In my last blog I wrote about the many ways of Meeting God in the Orthodox perspective of salvation. The Orthodox Church’s yearly cycle of feasts expose us to God’s plan for our salvation. The Orthodox Church celebrates 12 major feasts each year. Through the festal cycle lies our journey of salvation. Again, we meet God. Surprisingly Pascha (Easter) is not listed as one of these major feasts. Instead it is celebrated as the feast of all feasts; it is a feast in its own category above & beyond all others. It is around Pascha all other feasts are oriented & organized. It is to Pascha all other feasts point. Pascha is our ultimate destination—the ultimate completion of our salvation—our ultimate meeting with God.
Orthodoxy never does anything without preparation & this is especially true with Pascha. There is no celebration of a feast that is not preceded by a fast. Before receiving Holy Communion each Sunday the Church bids us to fast (abstaining from food & drink) from midnight the night before. Before the evening Vesperal Liturgies & the Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts the Church bids us to fast from noon onwards.
The Church also bids us to prepare for Pascha with a special fast called Great Lent. Just as Pascha is the great feast of all feasts, so too is Great Lent the great fast of all fasts. But Great Lent is more than just refraining from certain kinds of foods or drink or restricting the intake of other foods. Great Lent is about fasting from sin which has held sway over us since Adam & Eve broke the original fast in the Garden of Eden.
Great Lent is about repentance, confession & humility before God. Repentance for life not lived according to God’s plan of salvation for us. Confession for sins committed against others & therefore against God Himself. Before repentance & confession can occur one must set aside pride & begin expressing & displaying humility before God as well as other. Therefore, Great Lent is properly understood to be preparation, both bodily & spiritually, for Pascha, for meeting with Christ our resurrected Lord. But what is involved with preparation. How do we begin this preparation?
In true Orthodox fashion the Church answers & bids us to…prepare for Great Lent. Yes we prepare to prepare! The Church begins our pre-Lenten preparation during the five consecutive Sundays before Great Lent. This preparation for Great Lent involves five lessons about the virtues that we are to practice during Great Lent.
1) Sunday of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10): Desire
Zacchaeus desired to see Christ, to meet God, but his small short stature prevented him due to the vast crowds that routinely amassed around Christ. Our sins do this to us. They lessen us, making us smaller so that we cannot see Christ. We cannot see through or around our sinfulness which crowds out our hearts & minds to God. So Zacchaeus climbed up a tree in order to glimpse Christ above the crowds. This would have been considered very unseemly behavior for an adult, especially for a chief publican as prominent & wealthy as Zacchaeus. However, he does the unseemly anyway in order to rise above the crowd & to meet God.
Only by ascending up the tree of life—Christ—can we begin to see & realize the true depth of our fallen state, of the depth of the sinfulness & the passions that rule our lives. Only by ascending up the tree of divine ascent—Christ—are we restored to union with God as relationship-oriented persons rather than self-oriented individuals. Our ascension towards salvation must be coupled with the desire of Zacchaeus—desire for God.
2) Sunday of the Publican & the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14): Humility
The Pharisee is a religious leader very knowledgeable in his faith & well respected in his community. Perhaps he is even sought out for spiritual guidance & wisdom. He knows the finer points regarding what is & is not sin under the Mosaic Law which he follows well beyond its minimum requirements. If one were to picture the archetypical believer worthy of heaven it would be the Pharisee.
He boasts of his superior righteousness & religious practices to God which superseded the minimum requirements of the Law. He boasts of his sinless lifestyle over those sinners in his community. He even points out the sinfulness of the Publican directly. Thus, he prays “with himself”—alone—he has separated himself from his community as well as God.
Despite his knowledge & practices he has missed the entire purpose & point of that same law: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ (Deut. 6:5) This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Lev. 19:18) On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)
In contrast, the Publican is despised by all around him. He has made his wealth from coercing his own people to pay beyond what was required by the hated controlling Romans. Perhaps even his position as chief Publican was gained by unseemly means & methods such as political influence gained through bribery. He has betrayed his own people as well as God. If one were to picture the archetypical sinner worthy of hell it would be the Publican.
However, he knows that he is a sinner; he knows that he is alone & separated from God. The only words he can bring himself to pray are “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” as he beats his breast in anguish & remorse. The Greek reads “τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ” (to hamartolo) or in English “the sinner”. Like St. Paul, he considered himself to be the worst of sinners before God (1 Tim 1:15). His humility stands in stark contrast to the pride of the Pharisee.
