The paschal season of the Church is preceded by the season of Great Lent, which is itself preceded by its own liturgical preparation. The first sign of the approach of Great Lent comes five Sundays before its beginning. On this Sunday the Gospel reading is about Zacchaeus the tax-collector. It tells how Christ brought salvation to the sinful man and how his life was greatly changed simply because he “sought to see who Jesus was” (Lk 19:3). The desire and effort to see Jesus begins the entire movement through lent towards Easter. It is the first movement of salvation.
The following Sunday is that of the Publican and the Pharisee. The focus here is on the two men who went to the Temple to pray—one a pharisee who was a very decent and righteous man of religion, the other a publican who was a truly sinful tax-collector who was cheating the people. The first, although genuinely righteous, boasted before God and was condemned, according to Christ. The second, although genuinely sinful, begged for mercy, received it, and was justified by God (Lk 18:9). The meditation here is that we have neither the religious piety of the pharisee nor the repentance of the publican by which alone we can be saved. We are called to see ourselves as we really are in the light of Christ’s teaching, and to beg for mercy.
The next Sunday in the preparation for Great Lent is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Hearing the parable of Christ about God’s loving forgiveness, we are called to come to ourselves” as did the prodigal son, to see ourselves as being “in a far country” far from the Father’s house, and to make the movement of return to God. We are given every assurance by the Master that the Father will receive us with joy and gladness. We must only “arise and go,” confessing our self-inflicted and sinful separation from that “home” where we truly belong (Lk 15:11-24).
The next Sunday is called Meatfare Sunday since it is officially the last day before Easter for eating meat. It commemorates Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). We are reminded this day that it is not enough for us to see Jesus, to see ourselves as we are, and to come home to God as his prodigal sons. We must also be his sons by following Christ, his only-begotten divine Son, and by seeing Christ in every man and by serving Christ through them. Our salvation and final judgment will depend upon our deeds, not merely on our intentions or even on the mercies of God devoid of our own personal cooperation and obedience.
"... 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 in prison and you visited me. For truly I say to you, if you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Mt 25)."
We are saved not merely by prayer and fasting, not by “religious exercises” alone. We are saved by serving Christ through his people, the goal toward which all piety and prayer is ultimately directed.
Finally, on the eve of Great Lent, the day called Cheesefare Sunday and Forgiveness Sunday, we sing of Adam’s exile from paradise. We identify ourselves with Adam, lamenting our loss of the beauty, dignity and delight of our original creation, mourning our corruption in sin. We also hear on this day the Lord’s teaching about fasting and forgiveness, and we enter the season of the fast forgiving one another so that God will forgive us.
"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses (Mt 6:14-18)."
From the series "The Orthodox Faith, Volume II - Worship" by Fr. Thomas Hopko.
Copyright © 1981 Department of Religious Education - Orthodox Church in America.
Fr. Steven Kostoff
February 3, 2014
In the liturgical life of the Church, “The Sunday of Zacchaeus,” is based on the narrative found in Luke 19:1-10. This is the first “signal” or “echo” that the season of Great Lent is approaching. This is unfailingly certain each year. The date for this Sunday will, of course, change on an annual basis, because the date is ultimately determined by the date of Pascha, an unfixed date itself determined by the Church’s Paschalion. But the Sunday of Zacchaeus will always be placed in this position in relationship to the beginning of Great Lent. There thus exists a pre-lenten preparation in the Church that we begin with the use of The Lenten Triodion.
Why is this so? In his now-classic book Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann provides the following insight: “Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature. Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening ‘worldliness’ of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance. Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning. This preparation includes five consecutive Sundays preceding Lent.
In other words, if one is to find meaning in this period of pre-lent, one must be pro-lent! We need to look forward to Great Lent, not as a burden to be endured; but as a season of renewal to be embraced – eagerly and decisively. Perhaps, then, we can extend the designation of the “Sunday of Zacchaeus” and now say that we are in the midst of the “Week of Zacchaeus.” The intention would be to further meditate and reflect upon that wonderful passage and not forget it before we have had the time to further absorb its profound meaning for our own lives.
Zacchaeus, the “vertically-challenged” tax-collector becomes, for us, representative of our better impulses in his desire to “see Jesus.” In order to simplify and to get to the heart of the matter, we need to lay aside all theological jargon, sophisticated reasoning, and misplaced rhetoric; and say with a kind of raw immediacy (that could actually make us feel a bit uneasy): I desire to “see Jesus.” Though that may sound like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, it is actually rooted in the Gospels. In fact, this desire has immortalized Zacchaeus until the end of time – and beyond we believe! In emulating Zacchaeus ourselves, we will be able to overcome our own “smallness of stature” and act decisively – “climb a sycamore tree” – and encounter Christ in a meaningful way. In the case of Zacchaeus, he exposed himself to public ridicule by his outlandish public display of desire. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote: imagine a business executive in suit and tie, climbing a street sign on a crowded downtown corner in order to see a wandering prophet passing by! Overcoming such social self-consciousness is probably more difficult to achieve than imagined – especially for those of us untested by public reaction (friends and relatives) for the slightest breach of social etiquette done for a “higher cause.”
And there was, on a much more deeply-rooted level, Zacchaeus’ need to overcome his own sinfulness which, by that point in his life, must have been a hardened and frozen pattern of life. He was a publican. That was a tax-collector working for the hated Roman regime that conquered and occupied Israel. Such a power position allowed him to cheat and defraud his own people to the point of being labeled “rich” by Saint Luke the evangelist. He may have been despised by the people, but his “comfort level,” achieved after many years, must not have been easy to leave behind. Mid-life changes do not come easily for anyone; rather, as the years roll by, they become more difficult. One would imagine that others were skeptical about his “conversion.” We are reluctant to attribute to others – especially a change for the better! – what we can hardly conceive of in ourselves. The path of conversion can be a lonely one.
There was a “price” Zacchaeus was forced to pay in returning to God. Perhaps the following passage from the Apostle Paul would have explained the (unconscious?) motivation of Zacchaeus not recorded in the Gospel: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:7-10).
With the desire to “see Jesus,” even the “little man” can grow in stature – “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) – and become almost unrecognizable in the process. This demands overcoming obstacles that are exterior and social, interior and personal. This comes at a price. The familiar and comfortable must be left behind for the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Like it or not, Great Lent will pose such choices to us on the conscious and unconscious levels of our existence. Are we willing to follow and emulate Zacchaeus in this regard?
Source: Orthodox Church in America
Fr. Steven Kostoff
February 4, 2015
In the Orthodox Church, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) is the first of a cycle of appointed Gospel readings that inaugurates the pre-Lenten season. In other words, on an annual basis, precisely four weeks before Great Lent begins, we hear this parable proclaimed in the Liturgy. The intentions of the Lord in delivering this parable are clearly expressed in the solemn pronouncement following the parable itself: “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
The pride and self righteousness of the pharisee—he who “exalts himself”—is rather starkly contrasted with the humility and repentance—he who “humbles himself”—of the publican. From these two examples of a revealed interior disposition, it is only the publican who is “justified,” according to Christ. With a kind of “folk wisdom” that would have resonated for his rural flock in early 20th century Serbia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic recasts the parable in an earthy story form that seeks to reinforce Christ’s teaching.
“A man went into the forest to choose a tree from which to make roof-beams,” he writes. “And he saw two trees, one beside the other. One was smooth and tall, but had rotted away inside, and the other was rough on the outside and ugly, but its core was healthy. The man sighed, and said to himself: ‘What use is this smooth, tall tree to me if it is rotten inside and useless for beams? The other one, even if it is rough and ugly, is at least healthy on the inside and so, if I put a bit more effort into it, I can use it for roof-beams for my house.’ And, without thinking any more about it, he chose that tree.”
Just to be certain, Bishop Nikolai drives home the moral point in the following conclusion: “So will God choose between two men for His house, and will choose, not the one who appears outwardly righteous, but the one whose heart is filled with God’s healthy righteousness.”
