The first week of Great Lent has been known since times of old as the “dawn of abstinence,” or “clean week.” During that week, the Church persuades her children to come out of that sinful state into which all of mankind fell because our forefathers did not abstain, because they lost the blessings of heaven, the state of sin which each of us increases by his personal sins. It coaxes them into coming forth by way of faith, prayer, humility and fasting, things, which are pleasing to God. This is the time for repentance, says the Church “Behold the day of salvation, the entrance to the Fast. O my soul, be watchful, close all the doors through which the passions enter, and look up towards the Lord.” (From the first canticle of the Triodion canon at Matins on Monday of the first week of Great Lent).
The Old Testament Church, which held especially sacred the first and last days of several great feasts. Likewise, Orthodox Christians, prepared and inspired by the maternal instructions offered by their Church from antiquity, observe the first and last weeks of Great Lent especially strictly and assiduously.
The services of the first week are especially lengthy, and the podvig of physical abstinence during that week is considerably more rigorous than in the subsequent days of Great Lent. Over the course of the first four days of Great Lent, Great Compline is served, with the reading of the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which as it were sets the tone which is to resound throughout Great Lent. During the first week of Great Lent, the Canon is divided into four separate parts, one chanted at each Compline. On Thursday (actually Wednesday evening) of the fifth week of Great Lent, our attention is again directed to St. Andrew’s marvelous composition, this time in its entirety, so that with the conclusion of Great Lent in sight, we might not become lackadaisical, careless, and negligent, so that we might not forget ourselves and stop strictly watching over ourselves in everything.
The refrain “Have mercy upon me O Lord, have mercy upon me” accompanies each verse of the Great Canon. Several troparia in honor of St. Andrew, composer of the canon, and to St. Mary of Egypt are also included. The Church of Jerusalem implemented this practice during St. Andrew’s lifetime. When in the year 680 AD, St. Andrew traveled to Constantinople for the 6th Ecumenical Council, he brought with him and made public both his great composition and the life of St. Mary of Egypt, written by his compatriot and teacher, Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Life of St. Mary of Egypt is read together with the Great Canon at Matins on Wednesday of the fifth week of Great Lent.
The Great Canon is more astonishing than any other liturgical text encountered during Great Lent. It is a marvel of liturgical hymnography, with texts of amazing power and poetic beauty. The Church decided to call it the Great Canon not so much for its length (250 troparia, or verses), as for the quality and power of its content. St. Andrew, Archbishop of Crete, who composed the Canon in the 7th Century, also composed many other canons used by the Church over the course of the liturgical year.
We learn from the Gospel parable that for successful and fruitful repentance, a man needs to provide on his part: seeing his own sin, recognizing it, repenting of it, and confession of it. God sees a person who has made this pledge in heart while he is yet a long way off; He sees him and runs to meet him, embraces and kisses him with His grace. No sooner had the penitent pronounced his confession of his sin than the merciful Lord commanded the slaves—the servants of the altar and the holy Angels—to clothe him in bright garments of purity, to place his ring upon his finger as a testimony of his renewed union with the Church both on earth and in heaven, and to place shoes upon his feet, so that his actions would be protected from spiritual thorns by steadfast ordinances, for that is the meaning of the shoes—Christ’s commandments. To complete the action of love, a feast of love is held for the returned son, for which a fatted calf is killed. This feast signifies the Church feast to which the sinner is invited once he has made his peace with God—the spiritual, incorruptible food and drink—Christ—promised long ago to mankind, prepared through the unspeakable mercy of God for fallen man from the very moment of his fall.
The Gospel parable is a divine teaching! It is deep and exalted, regardless of the extraordinary simplicity of the human words in which God’s Word deigned to be clothed! The holy Church most wisely ordained that this parable be read to all before the beginning of the coming Forty Days Fast. What more consoling news could there be for a sinner who stands trembling before the doors of repentance than this news about the Heavenly Father’s infinite and unspeakable mercy for repentant sinners? This mercy is so great that it amazed the very Angels—the first-born sons of the Heavenly Father, who had never transgressed a single commandment of His. Their bright, lofty minds could not fathom the unfathomable mercy of God for fallen mankind. They needed a revelation from on High regarding this subject, and they learned from this revelation that it is meet for them to make merry, and be glad, for their lesser brother—the human race—was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found, through the Redeemer. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God even over one sinner that repenteth.
