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Sundays of Lent

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 4: The Lenten Journey

Each Sunday in Lent has two themes, two meanings. On the one hand, each belongs to a sequencein which the rhythm and spiritual "dialectics" of Lent are revealed. On the other hand, in the course of the Church's historical development almost each lenten Sunday has acquired a second theme. Thus on the first Sunday the Church celebrates the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"-- commemorating the victory over Iconoclasm and the restoration of the veneration of icons in Constantinople in 843. The connection of this celebration with Lent is purely historical: the first "triumph of Orthodoxy" took place on this particular Sunday. The same is true of the commemoration on the second Sunday of Lent of St. Gregory Palamas. The condemnation of his enemies and the vindication of his teachings by the Church in the 14th Century was acclaimed as a second triumph of Orthodoxy and for this reason its annual celebration was prescribed for the second Sunday of Lent. Meaningful and important as they are in themselves, these commemorations are independent from Lent as such and we can leave them outside the scope of this essay....

As to the first and essential theme of lenten Sundays, it also is primarily revealed in the scriptural lessons. To understand their sequence, we must once more remember the original connection between Lent and Baptism-- Lent's meaning as preparation for Baptism. These lessons are therefore an integral part of the early Christian catechesis; they explain and summarize the preparation of the catachumen for the Paschal mystery of Baptism. Baptism is the entrance into the new life inaugurated by Christ. To the catachumen, this new life is as yet only announced and promised, and he accepts it by faith. He is like one of the men of the Old Testament who lived by their faith in a promise whose fulfillment they did not see.

This is the theme of the first Sunday. After having mentioned the righteous men of the Old Testament, the Epistle (Heb. 11:24-26; 32-40; 12-2) concludes:

...and these all, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised since God has foreseen something better for us.

What is it? The answer is given in the Gospel lesson of the first Sunday (John 1:43-51): shall see greater things than these... truly, truly I say unto you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

This means: you catachumens, you who believe in Christ, you who want to be baptized, who are preparing yourselves for Pascha-- you shall see the inauguration of the new age, the fulfillment of all promises, the manifestation of the Kingdom. But you shall see it only if you believe and repent, if you change your mind, if you have the desire, if you accept the effort.

Of this we are reminded in the lesson of the second Sunday (Heb. 1:10-2:3):

...therefore, we must pay close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it... How shall we escape if we neglect such salvation?

In the Gospel lesson of the second Sunday (Mark 2:1-12) the image of this effort and desire is the paralytic who was brought to Christ through the roof:

...and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic: 'My son, your sins are forgive..'

On the third Sunday-- "Sunday of the Cross"-- the theme of the Cross makes its appearance, and we are told (Mark 8:34-9:1):

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

From this Sunday on, the lessons from the Epistle to the Hebrews begin to reveal to us the meaning of Christ's sacrifice by which we are given access "into the inner shrine behind the curtain," i.e., into the holy of holies of God's Kingdom (cf. Third Sunday, Heb. 4:14-5:6; Fourth Sunday, Heb. 6:13-20; and Fifth Sunday, Heb. 9:11-14), while the lessons from the Gospel of St. Mark announce the voluntary Passion of Christ:

...the Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men and the will kill Him....
(Mark 9:17-31)-- Fourth Sunday

and His Resurrection:

...and the third day He shall rise again.
(Mark 10:32-45)-- Fifth Sunday

The catechesis, the preparation for the great mystery, is drawing to its end, the decisive hour of man's entrance into Christ's Death and Resurrection is approaching.

Today Lent s no longer the preparation of the catachumen for Baptism, but although baptized and confirmed, are we not in a sense still "catachumens"? Or rather, are we not to return to this state every year? Do we not fall away again and again from the great mystery of which we have been made participants? Do we not need in our life-- which is one permanent alienation from Christ and His Kingdom-- this annual journey back to the very roots of our Christian faith?

St. Vladimir's Seminary Press



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Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann.