Great Lent Traditions

Approaching Great Lent

The first 3 Sundays before Great Lent



I have asked by some of you in the prison to tell about "Orthodox Traditions". This is a little like answering the question "Say something in French"! There are a lot of traditions. I will try to arrange my answer in manageable pieces, after I get on my soapbox a bit.




There are two kinds of "Traditions" in the church, in my mind. Only the first really matters to me. The second has nice things, but is not primary.


The first and most important traditions are regarding our worship and our living a Christian life throughout the church year. These traditions give the year a "rhythm" and help keep us grounded. Our traditions in worship and prayer and how we live and what we focus on throughout the church year was a major factor in my becoming Orthodox.


The other traditions are things like food we eat at various seasons, specific foods that are blessed at various times of the year, the Pascha basket - stuff like that. I will try to talk about both kinds of traditions, but I am "wired'; to be excited about the first category.


Please permit a little side bar. As a kid, I HATED the Christmas season. I did not believe in Santa Claus from the time I was three years old (but was sworn to secrecy, to not ruin things for those who believed in this little bit of supposed Christmas "magic"). There was no preparation for the feast, except for shopping, and decorating and parties. It made no sense to me. It still does not. For most people in America, the so-called "Christmas Spirit" is all this stuff. Christmas would arrive, and we would all be under the tree to see what "Santa" brought us. We had conveniently gone to church the night before so Christmas would be a family day. I hated the day.


When I learned of Orthodoxy, I saw that we do not just go shopping before Christmas. We have a long fast, and gradually start singing more about the feast. Just before the actual day of Christmas, we have long services which have many readings from the Old and New Testaments and teach about it. These are the traditions that matter to me! When we add to these traditions other local customs, such as special foods eaten on Christmas, caroling, etc., it is a truly meaningful celebration.




We are approaching Great Lent, so I will begin describing the period approaching Great Lent. I am not trying to be comprehensive, but am just writing as my heart tells me. This is because: 1. I love this stuff, and writing about it comes easily, and 2. I hate research and am lazy. I suppose I will do a little research along the way.


The Great Fast is unlike any other time of the year. It is my favorite time of the year. Because it is a preparation for the most important of all feasts - PASCHA (when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ), we must have a preparatory period before the preparatory period!


We can consider the 5 weeks before Great Lent begins to be the preparatory period for Great Lent. I suppose liturgical scholars would actually consider this to be 4 weeks, but for me, it has always been 5 because of the Gospel we read 5 Sundays before Great Lent begins.


Zacchaeus the Publican SUNDAY - 5 Sundays before Lent begins.


Our tradition is to read the Gospel about Zacchaeus, the publican, who Christ saw in a tree, and commanded to come down, and then proceeded to eat a meal in his house. We appropriately call this day "Zacchaeus Sunday". The next Sunday, we start using the major liturgical book of Great Lent and Holy week, the Lenten Triodion, but on this day we read and talk about a publican who came to his senses and followed Christ. This day is linked with the next Sunday, which we call "Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee". These two Sundays together teach us much about repentance. Two sinners -- 2 publicans, teach us.


The major task of Great Lent is to prepare ourselves to be fully edified by Pascha. This is not the mere celebration of a historical event. God sends forth His grace on this day (and every day), but we are not always able to feel Him and retain the grace He gives us. Great Lent is the preparation of our ground, our soul, so that we can retain the grace of God which falls like rain, and be enlightened. Some saints lived in the light of Pascha every day, such at my patron, St Seraphim of Sarov, but we poor ones need to change our habits at least during this period of the year, to be more enlightened.


On the Sunday of Zacchaeus, we begin to turn our minds in earnest towards the goal of preparation for Pascha. This little man achieved what we are longing for - to be enlightened. One can say it another way (it will be said this way in two more Sundays) - we want to "come to ourselves"- to stop believing delusional things about life and to live in a spiritual way. This can be done! Zacchaeus (who later become a missionary apostle) proves it.




Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee next weekend, we read about the "Publican and the Pharisee" (Luke 18:10-14), and begin using the Lenten Triodion. We SHOULD feel a shift in the season. This is an exciting time. It is a time of "getting ready", and expectation and hope.


There are several important traditions associated with this day.

1. We read about the Publican and Pharisee. It is always read 4 Sundays before Lent begins.

2. We start using the Triodion. This is the book with all the hymns sung during Great Lent and Holy week. It is so-called because weekday services have many "canons" in it (a form of liturgical poetry that is very common, and which usually has 8 sections or "Odes") which have only 3 Odes in them. You can see this in the name, which means "Three Odes".

3. The following week is completely fast free.


We sing the Kontakion about this event in Matins and at liturgy. It highlights the major teaching about the story - how pride kills the soul. We cannot know God if we are proud.


Kontakion for the Publican and the Pharisee, Tone 4: "Let us flee the bragging of the Pharisee, and learn the humility of the Publican, while crying out unto the Savior with groanings: Be gracious unto us, O Thou Who alone dost readily forgive".


We also sing sober hymns from the Triodion that introduce to us the subject of repentance. Throughout the entire Lenten period, the Triodion will make references to the "Publican and the Pharisee", and the "Prodigal Son" (which we read about next week).


What is the Purpose of Lent?


Lent is a time of concentrated repentance. Too many people think that repentance is only feeling bad about yourself, and some perhaps understand it a little more by also knowing that repentance involves the desire to change. It is much more than this. We are trying to see life as it really is. This includes us. We are benighted by ignorance because of our sins. I have a saying: "Sin makes you stupid". Sin gets in our way, and debilitates us. during all of Great Lent, we will be begging God to enlighten us and see things as they really are, and to have the strength to change as we learn what is right and what is wrong.


Why have a fast-free week?


Normally, on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, we fast from animal products (meat, dairy products, eggs) and usually also wine and olive oil. The week following this Sunday is totally fast free (we can eat any foods on any day), in order to show us the deep purpose of fasting, and what it can and cannot do. The Pharisee bragged about fasting, like it was some sort of accomplishment. This made his fasting not only ineffectual, but actually a sin before God. We should fast only because we are sinners and are trying to improve. The church knows by experience that fasting helps us spiritually. This should be all the reason you need to at least try to fast. Fasting does not save us, but God saves us. In order for us to remember this important lesson, the church actually commands us to not fast for a week.


A little side note. It is very beneficial to NOT fast, but only if you normally follow the fasts! To those who do not observe the fasts, a non-fasting week is just like any other week. I am acutely aware of God on non-fasting days that are normally fasting days. I give thanks to God, take a little rest, and get ready for an enhanced struggle. Anyone who fasts, even if poorly, will benefit spiritually from the fast-free week.


Parable of the Prodigal son OF THE Prodigal Son - 3 Sundays before Lent


There are several important traditions associated with this day.

1.      We read the Parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). As mentioned above, this parable, along with that of the Publican and Pharisee, will be mentioned in many services throughout the whole of Great Lent.

2.      We add the "By the Waters of Babylon" to the Polyeleos during matins. It will be sung for the next three weeks, the only time it is sung during the year.

3.      We begin using Katavasia from the Triodion in the matins canon.


The parable of the Prodigal Son is so sublime that no amount of commentary can do it justice. It is a story of sin and repentance and mercy. The Kontakion from the Triodion describes it in this way:


Foolishly have I run away from Thy glory, O Father, / wasting in sin the wealth that Thou gavest me. / Therefore with the words of the Prodigal I cry unto Thee: / I have sinned before Thee, compassionate Father. // Accept me in repentance and make me as one of Thy hired servants. (Kontakion from the Triodion, Tone 3)


The Stichera for Vespers summarize the story very well. Observe in the following Stichera an "outline of repentance" of sorts:

1.      God made us in His image and gave us all that we need for perfection.

2.      We have wasted His gifts because of our sins.

3.      We must "come to ourselves" and recognize our sin, and slothfulness and the bitter fruits of our actions.

4.      We do not have the strength to overcome our sins, but our loving Father does, and He will accomplish in us our perfection if we turn to Him.

