This year, only one week separates Easter in West and East. So all Christians are preparing for Lent. Western Christians begin this Wednesday, and the East begins Monday, March 11. No, there is no Ash Wednesday in the East. We begin Lent with Vespers on Forgiveness (Cheesefare) Sunday, appointed for the evening, but often observed immediately after the Eucharistic liturgy.
While the Byzantine Churches participated in the liturgical movement with the West and experienced similar renewals (especially frequent communion), many liturgical traditions remain unchanged. We have a one-year lectionary and typically do not read from the Old Testament on Sundays. The East has not attempted to strengthen the connection between the Sundays of Lent and Baptism, not to mention Baptism and Pascha. Of course, many of our great feasts are inherently baptismal – Christmas, Theophany, and Pentecost, along with Pascha. The Byzantine rite has retained the ancient Paschal vigil, usually observed earlier in the day on Holy Saturday. Some parishes have restored Baptism on this day, along with the reception of converts. The Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts during Lent contains a litany praying for the photizomenoi (those about to be illumined), beginning on the fourth week of Lent.
(I have often wondered if some parishes intone this litany on the corresponding Sundays, too – that would be powerful).
In many ways, Byzantine Lent observes one of Baumstark’s laws by retaining older traditions during this solemn period of the liturgical year.
That said, the lectionary appoints the most Lenten Gospels to the pre-Lenten Sundays . The pre-Lenten period begins with the Lukan parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, followed by the Prodigal Son (Luke again), the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), and Forgiveness Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21). These Sundays are preparation for penance, and, by the grace of God, transformation.
The Lenten Sundays are a collection of hagiographical and historical commemorations surrounding the 3rd Sunday of Lent, the one of the veneration of the Cross.
The themes for the Lenten Sundays do not correspond to the Gospels of the lectionary, as the Sundays commemorate, in order, the Triumph of Orthodoxy (defeat of iconoclasm), St. Gregory Palamas, the veneration of the Cross, St. John of the Ladder, and St. Mary of Egypt.
Four of the five Sundays symbolize the monastic hegemony of Orthodox liturgy, which began in the ninth century following the defeat of iconoclasm: the Sundays celebrate either historical victory over heretics or monastic triumph over the passions. The assignment of these commemorations to the Sundays of Lent elucidates a kind of ranking within the most solemn season of the year: in successive Sundays, the monks honor their heroes in descending order. The two themes connecting the Sundays are victory over heresies and passions, and a sense of progress in fasting and prayer, as the fourth and fifth Sundays present models of ascetical feat to the Church. It is a stretch to point to the veneration of the Cross as the heart that pumps blood through the season.
(Note: the commemoration of St. Mary of Egypt deserves extensive commentary because of the theme of tears in her vita).
I wonder how a proposed revision to the Gospel assignments on Sunday would be received. One approach to lectionary reform would be to use the two pillars of Incarnation (Orthodoxy) and the Cross (veneration) as Sundays revealing Christ as the savior of humankind. The remaining Sundays could guide the people through a process of revelation.
Here is the proposed revision:
1st Sunday of Lent: Sunday of Orthodoxy – revelation of the Incarnate Christ (Jn. 1:43-51)
2nd Sunday of Lent: Transfiguration of Christ – revelation of divine Christ (Mt. 17:1-13)
3rd Sunday of Lent: Sunday of the Cross – midpoint (Mk. 8:34-9:1)
4th Sunday of Lent: (John 17:1-26) – unity of the godhead, and Christian unity
5th Sunday of Lent: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – anticipating Christ’s passion (Mt. 26: 36-46)
This sequence of readings would develop the Incarnation mystery by folding the central stories of Christ’s two natures into the Sundays of Lent. After beholding the Incarnate God with Nathaniel on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the people would join the disciples in averting their eyes from Christ’s uncreated light at the Transfiguration, which provides a natural step on the way to the Cross as the midpoint. The inclusion of Christ’s prayer to the Father on the fourth Sunday features both the unity of Christ with God, and the eternal human crisis of division, which can only be resolved by joining Christ’s prayer to the Father that “they would be one.” Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane would function like the Cross as a midpoint: this lesson emphasizes his humanity, but it also provides a natural step to the point of Holy Week, which is the Cross. This revised sequence would also restore Christ as the center of Lent, a complement to the renewed frequency of the celebration of the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, as the people depend on Christ for the sustenance through the season.
Could this change make a difference in the people’s engagement of Lent? Possibly, since attendance tends to improve during Lent. Would it be received? In the current cultural climate of the Eastern Churches, probably not in official channels at the universal level, but possibly in local parishes.
The motivation for a change comes from liturgical theology. The risen Christ is Lent’s destination. Much good can come from journeying with the Incarnate Word on the road to Easter. Ultimately, the liturgical anamneses point to the future coming into the present: and Christ fills that future.