Readings of the Great Lent
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)
History and Structure of the Great Lent
In the early church, the holy fathers began fasting the Great Lent on the day after the Feast of the Theophany (12 Tobe). This forty day fast was originally kept after Theophany to follow the example of Christ who immediately went into the wilderness after His baptism for forty days and was tempted: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Lk. 4:1,2). Then there was a separate fast of Pascha celebrated 1 week prior to the Resurrection.
Thus, Passion Week was separate from the rest of the Holy Lent, until the time of Pope Demetrius, the twelfth Patriarch of Alexandria, in the 4th century. Pope Demetrius instituted the eight week – 55-day Holy Lent that we observe present day, and he also appointed the time for the Holy Feast of Passover.
Great Lent and the Baptism of Catechumens
The time of the Great fast used to focus on preparation of catechumens (those who were new in the faith and could not partake in the Divine Liturgy) to be baptized on Resurrection. We find traces of this in the current services of the Great Lent. In matins during Lent, we find a supplication that is prayed after the prophecies in which the whole congregation participates in prostrations as they pray for God’s mercy. During the supplication, the priest prays various litanies, concluding with a litany for the catechumens: “Confirm their faith in You, uproot all traces of idolatry from their hearts. Your law, Your fear, Your commandments, Your truths, and Your Holy precepts, establish in their hearts. Grant that they may know the steadfastness of the preaching they have received. And in set time, may they be worthy of the washing of the new birth for the remission of their sins, as You prepare them to be a temple of Your Holy Spirit.” (Supplications of matins during Lent)
As preparing catechumens was one of the major focuses of the Great Lent, the readings throughout the fast were meant to give the catechumens instruction of the faith, guidance to repentance, and understanding of the sacrament of baptism and the gift of enlightenment.
The church services played a central role in teaching the congregation at that time, as most people did not have access to a bible and were illiterate. Despite not having their own personal copy of the bible, the believers were knowledgeable in the faith because of the curriculum the church established through the daily and Sunday readings during the year. The readings of the lectionary are carefully chosen to guide us in our faith and help us to understand God’s lifechanging love towards us. This education through liturgical services is a primary reason why we have the unchanged faith delivered to us today.
Prophecies of the Great Lent
The days of Lent, together with the three holy days of Jonah and the Holy Week, include prophecies from the Old Testament. On the weekdays during the seven weeks of Lent, we read the prophecies before the matins Gospel. As for Saturdays and Sundays, we do not read prophecies, because these days are traditionally considered as holidays, in which happiness and delight should prevail.
In the early church, all the Old Testament was read during Lent as a part of preparation for the catechumens. Since the New Testament is the completion of the Old Testament, it was important for catechumens to be familiar with the Old Testament readings. Today, we read all of Isaiah (also known as the 5th Gospel because of the amount of prophecies related to Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection), as well as portions from most Old Testament books. These include the 5 books of Moses (Pentateuch), the historical books, and the major and minor prophetic books. Additionally, on Friday of the 6th week of the Great Lent, we read the entire deuterocanonical book Tobit as a reminder of the importance of almsgiving- one of the major themes of this fast.
Overview of the Themes of Each week during Lent
1st WEEK OF LENT – PREPARATION
The overall theme for the first four weeks revolves around the struggle that we must endure. The theme of the first week is “Preparation for Procession.” During this week, we read passages from the Holy Gospels that focus on rejecting evil, submitting, and pursuing perfection and the Kingdom of Heaven. These readings help us to prepare not only for this great fast, but for any spiritual endeavor that we wish to pursue. Together, they act as a set of guidelines that aim to lead us to eternal life with God. The scheduled week concludes on Sunday, where we appropriately read Matthew 6:19-33 – “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…”
2nd WEEK OF LENT – STRUGGLE
The theme for the second week is “the Nature of procession: Struggle”. During this week, we read passages from the Holy Gospels that focus on praying, rejecting the earthly and following Our Lord, as well as experiencing the difficulties along the way. This week humbles us because we see that although we may know the way, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41). We must acknowledge that it will not be easy forsake everything and follow Him. However, we simultaneously learn from the Gospel of the Sunday of this week – that through fasting and the knowledge of the Word of God, we shall be victorious over the devil, and be comforted by the grace of God.
The conclusion of this week is Sunday’s gospel reading of Matthew 4:1-11 – the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. Here we see Christ overcoming temptation and having victory over Satan, giving us hope that we too can overcome. Also, this gives us hope that we have a God who can relate with our struggle “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
3rd WEEK OF LENT – REPENTANCE
The theme for the third week of the Great Lent is “Purity of Procession: Repentance.” From the readings this week, we learn the importance, struggle, and benefits of repenting from our sins. We should realize, especially during this week, that an aspect of fasting involves breaking away from our sinful habits and repenting. Pope Athanasius of Alexandria explains that through prayer and fasting from our fleshly lusts, “we shall have the strength to overcome our adversaries, like blessed Judith.” On Sunday of this week, we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which reveals no matter how unworthy we are to God, with a true and repentant heart, He will gladly accept us with open arms.