The pharisee acted according to the Law, keeping himself externally free from sin, fasting twice a week and paying a tithe on all that he had. It would be wonderful if members of the Church lived and acted like that with such consistency! However, it is the interior orientation of the heart that Christ is most concerned with—and it is herein that the pharisee twisted righteousness into self righteousness, which is basically a form of idolatry, or worship of the “self.” Do any of us escape that self deceptive trap? If not, then better to admit it, as Saint John Chrysostom reminds us, for “it is evil to sin, though help can be given; but to sin, and not to admit it—there is no help here.”
The humility of the publican is perhaps best expressed in a series of short descriptions—unwillingness to look up towards heaven, the beating of the breast, the plaintive cry, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” rather than in an intellectually constructed abstraction. Moved by an awareness of God’s holiness and his own sinfulness, the publican did not fear to openly express his humility upon entering the Temple. But why do we fear humility? How does the very concept of humility seem to frighten us, if only unconsciously? Perhaps we fear being taken advantage of, of being used by others, of “losing ground” in our struggle to not only get ahead, but to simply survive in a harsh world. We equate humility—wrongfully, I am convinced—with weakness, timidity, fear of conflict, etc. We may occasionally use the language of humility, but deep down, we “know better.” We may even practice a cautious form of humility, but only if it will allow us to remain in our “comfort zones.” But do we actually know better? Can we actually ignore a universally acclaimed Christian virtue without having experienced it ourselves? And yet, we literally depend upon the humility of Christ for our salvation! And we praise and glorify Christ precisely because of His humility! Perhaps, then, if we ever made a sustained effort to be humble, we would appraise this essential virtue differently. As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Until a human person achieves humility, he will receive no reward for his works. The reward is given not for our works but for our humility.” And, to quote Saint Macarius the Great, “A humble person never falls. Being already lower than any, where can he fall? Vanity is a great humiliation, but humility is a great exalting, honor and dignity.”
The Gospel—based on the scandal of the Cross—has turned many things upside down. In God’s judgment, according to Christ, the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted. The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee sets this choice before us.
Source: Orthodox Church in America
We’ve all had moments like that—the moment when you wake up and realize you’ve been a complete moron. The Prodigal Son had one such moment when he realized he was being idiotic and stupid, (or in the more elegant language of the parable, “ when he came to himself”). He had left home for a far country in a fever of determination to break free from the old dull ways of domesticity and to taste all that the world had to offer. After a whirlwind of parties and “loose living,” he found that all that the world had to offer him now was poverty, hunger, sickness, and degradation. Yes, degradation: he was so desperate for food that he took a job from a local farmer feeding his pigs. For a Jew, there was not much further down to go.
Then he had his moment: here he was, working himself to death and still starving, while his father’s servants were not working as hard and eating quite well. That was when he decided he would swallow what was left of his pride, go and humble himself before his father, and ask for a job. He even rehearsed his speech—he would kneel before the old man and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” He might be refused a job or even be run off the property (or worse yet, meet his elder brother), but it was worth a shot. The alternative was starvation and death in a foreign land.
When he returned home, he found a surprise waiting for him. When his father saw him approaching from a distance, “he ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20 RSV). The original Greek and the original culture make the father’s response even more amazing. The Greek doesn’t simply say he “embraced” him, but “fell on his neck.” And it doesn’t say he “kissed” him (which would be phileo in the Greek), but the more intensive kataphileo—he kissed him repeatedly, covered him with kisses. And don’t miss the significance of the fact that the father ran to him, for dignified adult men like this did not run—and certainly they did not run to their children. But this father ran.
More than that, the father didn’t even let him finish his well-rehearsed speech. The boy got as far as stammering out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He didn’t get to add the crucial bit about “treat me as one of your hired servants.” Instead, his father reinstated the boy utterly and completely, clothing him as befit his true son—with a fine robe, and shoes for his bare and blistered feet, and a ring of authority on his finger.
The repentance of the prodigal reveals the true nature of repentance. Repentance is not simply “feeling bad” over having broken God’s rules; it is a return to yourself and a return to your home.
