Today we had the first Orthros of Great Lent—in the monastic typikon, the services of Great Lent are anticipated on Wednesday and Friday of Cheese-fare Week. While we were attending the service we encountered the difficulty that we always encounter with the services of Great Lent: how to characterize the services’ atmosphere.
The services of Great Lent are characterized by a sobriety and restraint. Properly executed, the Orthodox Services of Great Lent are not lugubrious, doleful, mournful or given to weeping or other emotional exaggeration. Emotional exaggeration is not the way of the monk.
In their greatest expression, during Holy Week, the sobriety and restraint of the services of Great Lent bloom into great and very deep ecclesiastical poetry. In the Greek tradition at least, this poetry is accompanied by some of the greatest ecclesiastical music, music which gives the cantor the means to express the depth of our own love for Christ. As great as Bach, say, is, the music of the Orthodox Church moves in another dimension—a spiritual dimension of peace and sobriety which raises our minds (nous) to Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit, not through the play of the musical composition on our raw emotions. This is not to say that Bach was not a believing Christian.
It is through being raised to Christ by the Holy Spirit in our spirits and not in our emotions that we relive the Passion of Christ during Holy Week.
In common with all the services of the Orthodox Church, the services of Holy Week are a spiritual re-enactment. In Holy Week, the services are a re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. Through our spiritual participation in this re-enactment we enter more deeply and more fully into the spiritual relationship with Christ that was conferred on us by our reception of the Holy Spirit in Baptism so as to participate more fully in Our Saviour’s life of the Resurrection.
Hence, the whole of Great Lent is a purification from our passions through a sober attention to the word of God in the services. Our goal is that through this purification we might be joined more closely to Christ, first in his Passion in all its gravity and then in his Resurrection. This is repentance: sober attention, purification and an effort to change, so that we may live in fullness the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in the love of Our Saviour to us for our salvation and eternal joy: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and the Son whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.”