The icon for this day portrays this parable. The left depicts the Publican as he stands in humility below & behind the Pharisee who stands high & in front of all in his pride. On the right, side in accordance with Christ’s words in v. 14, the publican is shown elevated (justified & exalted before God) while the Pharisee is shown standing below (humbled & unjustified) the one he looked down on previously.
We like to identify with the Publican in his humility rather than realizing that we frequently emulate the Pharisee in his arrogance. We like to harshly judge the Pharisee for his pride; however, in doing so, we only end up emulating him. We emulate him by harshly judging others when they inevitably do not live up to our standard. We emulate him when we look down on others trapped & suffering in a sinful lifestyle by declaring they are getting what they deserve. We emulate the Pharisee far more often than we emulate the Publican.
We also can get all wrapped up in following the “rules”. Fasting is reduced to merely not eating certain foods. The Church is reduced to either a mere building or mere institution. The Body of Christ is reduced to a mere group of like-minded individuals or a mere social club. The Holy Scriptures & the writings of the Holy Fathers are reduced to mere tools to correct & chastise those we deem not righteous enough or even unrighteous. The Holy Mysteries & liturgical services are reduced to mere religious rituals, mere left-overs from an ancient past. The Eucharist, Holy Communion, is reduced to consuming a bit of mere bread & wine in memory of a historical event from long ago. Our salvation, our union with God, is ultimately reduced to nothing leaving us alone & separated.
For Great Lent we are to exemplify the humility of the Publican by judging ourselves to be the worst of sinners & thereby seeking, even pleading for God’s mercy.
3) Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32): Return
Several verses deserve mention in this passage that are usually glossed over. Verse 12 has the Prodigal telling his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” Normally, inheritances are received by children only after the death of their parent(s). By demanding his inheritance while his father still lived, the Prodigal is in essence telling his father, “You are dead to me.” Then we read that he left for a far country; he exiled himself & became alone in the world & before God. When we sin & therefore reject God’s love & mercy towards us, we are in essence doing the same thing, exiling ourselves.
We are then told that through his lack of wisdom & squandering his father’s wealth, the Prodigal was driven to caring for swine when a famine fell over the foreign land in which he had exiled himself. Swine were unclean & therefore forbidden by the Mosaic Law. Jews were forbidden not only to eat swine, but they were not to keep, tend or sell them. This would have been unconscionable for a Jew to sink to such depths.
Verse 17 reads, “…he came to himself…” He comes to his senses & sees reality. He realizes how his desires & ignorance have reduced him to less than a servant in his own father’s house. He went from being a beloved son to a gentile’s hired servant to a starving animal. He realizes his sin. So too does our unrepented sin ultimately reduce us & make us less than human. In v. 18 he continues, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him…” He begins his journey back home as he plans out his apology, his confession, to his father, his last & only hope for life. He hopes to become a servant; he dares not ask to be restored a son. So too should we confess to God our Father who is our only hope & source for life.
Verse 20-24 tells us about his father, who looking & hoping for his son to return, runs to him. To do such a thing at his age & with his status as patriarch of the family was considered unseemly at that time. But the father has compassion for him & he runs to meet him while the son is still afar off. He grasps him tightly & kisses him. The Greek “κατεφίλησεν” (katephilēsen) is much more descriptive. It is more accurately rendered as “showers him with kisses”. Then before the young man can get through his carefully prepared confession, his father does the unthinkable. He has the best robe put on his body, he has the signet ring put on his finger & he has sandals put on his feet. These signify the restoration of his dignity, the restoration of his authority & the restoration of his freedom. The willful youth, who could only hope to become a servant, was fully restored to his former state as son. The father even kills the fatted calf & calls for a celebration in honor of his son. So too does God the Father meet us while we are still afar off, even as we prepare for & journey through Great Lent. So too does God the Father fully restore us when we repent & return to him.
One last note is in order that is usually glossed over in this story: the older brother mentioned in the concluding verses. He has been obediently working for his father his whole life & he feels slighted by his father’s actions towards his younger brother. He gets angry & refuses to enter into the celebration even with his father’s pleas. Like the Pharisee who judged & condemned the Publican, so has the older brother judged & condemned his own brother. Like the Pharisee who followed the rules of the Mosaic Law, so too has the older brother followed his father’s rules in practice without discerning his father’s love & compassion. Like the Pharisee to God, so too does he point out his brother’s sins while bragging about himself. Like the Pharisee he had no compassion, neither for his father nor his brother. He has separated himself from his family through hardness of heart no less than his younger brother.
Do we rejoice at the repentance & return of a fellow sinner? Or do we remind God of our own works & righteousness? Do we feel compassion for the suffering of a fellow sinner? Or do we begrudge them the forgiveness that we also desperately need?