chetverikoff

(Reprinted from the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church Life Bulletin, April 1964 and in the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE, Vol. 3, No. 7, March 1996)

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Missionary Leaflet 3E

Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission

466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011

Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

(Lent.doc, 07-01-2001)

Edited by Donald Shufran