Today is the first Sunday of a three-week period before Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. This is a preparatory time for the spiritual journey of Lent. It is a time that Orthodox Christians attempt to draw closer to God through worship, prayer, fasting, and acts of charity(Note: This is not the only time we do that - it’s just a time we set in the church year to be particularly mindful of it.) The Triodion, a special liturgical book used during the Lenten period, will be used today as it contains the hymns, prayers, and services of Lent held between this Sunday and Pascha Sunday.
Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The reading is taken from Luke 18:10-14 and the theme is repentance and its relationship to humility.
Two men enter the temple. One is a Pharisee, standing in the open and praying (to himself) and obviously believing he is better than the others present as he states aloud that he strictly follows the fasting and tithing rules. The other is the Publican (tax collector), standing off in the corner and humbly praying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus says, “I tell you, this man (the publican) went down to his house justified rather than the other, for he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Pharisee is quite content with his life. In his state of pride, he does not allow God to work within him. This attitude of pride allows him to judge others and believe he is somehow better than those around him.
The Publican is humble. He is fully aware of his sinful nature and does not perceive himself to be better than others. He seeks renewal. It is his humility that justifies him before God. This humility is the beginning of repentance and the beginning of his ability to grow in the image and likeness of God. In Orthodoxy, that is what we are striving for (theosis). Fr. Dimitri Tsakas states, “…we should be aiming to become truly human. To become honest, sincere, and genuine human beings. That’s what our aim is. And what it means to have humility, is simply to know what you are”. The publican knew what he was. Thus he did what is the hardest thing to do in life. He stood before God (not showing off as did the Pharisee), admitted his sinful nature and asked for mercy.
The beginning of Lent rightly begins with repentance. Just as the publican, we must stand before God, admit our sinful nature and repent, asking for His mercy. It is through repentance that we are able to turn from our sinful ways and focus our lives on God, restoring our spirits in this challenging world full of distractions (as I spoke of last Sunday in Peaceful Reflections – Zacchaeus Sunday).
As we enter this season of Lent, we must face that hard thing to do. We must place ourselves before God and ask for His mercy. We must, in humility, repent of the obstacles that lead us astray from His presence. Then we can use the tools of the church – services, prayer, confession, almsgiving and others- to strengthen our humble spirits and move towards God instead of away from Him.
Kontakion (Tone Four)
Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.
How are you preparing yourself for Lent this year? What tools of the church do you find the most helpful in your struggle to repent and avoid sin?
Resources Used For This Article and Other Sources For Your Interest:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.