This year, the Orthodox celebration of Pascha takes place on April 8, one week after Easter. Now that I live in the Midwest again, I’ll sense the coincidence of spring with Lent and Pascha (with apologies to Christians in the southern hemisphere). Families take time to perform spring cleaning, tidying up roofs, yards, and home interiors. The Church has also appointed this time as one of spring cleaning. Cleanliness is a primary theme of the first week of Lent, also known as Clean Week. Clean Week is intense: faithful are called to fast strictly, and the Church offers numerous liturgical offices throughout the entire week. The liturgical offices shape faithful to sober self-reflection, to repent, and receive the grace of God’s forgiveness with humility and gratitude.
Clean Week emphasizes these themes (punctuated by lessons from Genesis and Isaiah in particular), but Lent as the season of repentance actually begins much earlier during the so-called pre-Lenten period. The Orthodox Churches have just commenced this rich pre-Lenten period. The five Sundays before Lent constitute a season of preparation for becoming a penitent. The Gospel lessons appointed to the cycle introduce repentance and reconciliation in the following order:
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14)
Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
Sunday of the Last Judgment and Meatfare (Matthew 25: 31-46)
Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise and Cheesefare/Forgiveness Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21)
Repentance is introduced with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, as the liturgy begins to include hymns from the Lenten Triodion, the special book containing all of the propers for the entire season of Lent through Holy Week. The hymns emphasize the Christian’s need to admit, confess, and express remorse for his or her sins. A special hymn affixed to the customary songs of the resurrection Matins service is chanted from the middle of the Church. Since many people do not attend Matins on Saturday evenings, in parish practice, the hymn is often sung congregationally at the end of the Divine Liturgy, or even in addition to the Communion psalm (koinonikon). It is a staple feature of pre-Lenten preparation, and remains part of the liturgical cycle of Lent. The text of the hymn says it all:
[Glory to the Father…]
Open to me the doors of repentance, o Lifegiver;
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Thy holy Temple,
bearing the temple of my body all defiled
But in Thy compassion, deliver me purify me by the lovingkindness of Thy mercy.
[Now and ever..]
Lead me on the paths of salvation, o Mother of God,
for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But, by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.
Have mercy on me, o God, according to Thy great goodness, and according to the multitude of Thy compassions, blot out my transgressions.
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment. But trusting in thy lovingkindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, o God, according to Thy great mercy.
On the following week of the Prodigal Son, the church appoints another song amplifying the theme of repentance. Like the hymn “Open to Me,” this song is added to the Matins portion of Vigil, and in this case: Psalm 136 (“By the Waters of Babylon”) is chanted after the customary Psalm 118 (Praise the name of the Lord”). Parish choirs tend to sing musical arrangements of Psalm 136 in addition to the Communion Song or at the end of Divine Liturgy. When the pre-Lenten period ends and Lent begins, Psalm 136 is no longer sung at Matins.
Ritual Formation of Repentance
What’s happening here should be obvious: the appointment of these chants to the pre-Lenten period functions as the herald of Lent’s task, to enter into the order of penitents. Lent begins with the celebration of Forgiveness Vespers, a relatively simple office announcing the sights and sounds of Lent and punctuated by a powerful service of communal reconciliation called the rite of forgiveness. The rite begins with the pastors asking all present for forgiveness in a posture of prostration; all of the people follow suit by exchanging forgiveness with one another.
Additional prayers and ritual practices are added to contribute to the formation of the penitent during Lent, particularly the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian in private and liturgical prayer, the performance of prostrations, an increase in the reception of Holy Communion through the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, and the reception of the mystery of Confession. This description appears ideal: Confession does not stand alone, but is one of several rituals and prayers pushing participants towards repentance and reconciliation. Even casual participants in these liturgical celebrations are touched by the moment. I am still amazed by the deep reflections on the human condition shared with me by Orthodox laity by participants in four parish focus groups. The services of pre-Lent, Lent, and Holy Week had obviously shaped those reflections.
Lent: Following Jesus into the Desert
It’s worth mentioning that the pre-Lenten period has an organic connection with the cycle of Incarnation feasts. This is particularly true for the Theophany feast. Jesus responds to the Prophet’s invitation to come to the waters and receive a Baptism of repentance. After his Baptism, the Holy Spirit leads him into the desert to be tempted, and he takes up a holy fast. The Orthodox who drink the Theophany waters, anoint themselves with it, and splash it on the walls of their homes are drinking from the well of living water blessed by Christ. This annual renewal of Baptism begins the process of becoming a penitent. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit leads them into a desert where they confront temptation and practices avoidance of sin through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Receiving the communion of the Theophany waters inaugurates an annual process of renewing Baptism and becoming a penitent.
Do We Actually Change? If Not, What’s the Point?
As someone who loves my native Church and her traditions, all of this sounds incredibly beautiful to me. But I also wonder why the objective of the process, to discard the “old man” and become a new creation in Christ, does not seem to be manifest in our lives? We hear the words of God, sing these hymns, and exchange forgiveness with one another with the hope that we would change permanently. Is there something missing from this process?
I conclude with a brief response to this question. The process of repentance begins annually, but it never ends. Our daily lives become the arenas for the living out of the process. Singing the hymns and engaging the rituals and prayers are empty gestures when participants do not try to apply them to daily life. Any given Christian might find themselves to be honest about their sins, to forgive more frequently, and to be grateful for receiving forgiveness from God. These same Christians may fail at all of these tasks on other days. The point is to want and desire repentance.
Perfection is unattainable in this life, and the same principle is true for all artists and athletes: for every masterpiece and superlative performance, there is disappointment and failure. In the process of repentance, eventual failure is imminent because no human has the capacity to complete the process. Only God can declare that the appointed time is complete. Commitment to repentance in every aspect of daily life is the task for each Christian; living up to the commitment is an authentic fulfillment of receiving the grace of Baptism that washes over us. Each Christian can be assured of one fact that communicates hope and joy: God has opened the doors of repentance to us. If you enter them, you begin a journey that ends with eternal communion with God. All you need to start the journey and remain on the path is desire.