It is a return to yourself and to sanity because sin is essentially stupid. God offers us life and joy, a continuous stream of the divine Presence flowing into our lives if only we will constantly lift up our hearts to Him and seek His face, a flow which not even death can stop. Sin bids us to choose something else instead—devotion to lust, or ambition, or the thousand other alternatives to God we can manage to find—and we choose that, even though whatever fleeting pleasure we can take from it will cease with our death, if not long before we die. How dumb is that? Repentance means wisening up, and coming to our senses.
Repentance is also a return to our true home in our Father’s house. We were created to be His children, with all the privileges that implies—being free from fear, free from death, free to walk through life trusting in Him to provide what we need and to lead us where we should go. Why wander far from home when the wide world cannot offer us anything comparable? Repentance means we return to the embrace of the Father, and to His humbling love, and to a house of feasting and music and joy.
Returning to sanity, and to the Father’s embrace—sounds like a plan. Great Lent is coming, and it tells us we have been feeding the pigs long enough. Let’s all go home.
Source: Orthodox Church in America
That is, we have learned to wear a mask. On the outside of the mask we are adults, persons who can be sarcastic at times, but are still patient and long-suffering in the face of infuriating frustration. Behind the mask, somewhere safe deep within, we are still two years old, and we fall to the floor when provoked. There are many other things we have learned to keep behind the mask besides feelings of rage: lust, disdain, hatred, contempt, and a host of other passions which would cause us endless mortification if anyone knew about them. Our lives are studded with thousands of petty hypocrisies which mar our hidden souls, but few people know about them. Perhaps canonizeable saints who have reached apatheia and passionlessness have no such dramatic differences between their inner man and their outer behaviours, but most people reading this post suffer from this spiritual split-personality, and hide it behind a mask.
That is what makes the Last Judgment so fearful. It is not just that Gehenna and hell-fire await some and the Paradisal Kingdom of God await others. What even the saved should find fearful is the fact that on that day the full light of truth will flood the world and sweep away all the shadows in which we have always lived. Then it will be time to remove our masks, to discover how our voices really sounded, how our actions really looked, and what sort of persons we really were. As the Lord’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 shows, there will be surprises for pretty much everyone.
When we reach that judgment and the time for the great unmasking arrives, it will be too late to re-write our past and attempt to present a better face behind the mask. Life has no rewind button, and what’s done is done. If we have lived a life of heedless hedonism and spent our time running away from God and toward sensual pleasure, it will be too late then to do anything to fix it. We will be like Esau, who after selling his birthright for a single meal, “found no place for repentance, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17). Now is the time to begin fixing our face, so that when the mask finally falls, it will cause us less grief.
But how do we fix our face? By daily examination of conscience and private confession to God in our prayers. Before stumbling into bed at night, we should spend some time remembering our day, noting the things we did well and the things we did badly. As we confess the latter and find mercy with our compassionate Lord, we cultivate a habit of inner watchfulness, of paying attention to the little twists which mar our souls. That allows us to untwist them, and try to do better the next day. Life has a way of rushing us forward heedlessly at break-neck speed, and of being so preoccupied with The Next Exciting Thing that we have no time to look back over the day just past. It is not simply that we rush through life too quickly to smell the roses—we also rush through it too quickly to smell ourselves. We need to stop and smell, and examine, and confess. Of course we will still suffer from blind-spots and miss things. But we will catch things too, and have the opportunity to find healing and create some inner beauty behind the mask. We none of us know when the Last Judgment will come, or even when death will take us away and deprive us of the opportunity to repent and reform ourselves. There is no sense in waiting. The time for repentance is now. Let us drop the mask for a bit and examine our faces tonight.
In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated – is called Forgiveness Sunday.
On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses…” (Mark 6:14-15).
Then, after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!” [and] after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.
What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people, Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a “good deed” required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says: “In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul! For you abstain from food, but from passions you are not purified. If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.”
Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.
One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no “enemies”? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them—in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual “recognition” which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.
On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns, we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me – we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.
And because we make this discovery – and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists – we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, “opens to us the doors of Paradise.” We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting – true fasting; our effort – true effort; our reconciliation with God – true reconciliation.
Introduction to the booklet, Forgiveness Sunday Vespers, published 1975-1982
by the Department of Religious Education of the Orthodox Church in America.