The First Lesson Before the Beginning of Great Lent: On the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Strange thing: we are preparing for Lent, but all next week we do not fast at all, not even on Wednesday and Friday! This is not in order to fatten up before the fast, as some may think, but in order to set our minds and hearts straight, in order to help us understand the most important thing about fasting: a fast is not a diet, it is a medicine to cure an illness other than gluttony.
Priest Sergei Sveshnikov | 06 February 2009

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Dear in Christ brothers, sisters, and children,

Today, we begin the cycle of services from the Lenten Triodion.  The Holy Church is preparing us for Great Lent.  In these weeks before Lent begins, the Church, our loving Mother, offers to us the treasure of the Gospel reading about the Pharisee and the tax collector, the parable of the prodigal son, and the words of Christ about His second coming.  It is easy to see that these passages are connected to each other and that together they carry a message: in the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector we learn about humility (Lk. 18:14); only humility allows us to see our true state on our knees at the pig trough of sin, as did the prodigal son (Lk. 15:17), and urges us to return to the Father (Lk. 15:18); and our choice to get on the correct path, to return home, puts us in the Father’s embrace (Lk. 15:20) and allows us to be counted among his flock (Mat. 25:31-33).

But let us listen carefully, let us ponder: the very first lesson we are to learn on our path to Great Lent, the very first example that the Church offers us before the beginning of the fast, is not that of Saint Mary of Egypt, who exercised prayer and fasting in the wilderness, or that of Saint Anthony the Great, who is known for his severe asceticism.  Rather, we are offered the example of a tax collector, a publican, who probably did not fast at all, at least not as much as did the Pharisee, but who “went home justified before God” (Lk. 18:14).  Strange thing: we are preparing for Lent, but all next week we do not fast at all, not even on Wednesday and Friday!  This is not in order to fatten up before the fast, as some may think, but in order to set our minds and hearts straight, in order to help us understand the most important thing about fasting: a fast is not a diet, it is a medicine to cure an illness other than gluttony.  Without the publican’s humility, without his realization that we are not even worthy to lift up our eyes (Lk. 18:13), without the words “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13) becoming not just the publican’s prayer, but our prayer, our fast will be worthless and even dangerous, as our pride leads us to assume the Pharisee’s foolish stance: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men…” (Lk. 18:11)

Let us then “flee the vaunting of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican” (Kondakion), let us remember this lesson as we enter into Great Lent in just a few weeks.  Let us not boast to ourselves about the lack of oil in our potatoes if we equally lack the oil of forgiveness for people around us, or about the small size of our meals if our pride flows as if from the Horn of Plenty.  The goal of fasting is humility and a clearer vision of our true fallen state, “for he who exalts himself shall be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God, and with fasting cry aloud as the Publican: ‘God, be merciful to us sinners’” (a verse for “Lord, I have cried…”).

Amen!

 

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