The Lenten Season is almost as old as the Church itself. Christians in the second century prepared for the Easter feast with a two-day fast. By the third century this fast was extended to all of Holy Week. In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea spoke of the quadragesima paschae (“forty days before Easter”), which we know today as the Season of Lent.
As today (Feb. 22) is the First Sunday in Lent, we notice some visible changes in our liturgy today: the absence of altar flowers; purple paraments on the pulpit and lectern; more penitential prayers; a simple plainsong Psalm tone; the omission of the said or sung “Alleluia” and a Solemn Prayer over the People replacing the final Blessing. Next Sunday and the remaining Sundays in Lent we will begin the liturgy with A Penitential Order, which moves the Confession of Sin to the beginning of the service.
For today’s entrance rite we sing in procession The Great Litany, which is the oldest extant piece of liturgy used in the Church. Used as early as the fifth century in Rome, the Litany was included in the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cramner in 1544. It was then printed as an appendix to the Eucharistic rite in the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The Litany may be used as a separate order itself or as an entrance rite for the Eucharist. It is a beautiful and all-encompassing prayer for the whole Church and for ourselves.