5.      Our knowledge of our sins and that God will receive our repentance, not matter how weak we are, and will restore us, should motivate us. We have no excuse to languish in our sins, and do nothing, since even a weak effort will be rewarded.

[ I was entrusted with a sinless and living land (1)], / [but I sowed the ground with sin / and reaped with a sickle the ears of slothfulness; / in thick sheaves I garnered my actions, / but winnowed them not on the threshing floor of repentance. (2)] / [ But I beg Thee, my God, the preeternal husbandman, / with the wind of Thy loving-kindness winnow the chaff of my works, / and grant to my soul the corn of forgiveness; // shut me in Thy heavenly storehouse and save me. (3)]

[ Brethren, let us learn the meaning of this mystery. / For when the Prodigal Son ran back from sin to his Father's house, / his loving Father came out to meet him and kissed him. / He restored to the Prodigal the tokens of his proper glory, / and mystically He made glad on high, / sacrificing the fatted calf. (4) ] / [ Let our lives, then, be worthy of the loving Father / Who has offered sacrifice, // and of the glorious Victim Who is the Savior of our souls. (5)]


The Psalm "By the Waters of Baptism" is a highlight of the Matins service (a service chanted in the morning, or in Russian usage, often chanted Saturday evening after Vespers. On Sundays, it is a long and intricate service, with the basic theme of the resurrection, and many hymns and chanting from the Psalter, and the reading of one of the Resurrection accounts form the Gospels. The church has divided these accounts, 1 from Matthew, 2 from Mark, 4 from Luke, and 5 from John) into 11 sections, which are read sequentially throughout the year on Sundays.).


This Psalm is the entire text of Psalm 136 (Septuagint numbering, in Western bibles, it is Psalm137), sung in a plaintive melody. It will be sung the next two Sundays also. It appears after the Polyeleos, which is a very joyful psalm, sung in a very "upbeat" melody, as part of the sequence before the Gospel is read. If you will permit me a "pop culture" reference, the transition from joy to sober repentance is startling, much like the transition in the "Sound of Music" movie from joyful singing after the wedding of Maria and Captain von Trapp to the somber tolling of a bell, which signified the invasion of the Nazis into Austria.


It is appropriate that we being singing this Psalm on the day we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because there are strong similarities between the two. I do not want to take the time to "reinvent the wheel", so I include below something I wrote about this Psalm and the parable. I know it is long, but it is worth the read.


How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Parable of The Prodigal Son compared to By the Waters of Babylon

Luke 12:11‑32, Psalm 136, By the Waters of Babylon


By the Waters of Babylon by James  tissot


By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion. Alleluia.


Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments. Alleluia.


For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song;

And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying: sing us one of the songs of Sion. Alleluia.


How shall we sing the Lords song in a strange land? Alleluia.


If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.


Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not,
If I set not Jerusalem above all others, as at the head of my joy. Alleluia.


Remember, O Lord, the sons of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem, Who said: Lay waste, lay waste to her, even to the foundations thereof. Alleluia.


O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one,
blessed shall he be who shall reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us. Alleluia.


Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock. Alleluia.


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


This is the Sunday of The Prodigal Son and also the first of three weeks in which we sing, "By the waters of Babylon." That's Psalm 136. We only sing it the three Sundays of the year that precede Great Lent, during the matins service before we have the reading of the matinal Gospel. For me it is a highlight of the year because it is so plaintive and so full of compunction; and I'm not full of compunction, and I want to learn to be. This Psalm teaches us that.


This Psalm is startlingly like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, especially the first portion of the parable when the son goes away to a foreign land. He spends all of his living on harlots and carousing and begins to be in want, and then he comes to himself and comes back to his father. All of those ideas are in "By the waters of Babylon."