4th WEEK OF LENT – THE HOLY GOSPEL
The fourth week’s theme is “Constitution of Procession: The Holy Gospel.” The parables and teachings from Our Lord in the passages during this week are filled with wisdom, guidance, and instances that reveal the Glory of God. On Sunday, we read about the Samaritan Woman and learn that while we always desire more pleasures here on earth, Our Lord reassures us that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:14).
The reading of the Samaritan woman also reminds the catechumens of the gifts they will receive in baptism. Christ says “…but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14). St. Ephraim the Syrian says that “The well of Jacob where Jesus conversed with the woman of Samaria prompted the comments that the holy church is built on the well, and Christ ‘baptizes with living waters.’”
This gospel builds upon the prior week’s in that the next step after repentance is worship of the Father who accepted, loved, and cleansed me from my sins and put me in His bosom. Contrition of the spirit and submission to the Father, as well as the love of frequent prostrations in worship, are the expressions of our love to Him Who opened His arms and kissed us the sinners. This is the end of the road of repentance – in the Father’s bosom. The Church, inspired by the Spirit, stresses the use of prostrations in the period of Lent during private prayers and in the Divine Liturgy (at the “offering of Incense” after the readings of the prophets).
5th WEEK OF LENT – FAITH
The final three weeks focus on the fruits of the struggles that we endure. The fifth week’s theme is “Target of Procession: Faith.” The readings during this week outline the characteristics that come with having a truly faithful spirit. We learn that even when we can only offer five loaves and two fish, by believing that God will always provide, we can feed a multitude of people. Furthermore, we contemplate the guidance and hope Our Lord has blessed us with and the faith in Him that we require to begin to be worthy of healing and acceptance. This requires the humility to believe we are not capable of anything without the One True God. This week’s readings conclude with Sunday’s gospel of the Healing of the Paralytic. In this story, we contemplate how Our Lord does not forget any of His children, and through the blessings that He grants all of us, our faith is strengthened.
We also see the theme of baptism in this story. The washing in the water of the pool of Bethesda in order to receive healing is a symbol of the healing power of baptism; “Let the Jews, who do not believe that baptism forgives sins be put to shame. For if they believe that an angel can heal illnesses through the waters of Shiloah, how much more can the Lord of angles purify the stains of sin through baptism?” (St. Ephraim the Syrian)
6th WEEK OF LENT – BAPTISM
The sixth week’s theme is “Identify in procession: Baptism.” We read passages from the Gospels that show the enlightenment and salvation that comes with Baptism. In order to achieve our own salvation, we must share the death and resurrection of the Lord; this is done through Baptism. “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death [baptism], certainly we shall be in the likeness of His resurrection… now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him” (Rom 6:5-8). Our Lord teaches how baptism is a form of rebirth in John 3 – “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” During the Sunday of this week, we read John chapter 9, the Healing of the Man Born Blind. This is yet another example that through the baptism, or rebirth through water and the Holy Spirit, we will be given sight and ability to follow Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.
7th WEEK OF LENT – SALVATION
The theme of the final week before Holy week is “End of Procession: Salvation.” During this period, we read more about Our Lord Jesus Christ – having faith in Him, and in His resurrection, judgement, blessings, and salvation. Throughout these readings, Our Lord hints at His impending death and resurrection. On this Saturday, also known as Lazarus Saturday, we read the story of the raising of Lazarus and how Our Lord assures us that He is the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Him, though he may die, shall live (John 11:25). Reading these final passages appropriately concludes the period of the fast that leads up to Holy Week. It reminds us again that Our Lord’s death is necessary for us to be saved, and that it is only through following His teachings that we may join Him in His resurrection.
Sources and where to go to learn more:
- A Scriptural and Liturgical Guide Based on the Coptic Orthodox Lectionary (Katamaros) by Fr. Mikhail E. Mikhail, D.Min)
- Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the early church: history, theology, and liturgy in the first five centuries. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.
- Fr. Bishoy Kamel, The Lectionary During the Lent (Alexandria, Egypt: St. George Coptic Orthodox Church, 1974).
- A Journey Through the Great Lent by George Youssef
- The Rite of the Great Lent by Albair Gamal Mikhail
- Treasures of the Fathers of the Church: Volume Three – Holy Pascha
- Russo, Nicholas V. “The Early History of Lent.” Lent Library (2013).
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