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In the first part I gave a brief overview of the services of the Orthodox Church that signal that Great Lent is not far off. But these were still basically “regular” services. In the three weeks and four Sundays before Great Lent, however, we enter into a new phase in the liturgy that carries all the way through Great And Holy Pascha (Easter), a phase that departs from the regular service orders and is called the Triodion (the canons chanted during this time originally had but three odes each, hence the term). In the Orthodox Church, this is the most sacred and special time of year, far exceeding Christmas in its significance, and in the physical and spiritual preparation we undergo.
However, we’re not quite there… yet. There is something of a joke that I heard a priest say. If Lent is a preparation for Pascha, the three weeks beforehand are a preparation for the preparation. There are four rather special services, the first three of which each begin a week of this pre-preparation. First there is the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, then the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, followed by Sunday of the Last Judgement, and concluding with the Sunday of Forgiveness. As I heard another priest put it: these services are like your mother calling out to you to get inside as it’s getting dark.
The Pharisee and the Publican
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18: 9-14 – NKJV)
In Christianity, regardless of the denomination, this is easily one of the most recognized parables. It is often cited for all manner of things, including condemnation of the Pharisees in general. But this is not really what is going on here. Why is this particular Pharisee singled out? For his pride. What the Pharisee says he does do (fasting and tithing) are good things. By contrast (as was noted in part one on Zaccheaus) tax collectors had a well-earned and widely understood reputation for being merciless cheats. What matters here is that the tax collector is fully aware of his own failings, and knows all he can do is hide in shame before the Lord and ask for mercy, while the Pharisee is just boasting about himself, seemingly unaware that perhaps he should also be repenting and asking for mercy.
This, then, is the first reminder of the significance of Lent. During Lent we are supposed to fast and tithe and to pray often with humility. But we can easily let our pride master us in these things, boasting about how well we keep the fast, or how much we’re “getting into the spirit of Lent”, or increasing our tithing. No matter how holy a life we think we may have led, no matter the good we may have done for others, if we allow such works and such living to puff up our pride in ourselves, or to consider that such outward works alone make us immune to any self criticism, then we are in dangerous spiritual territory. The tax collector (often called “The Publican”) expressed no pride, and moreover knew he deserved none when before the Lord in prayer, and at that moment at least recognized that he needed mercy. As Lent approaches, we should be taking our own spiritual inventory (and not that of others), and not let our own pride delude us. And if we think we’re “doing it right” by keeping the fast, and let that lead us to looking down on our brethren, then we’re doing it wrong.
However, the week following this Sunday is granted to us as a week free of fasting, which makes it a good time to start cleaning out the pantry along with the pride.
The Prodigal Son
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31) tells the story of the younger son of a rich man who demands his inheritance in advance, cashes it in, and travels far abroad to spend it on immoral living. When the good times and cash dry up, and a famine strikes this far off land, the young man is reduced to finding a job as a swine herd (a deep humiliation for a Jewish man), where even the pigs are eating better than he can manage. In a moment of clarity, he realizes that on his father’s estate even the servants are treated better than this, and so in repentance for wasting his life he determines to return to his father’s estate and beg for a job as the lowest of servants, and not as his son (for he has lost his inheritance). Yet to his surprise, before he has even reached his father’s lands, his father has run to him and embraced him, given him a clean cloak, and even given him a ring (rings being a sign of estate and office of that time). The father then throws a big party to celebrate the return of his lost son. However, the elder brother, who has been consistently loyal, resents this, protesting that their father never even allowed him a single goat for a small party with his friends, while the younger one threw everything away in immorality. Says the father:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ ”
No matter how poorly we have lived our lives, no matter how far gone we are in sin, we can still go home to the Lord and be welcomed with love and joy. But we do have to swallow our pride, and we do have to repent and turn back towards our Father. The younger son came back with nothing and was restored to his father’s house as his father’s son again. Moreover, the father met the son while the son was still far from home and took him the rest of the way. With Lent coming soon, so should we all repent, set aside our sins and the waste of our lives, and turn back in humility – we will be met along the way and brought home.
