Roman Catholics are used to attending Stations of the Cross during Lent. This has become the staple prayer of most Catholic parishes during this period. Byzantine Christians emphasize the Divine Office (also known as the Divine Praises or the Liturgy of the Hours) during Lent and Holy Week[1]. The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify time daily.  Eight prayer services of varying lengths are prescribed throughout the day. Unlike the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Byzantine Office has not been shortened and is exceptionally difficult to complete except for those leading a monastic life.

When you say Great Lent (also known as the Great Fast) to Christians of the Byzantine Rite, many automatically think of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.  This is considered as one of the four main liturgies of this rite[2], but is in fact a vespers service[3] with the distribution of Holy Communion.   It is celebrated on Wednesday and Friday evenings of Lent, and certain other days such as the fifth Thursday of Lent.  Truly a majestic service, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is often done to the exclusion of other Lenten services.  Many Byzantine Christians do not get to see the wide variety of services available in the Great Fast.  So, what then are the options for parochial usage? 

There are two main characteristics of Byzantine prayer life during the Great Fast.  First, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated Monday through Friday.  These are aliturgical days.  Secondly, each canonical hour of the Divine Office becomes much longer, reflecting the penitential nature of the season.  For instance, the number of Psalms recited as part of the Divine Office doubles on most days and each Office ends with the Prayer of St Ephrem, a particularly thought-provoking plea for self-restraint: “O Lord and Master of my life take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.  Give me the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You, unto the ages of ages. Amen.”  It is precisely because the Divine Office is used during the Great Fast there are many opportunities to introduce some of these other services into the prayer life of the community. The Great Fast begins on the Monday before Ash Wednesday.  The Lenten period is forty days as in Western Christianity, but the Eastern and Western Churches count the days differently.   Western, or Latin Christians begins Lent on Ash Wednesday two days later.  The liturgical day begins at dusk of the previous day, so the Eastern Great Lent begins with the celebration of Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday evening.  This is a truly magnificent service, where the clergy will change from their bright vestments to dark vestments in the middle of the canonical hour, signifying the beginning of the Great Fast.  During this evening service, the priest and the congregation will ask mutual forgiveness from each other as they begin their Lenten journey. 

The first week of the Great Fast is known as “Clean Week”, and many celebrate this with the recitation of The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete over the first four nights (Monday through Thursday) of the Fast.  The Great Canon is part of compline, or night prayer, and is one of the most profound examples of penitential literature in the world. It is also known for the many prostrations made during the service. The complete Canon is chanted on the fifth Thursday of Lent. You need to be in really good shape if you are going to make all of  suggested prostrations! The Great Canon is often shortened in parish use due to parochial necessity. 

The compline of the first four Fridays of the Great Fast also has a distinctive kontakion[4] known as the Akathist[5],   This hymn, also inaccurately referred to as the “Byzantine Rosary” is divided into four parts for each of the four Fridays.  The Akathist is sung while standing (Akathist means “without sitting”) and the chant is fast and lively.  During matins[6] of the fifth Saturday of Lent, known as Akathist Saturday, the entire Akathist is sung.   

The second, third, and fourth Saturdays of the Great Fast are All Souls’ Saturdays.  The Divine Liturgy or other suitable services may be celebrated, and the dead are remembered.  In Slavic traditions, the names of the deceased are read during the litany. 

The Sundays during the Lenten Season are devoted to particular saints or themes. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is used on the Sundays of Lent, replacing the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  The former is a longer Divine Liturgy with extended prayers the faithful may find instructive.  Two of the Lenten Sundays have particular prayers associated with them. The Second Sunday of the Great Fast is devoted to St. Gregory Palamas, a hesychast (an Eastern Christian mystic) who has become inextricably linked with the Jesus Prayer.  The Jesus Prayer is a simple repetition of this phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  There are variations of this prayer, but all retain this simple theme.  The congregation could be introduced to the Jesus Prayer through the Prayer Rule of St. Macarius, features the Jesus Prayer as its centerpiece.  Eastern monastics believe St. Macarius was given this prayer by an angel to help monks keep St. Paul’s injunction to pray unceasingly.  The third Sunday in Lent is devoted to the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  The Akathist’s to the Divine Passion and to the Holy Cross could also be used during this week.  There are many Akathists available for use throughout the liturgical year.  Highlighting several of them during the Lenten period might stoke interest in this venerable prayer form. 

For those parishioners who are daily communicants, the lack of a Divine Liturgy during Lent can be spiritually detrimental.  The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts breaks the Wednesday and Friday daily fast with Holy Communion.  On other days typika, a short communion service may be celebrated by itself or with one of the Little Hours[7].  Traditionally typika is celebrated at the end of the Ninth Hour, but pastoral necessity could indicate celebrating it earlier in the day.  Finally, the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on the Annunciation on March 25.  Western Christians are often amazed to find out a Divine Liturgy is celebrated on this day even if it falls on Good Friday!

Offering services other than the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts demonstrates the rich theological tradition of the Byzantine Rite.  it acquaints parishioners with the beauty of the Divine Office and provides an educational framework for the various Lenten themes in the Eastern Church.  There are plenty of services that can be used to show parishioners how deep and spiritually nourishing their liturgical tradition is.  Why not try and attend one during Lent?

[1] Holy Week is a separate liturgical season in the Byzantine tradition and is not treated here. It has its own special services such as Royal Hours and Burial Vespers.

[2] The other three being the Divine Liturgies of St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. James.

[3] Vespers is the prayer service of the evening celebrated around dusk.  However, there is a great deal of flexibility when each of the prayers are served because of practical or pastoral reasons.

[4] A thematic hymn that has become greatly abbreviated in most parochial usages.

[5] An Akathist is a highly stylized prayer consisting of a set number of odes and is dedicated to a particular saint or a Person of the Holy Trinity.  There are considerable number of akathists, and some are still being composed today. If someone refers to “The Akathist”, he or she means the first akathist written in the sixth century and devoted to the Virgin Mary.  It is this Akathist that is recited on the Fridays in Lent.

[6] The extended morning prayer of the Divine Office, recited prior to dawn.

[7] Prime (6 a.m.—The First Hour), Terce (9 a.m.—The Third Hour.), Sext (Noon—The Sixth Hour); and None (3 p.m.—the Ninth Hour).  These are short services that can be led by the laity.  On Good Friday the four Little Hours are combined into one service known as Royal Hours. The Byzantine emperor would attend this service, giving its distinctive title.