By: GEORGE YOUSSEF
The Great Lent is undoubtedly the holiest fast observed by the Coptic Orthodox Church. During the Great Lent, we fast for a total of fifty five days; seven days from the preparation week, forty days to fast as Our Lord fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:2), one day for Lazarus Saturday, and the seven last days for Holy Week . It is important to constantly remember the value of fasting during this period. On the surface, we abstain from food, drink, delicacies, and other pleasures; however, this is done to express the love, commitment, and sacrifice we offer up to God who sent His Only-Begotten Son to die for us. In addition to fasting and sacrificing to express our devotion and commitment to God, we take this blessed opportunity to grow spiritually and avoid the sinful distractions that may pull us away from our holy state. This is done by increasing the times we pray and contemplate. To help us do this, the church provides an organized set of
themes and Gospel readings for the first forty nine days of the Great Lent for us to follow.
The overall theme for the first four weeks revolves around the features of 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 ultimately the Kingdom of Heaven. When read, these readings will effectively help us in preparing not only for this great fast, but for any spiritual endeavor 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 in which 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…”.
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 in a way 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 to give all that we have and follow Him, but in the same time, we learn from the Gospel of the Sunday of this week, Matthew 4:1-11, 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 theme for the third week of the Great Lent is “Purity of Procession: Repentance”. We learn from the readings this week the importance, struggle, and benefit 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 (13:8)...”. We read the Parable of the Prodigal Son in this Sunday’s Gospel which reveals how no matter how unworthy we are to God, with a true and repentant heart, He will gladly accept us with open arms.
THE HOLY GOSPEL
The fourth week’s theme is “Constitution of Procession: The Holy Gospel”. The parables and teachings from Our Lord revealed in the passages during this week are filled with wisdom, guidance, and instances that reveal the Glory of God. During this Sunday, we read about the Samaritan Woman and learn that we will always desire more pleasures here on earth, but Our Lord reassures us that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.” (John 4:14).
The following last three weeks focus on the fruits of the struggles that we must endure. The fifth week’s theme is specifically “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 have as little as 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 how it is faith in Him that we require if we wish 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 scheduled readings concludes with the reading of the Healing of the Paralytic on Sunday during which we contemplate on the idea that Our Lord does not forget a single one of His children and through the blessings that He grants all of us, our faith may be strengthened.
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 salvation ourselves, 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 states 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 of how only through the baptism, or rebirth through water and the Holy Spirit, will be be given sight and the ability to follow Him to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The theme of the last week before Holy week is “End of Procession: Salvation”. During this period, we read more about Our Lord Jesus Christ- having faith in Him, His resurrection, His Judgement, His Blessings, and His 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 to be saved and that only through following His teachings may we join Him in His resurrection.
May this year’s Holy Great Lent be spiritually fruitful for us all and Glory be to God forever. Amen.