Now, this parable has many, many themes, probably a half dozen significant themes in it that are important: The calling of the Gentiles, the Holy Eucharist, baptism, chrismation, about the image of God, about God receiving our repentance, and from a negative perspective, how not to act, in terms of the older son. All of that is very important.


But I want to focus on one thing today. And that is this part of the Psalm which relates to the parable where it says, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"


The history behind The Waters of Babylon Psalm is that it was written after the Jews had been sent off to Babylon in slavery to a foreign king in a foreign land. It was because of their sins that they were sent away. God had warned them many times, and they had not heeded His warning, and so they were broken up as a people and sent away to Babylon. And they penned and sang this very plaintive, very compunctionate song.


When it comes to the point where it says, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land," I always think how that applies to me. And I think you should think how it applies to you. For God made us for happiness. He made us for holiness. He made us for purity. He made us to be united to Him. That is our purpose. Anything that does not fulfill that purpose does not make us happy.


And when I hear this part of the Psalm, the whole Psalm really, but this part especially, I think this is why I get out of sorts. This is why I'm not happy, why I get depressed, why I feel things are maybe not going to change. This is why. How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?


What is this strange land? It's not Babylon. It is our heart.


Our land is strange

when we are not like God,

when we do not love as God loves,

when we are not humble as the God‑Man Jesus Christ, Who humbled Himself, is humble.

Then our land is strange. And in a strange land you cannot sing the Lord's song.


Our life should be pursuing the good land, and that good land of course is: To be full of holiness and to be full of humility, love for God and for neighbor; to have no perturbations of passions in our soul that upset us and that trouble us, to have no desires that cause us to tremble and quake.


All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, live in the strange land. This is why you're unhappy. You might think it's because of your environment, because of your job, because of a bad relationship, because of poverty, because of sickness. No, that's not why. The reason is because of the strange land in which your soul resides.


Great Lent is the time especially during the year when we are to struggle to learn about this strange land and turn away from it just as the Prodigal Son does.


The themes of The Prodigal Son and The Publican and the Pharisee are throughout the entire Great Lent; they're so important. We read them just before Great Lent. We have two more Sundays, and then Great Lent begins, and then we repeat them over and over again, especially in the canons and in other hymnology of the Lenten Triodion, all the way up to Pascha, and that is because Great Lent is a time for you to learn something about yourself and to seek after God, to come to yourself.


That is why I believe that this Psalm begins this Sunday, because it is all about coming to ourselves. It's all about recognizing that the reason for our disquiet in our soul is that we are in a strange land. The strange land is our sins, our passions. That's what troubles you. And when we understand that, then we can be like the son and we can come to ourselves.


In my opinion those are among the most beautiful words of all of Scripture: "And when he came to himself...". Even though there are beautiful words that say God loves us and that Christ is resurrected from the dead and that He prepares a place for us and that He calls us friends, many beautiful things like that; none of those will affect us in a positive way unless we come to ourselves and we recognize that there is something wrong with us and that God came to fix it. Then all those beautiful promises, have deep meaning and are actualized and given power and life in our soul. But if a man is deaf, he doesn't hear these words. If a man is blind, he doesn't see.


So these words "he came to himself," are beautiful words, and this is what I think you should pursue. This is what I pursue. I don't do a good job of it, but I do pursue it, every day to come to myself. What does the Scripture mean by this? It means that you recognize death and life and that many things that you do are death. You are like that son who is in the foreign land feeding swine, attached to a citizen of the country, that is, enslaved to the devil, doing unclean things, things that do not lead to life and that you have left your father.


Now, these are relative things. You might say: Well, I believe in God, I pray every day, I haven't left God. Well, if you say that, I will be frank with you, you're a fool. Everybody leaves God every day except the greatest and the holiest of people.


So if you think, I haven't done anything that bad, then you truly don't understand what's wrong with your soul.


