This is the fifth week of the Great Fast, a week that is dominated by the singing of the Great Canon of Repentance of Saint Andrew of Crete, and two days dedicated to holy women: Saturday, to the Mother of God, and Sunday, to Saint Mary of Egypt.
A canon is a sort of structured multi-part hymn or poem that is peculiar to the Byzantine Rite of the Christian Church. At Matins on Sunday, there is a canon of the Resurrection in each of the eight tones; every feast day has its own canon, sometimes two; and canons are also sung at the Paraklisis to the Mother of God, and the funeral service.
The canon sung on at Matins Thursday in the fifth week of the Great Fast is a particularly solemn and beautiful one, composed by Saint Andrew of Crete in the 8th century. It is a prolonged exhortation to repentance and humility, filled with examples of sin and repentance from the Old Testament, along with rich spiritual teaching. After each of the chanted hymns or troparia, the people sing responses such as “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me” or “Glory to You, O God, glory to You”, and make a full prostration to the ground.
The service of the Great Canon is appointed for Thursday morning, but may be celebrated on Thursday evening so that more of the faithful can attend. I encourage all cantors and faithful to attend this service if it is held in your area.
At noon each day in the Fifth Week, we continue to hear from the prophecies of Isaiah, and in the evenings, at Vespers or the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the story of the covenant that God made with Abraham. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is appointed from Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings; the hymns at the Presanctified on Wednesday and Thursday continue the theme of the Great Canon:
(sticheron from Thursday)
As I mentioned at the beginning of Lent, some of the Saturdays of the Great Fast have particular themes or commemorations. The first Saturday in the Fast commemorated the miracle of St Theodore, and the second, third, and fourth Saturdays were dedicated to the faithful departed – the so-called All Souls Saturdays. This coming Saturday, in the fifth week of the Great Fast, remembers the feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and she consented to become the mother of God. We celebrate this as a feast on March 25, but the Church also devotes to the same theme one of the Lenten Saturdays that fall around the same time each year. On this Saturday, at Matins, we sing the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God.
The Akathist is another kind of liturgical poem – actually, more like a poetic sermon – that preceded the canon in the Byzantine Rite and was eventually replaced by it in most services. An akathist consists of stanzas, with refrains sung by the people. The most famous akathist is the one to the Mother of God, recounting her meeting with the angel Gabriel and other events in the early life of Christ. Here is an except:
The Church’s liturgy prepares us for this hymn by including stichera to the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on Friday evening at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, and the green Divine Liturgies book provides propers for the Divine Liturgy on Akathist Saturday. Here are the troparion and kontakion:
(troparion and kontakion of Akathist Saturday)
The prokeimenon and Communion hymn for this Divine Liturgy are the common ones for the Mother of God, while the Alleluia uses the image of the Ark of the Covenant as a symbol for the Theotokos.
On Saturday at Vespers, we begin a new tone of the week; since the preceding days of the week were in Tone 8, on Saturday night we return to Tone 1.
The fifth Sunday in the Great Fast is dedicated to a famous penitent, Saint Mary of Egypt; as a woman of loose morals, she accompanied a group of Christians on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and was herself converted. She turned from her sins, sought baptism, and spent the rest of her life at prayer in the desert. Here is her kontakion:
(kontakion of the fifth Sunday in the Great Fast)
The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is celebrated for the final time during the Great Fast. Make sure to take the opportunity to focus on its re-telling of the history of salvation, and all that God has done for us.