But there is a caution. Perhaps we are like the older son instead, always having remained faithful. This is good. But it should not lead us to feel resentment towards the prodigals among us when they return. The father rejoices because the younger son was lost, and now lives again, and aside from the momentary merry making, while the older son has really lost nothing for himself by remaining faithful (as the father assures him). Many of us have perhaps lead dutiful and faithful lives, and not squandered what has been given us, or what has been promised us. We should show the same generosity of spirit as the father when the rest do finally repent.
The week following the Sunday of the Prodigal returns to a normal schedule of fasting on Wednesday and Friday. Good time to really clean out the pantry for Lent.
The Last Judgement
In Matthew, chapter 25, in verses 31 through 44, Jesus begins with a warning:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
In what follows, the righteous ask when they did these things, and Jesus responds that whenever anyone gave any of these mercies to “the least of my brethren”, then they were in reality showing such mercy to Him. By contrast, the condemned are told that by refusing such mercies to any and all, they likewise refused Him. The righteous, the merciful, are the ones who are brought into the kingdom, the rest are led away. This is a harsh warning.
Do we give mercy to others? Do we give of our time and ourselves to others among us. Lent, now a scant week away, is a period of repentance. Our repentance must include a recognition that our time on this Earth is short, and we will be judged for what we have done for others. And even if we have little, we still have ourselves that we can give in our time and our love. GD loves all of mankind for we are all made in His image and likeness, and it is incumbent on us to recognized that divine spark in all others, no matter how disguised or disfigured it may be.
There is an old Orthodox parable about a bitter old woman who has died. Her soul is condemned, but an angel pleads on her behalf for mercy. The Lord asks the angel “What kindness did she ever show another?” The angel replies “She once gave an onion to a starving beggar.” The Lord says “Then by that onion you may pull her out of the pit of fire, but if it breaks she is truly condemned.”
The angel takes the onion and holds it out to the woman, and she grasps it, thanking the angel for his mercy. But as the angel begins to pull her out, others grab hold of the woman and the onion, hoping to be lifted out of torment with her. The woman shouts at them “No! This is MY onion, not yours! Go get your own!” And with that utterance the onion breaks.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky weaves this parable into The Brothers Karamozov, where an “onion” of a momentary act of pity and kindness and compassion serves to lift both a fallen women and a young man (himself on the brink of despair) to salvation, beginning a turning for them both towards redemption. Even small acts of pity or mercy may be likewise such turnings for us.
Lent is just a week away, and in the final run up to the Fast, this last week we begin in earnest by abstaining from meat.
This is now the eve of Great Lent. So far we have been given lessons on pride and humility in prayer, on repentance and turning back from our sins, and on showing mercy and kindness to others. This last Sunday is on the need to forgive, and to be forgiven (the Matins and Vespers services also focus heavily on the Expulsion from Eden). The gospel reading of the day is from Matthew (6: 14-21):
“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Life is short, and death inescapable. We all understand (I hope) that earthly material possessions will pass from us when we die. But there are other things we can treasure and hold onto, even if they are ultimately just as worthless: anger at others, hurts and wounds we have received from others, bad habits we have turned into idols, and more besides. So as we enter into Lent, on Forgiveness Sunday, everyone in the church is to ask for, and to give forgiveness to everyone else, for we may not even know that we have slighted or hurt someone else. One by one, we say to each other “Forgive me, a sinner” and one by one we must say “God forgives and I forgive” and mean it. After all, Jesus forgave even while on the cross. Now is the time to clear the air. It’s really a beautiful service too, with many hugs and tears.
We enter into Lent the following day, hopefully having prepared our houses, our minds, and our hearts. The coming weeks will hopefully be both a joyous and a mournful time – joyous because Pascha is the greatest celebration in the faith, but mournful because of its necessity both then and now.
Nota Bene: I had planned on having this posted before the start of Lent, but due to travel, illness, and some other things, I wasn’t able to get this posted any sooner. And now we’re already over a week in! Easter shifts around, of course, on the calendar, and this year Great Lent began on March 11.