"Let us draw near with faith and love, that we may become partakers of life everlasting."
Last week, we discussed some of the initially noticeable liturgical characteristics of the season of Great Lent. Now, we will continue with reflections on the features of the second portion of the Lenten period.
As the time of Lent passes, so too, the intensity of the services. Already, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts has drawn our attention each Wednesday and Friday. With its tranquil and somber chants and texts, the service creates an atmosphere of reflection and quiet contemplation, conducive to the mood of Great Lent.
The Eucharistic portion of the Presanctified Liturgy contains prayers which beckon us to unity with the Lord, who is continually coming into the world around us. The quotation above is from the second part of the Cherubikon. The first part speaks of the "mystical sacrifice," Christ's Body & Blood, which the celebrant is about to bring to the altar for the communion of the faithful. After the silent procession with the consecrated gifts reaches to royal doors, the people, all on bended knees, conclude the hymn. It is only with "faith and with love that we may become partakers of everlasting life."
As we partake of the life-giving sacrament of Christ's presence, the communion hymn reminds us what a good thing it is to be in the presence of the living God. For those who have been fasting for three weeks now, the words become very real indeed. God-with-us and living in our midst is a good thing, which satisfies all human need and hunger: "Taste and see how good the Lord is. Alleluia."
After the third Lenten Sunday, the church calls us to accelerate our participation in worship. This Sunday itself is dedicated to the "Veneration of the Holy Cross" and is intended to give encouragement to the praying and fasting community, with the knowledge that Lent has run half its course and that the "sacred and solemn week of the Passion of Christ" will soon be upon us.
Following the fourth Sunday, during the fifth week, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, with many prostrations (profound bows on the floor), is sung during Thursday matins. It reminds us of the need to pay attention to the purpose of Lent: to better conform ourselves to the image of Christ through sincere repentance. A prostration is made after each troparion of the canon, during the verse, "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me."
The Presanctified Liturgy is celebrated that evening, so that the people may be spiritually refreshed by the Eucharist, after the strenuous multitude of prostrations. On the following Saturday, the Akafist Hymn to the Theotokos is sung, as we ask Mary to accompany us, as she did her son, Jesus, on the journey to Jerusalem. The origin of the use of the Akafist to Mary at this time is probably closely related to the proximity of the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25/April 7), the biblical event to which the service is primarily dedicated.
Soon, the 40 days of fasting will conclude with the sixth Friday and the following Saturday of Lazarus, which directly precede the Feast of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday).
We observe the third Sunday of Lent and begin the fourth week knowing that time will pass quickly from this point forward. For us, we are nearing the Holy City and the solemn Passion Week is close at hand.