Beloved brethren! Let us make use of the time appointed by the holy Church to prepare ourselves for the ascetic labors of the holy Forty Days Fast, in accordance with its purpose. Let us use it to contemplate the great mercy of God for people and for each person who wishes to make peace with God and unite with Him through true repentance. Our time in this earthly life is priceless; for during this time, we decide our eternal lot. May we be vouchsafed to decide our eternal lot unto our salvation, and to our joy! May our rejoicing be endless! May it be joined to the rejoicing of the holy Angels of God! May the joy of Angels and men be fulfilled and made perfect through their fulfilling the will of the Heavenly Father! For, it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones—human beings, deprecated and humiliated by sin—should perish (Mt. 18:14). Amen.
-from the homilies of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
The next Sunday [after Zaccheus Sunday] is called the "Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee." On the eve of this day, on Saturday at Vespers, the liturgical book of the Lenten season-- the Triodion-- makes its first appearance and texts from it are added to the usual hymns and prayers of the weekly resurrection service. The develop the next major aspect of repentance: humility.
The Gospel lesson (Lk. 18:10-4) pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is self-assured and proud of himself. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he contributes to the temple. As for the Publican, he humbles himself and his humility justifies him before God. If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the one who all the time "gives credit" for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility-- be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national-- is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. Even our churches-- are they not imbued with that same spirit as the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution, every "good deed," all that we do "for the Church" to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?
The Lenten season begins then by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of the right vision. It is, therefore, rooted in humility, and humility-- the divine and beautiful humility-- is its fruit and end. "Let us avoid the high-flown speech of the Pharisee," says the Kontakion of this day, "and learn the majesty of the Publican's humble words..." We are at the gates of repentance and at the most solemn moment of the Sunday vigil; After the Resurrection and the appearance of Christ have been announced-- "having beheld the Resurrection...."-- we sing for the first time the troparia which will accompany us throughout the entire Lent:
The fortieth day after His birth, the All-holy Virgin brought her divine Son into the Temple of Jerusalem, in accordance with the Law, to dedicate Him to God and to purify herself (Leviticus 12:2-7; Exodus 12:2). Even though neither the one nor the other was necessary, the Lawgiver did not want in any way to transgress His own Law, which He had given through Moses, His servant and prophet.
At that time, the high-priest Zacharias, the father of John the Forerunner, was serving in the Temple. Zacharias placed the Virgin, not in the temple area reserved for women, but rather in the area reserved for virgins. On this occasion two very special persons appeared in the Temple: the Elder Simeon and Anna, the daughter of Phanuel.
The righteous Simeon took the Messiah in his arms and said: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation". (Luke 2:29-30). Simeon also spoke the following words about the Christ-child: Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel (Luke 2:34).
Then Anna, who from her youth had served God in the Temple by fasting and prayer, recognized the Messiah and glorified God. She then proclaimed to the inhabitants of Jerusalem the coming of the long-awaited One.
But the Pharisees who were present in the Temple, having seen and heard all, became angry with Zacharias because he had placed the Virgin Mary in the area reserved for virgins, and they reported this to King Herod. Convinced that this was the new king spoken of by the Magi from the East, Herod immediately sent his soldiers to kill Jesus. In the meantime, the holy family had already left the city and set out for Egypt under the guidance of an angel of God.
The Feast of the Meeting of our Lord in the Temple was celebrated from earliest times, but the solemn celebration of this day was established in the year 544 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Justinian.
Macarius was an Egyptian and one of the younger contemporaries of Anthony the Great. His father was a priest. Out of obedience to his parents, Macarius married. However, his wife died shortly thereafter and he withdrew to the wilderness, where he spent sixty years in labor and struggle, both inwardly and outwardly, for the Kingdom of Heaven.
When they asked him why he was so thin, both when he ate and when he did not eat, he responded: "From the fear of God." So much did he succeed in cleansing his mind of evil thoughts and his heart of evil desires, that God bestowed upon him the abundant gift of miracle-working, so that he even raised the dead from the graves.
His humility amazed both men and demons. A demon once said to him: "There is only one thing in which I am unable to surpass you. It is not in fasting, for I do not eat anything. It is not in vigils, for I never sleep." "But what is it?" asked Macarius. "Your humility," answered the demon. Macarius often told Paphnutius, his disciple: "Do not judge anyone, and you will be saved."
Macarius lived to be ninety-seven years old. Nine days before his death, St. Anthony and St. Pachomius appeared to him from the other world and informed him that he would die within nine days; and it came to pass. Before his death, Macarius also had a vision in which a Cherubim revealed to him the blessed heavenly world, commended his effort and his virtue, and told him that he had been sent to take his soul into the Kingdom of Heaven. Macarius reposed in the year 390 A.D.