So Great Lent is a very good time for you then because you have to recognize that you've gone to the far country many times. We do it every day; let's be honest. When we judge others, when we are lazy, when we indulge our passions, we have gone to the far country.


And there is a famine. The famine is that the Holy Spirit is not fully abiding in us. And we should feel that deeply; this Psalm speaks about it. It says, "By the waters of Babylon," that is, that far country away from God, "we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion." That would be the son remembering his father and remembering what he had with his father and how he had not appreciated it and had not been obedient to his father.


The Psalm speaks of, "For there they that had taken us captive, ask us for words of a song." The words "they that had taken us captive" indicate the demons, and that captivity is to our passions, to our sins. The Psalmist protests, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" How can you know God if you don't live as God wants you to live? If your soul is full of darkness, you cannot have light.


And then the Psalm goes on to say, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten, let my tongue cleave to my throat if I remember thee not. If I set not Jerusalem ahead of others as at the head of my joy."


This is the son coming to himself. This is the son realizing: I am perishing with hunger; my father has plenty of bread; I will arise, and I will go to my father, and I will say to my father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee. This resolution comes from the knowledge of his poverty.


I've known a lot of Christians. Not too many that are really, great sinners in the perspective of how we wrongly think about sin, in our foolish ways, of alcoholics or drug addicts or criminals or something like that. But I've known very few people that recognize that their soul is really depraved or that there is famine in their soul and that they have gone away from their father and that they need to arise and go to their father, as this Psalm speaks and as the parable speaks.


Now, the rest of the parable is quite important, and I'm usually focused on it because I find that, when people do repent, they falter because they don't feel God's love and they see their own falling again and they see that cognitive dissonance and they lose heart. Well, the Father will receive us; the Father is looking for us. But we must come to ourselves.


This is what I as a pastor desire greatly, from the depths of my soul, for you during this Great Lenten period, that you would pursue coming to yourself, that you would pursue seeing what's wrong with you.



you're a lot more selfish than you think you are,

or more lazy than you think you are,

or have bad thoughts that you haven't guarded yourself from,

or reproached your brother or your sister.

Great Lent is a time for finding that out and a time for lamenting that.


But we Orthodox Christians; we don't just say: Sinner, sinner, terrible, terrible, and lay awash in that. No. We recognize that we are in famine, that we are in want and that all we need to do is go back to our Father.


If you look at our hymns closely, you will see that whenever we say something horrendous about ourselves, that we are a wretch and unworthy, we also say in the same hymn, almost in the same breath, that God's mercy is available for us. This is our way because it is the way that brings peace to the soul. You cannot have peace in your soul unless you recognize something is wrong with you, because you won't turn to God about the things that are wrong.


So I want to ask you, during this Lenten period, start off in a good way. Start off with fasting, with more prayer than you usually pray. Come to the Services. And you will get tired. We always get tired. We always don't do it right. Every Great Lent, I'm dissatisfied with how I spend my time. But God is merciful. God will help you.


Be like the Prodigal. You're already like the Prodigal in the way you live; just admit it. It's true. Be like the Prodigal in his repentance because his father received him and restored the image of God that was within him. That's what the ring and the sandals mean.


So be like the Prodigal. Come to yourself. Pursue this knowledge and act upon it so that you will be able to sing the Lord's song. Recognize that the reason you cannot sing the Lord's song sometimes is because there is that strange land: Your soul which is sinful. God will help you with it. God will help you to have a clean soul. All we need to do is recognize there is something wrong and get up and go to Him, and He will meet us even as we are starting to fall and pick us up when we are crawling.


May God help you to find yourself in this Great Lent season. Amen.





Another time we will talk about the peculiar verse ending the Psalm: " Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.". It is very important, and something we are trying to learn to do better during the whole of Great Lent.


This letter is already very long, so we will take up the traditions regarding the last two Sundays before Great Lent in another letter.


Priest Seraphim Holland 2016

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