Once again, we are asked by our Church to prepare ourselves to make a journey. The actual trip will begin four weeks from tomorrow. We call this journey “The Great Fast”. If we take this expedition of our soul seriously, we shall find that when we reach our destination; the week of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we shall feel closer to Him than we did before Great Lent began. This is the purpose of this adventure: to get to know the Lord a little better and to understand a little more that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-15).
Most people who have a problem with Great Lent complain that it begins too quickly and that before they are prepared to start it, they have already failed in fasting and prayer. The solution to that problem is quite simple. As with any major undertaking in our life, we have a need to get ready, to prepare for the long haul. And so the Church helps us by giving us a few weeks before the Fast to get our hearts, our minds and our souls focused on where we are to go during the Fast. The first thing that we need to prepare for Lent we learn from Zacchaeus: we must desire to see Christ and become closer to Him in our lives.
Have you ever tried to picture the scene in today’s Gospel? Zacchaeus is a rich man who would have held at least the same status of a director of a bank in a small town. Zacchaeus was wealthy in material goods but yet had an empty spot in his soul. He decides that he wants to see Jesus. In spite of living a life against his own religion and a life perhaps even unworthy of him as a man, he still had a yearning to search out that which is true, that which is good.
In his passionate desire to see Jesus, Zacchaeus meets with two obstacles. First, he must catch the eye of Jesus. This will be no easy task since he was a very short man. Surely he would be hidden by the throng of the crowds. Secondly, if he openly seeks Jesus, he will be criticized by his fellow men.
What should he do? He makes the decision. He will climb a sycamore tree. Can you imagine a director of the bank in which you do business climbing a tree in order to see a passing preacher? He was whistled at, laughed at, jeered at, mocked and then it got ugly! Zacchaeus did not care. His mind was made up. He was going to see Jesus. This was the most important thing in his life.
Let us ask ourselves, what would we have done if we were in the position of Zacchaeus? Would our desire to see Jesus, to be with Jesus have been so great that we would have tried to overcome any obstacle that stopped us from doing so, even at the expense of being a laughing-stock to our friends and neighbors?
Being afraid of ridicule is probably what stops most people from building a closer relationship with God. The Fathers of the Church tell us that it is not often the attraction of evil nor the opposition that we encounter that prevents us from starting a new life – it is the fear of being ridiculed – to be laughed at that stops us.
There are only two possible choices for overcoming this vanity to public opinion: pride or humility. There is no third choice. The person who is vain becomes the slave of others. The conscience becomes silent before the voice of the crowd. God’s laws are out – the will of the people is “in”. The choice to give into peer pressure becomes even more foolish in the respect that the very people whose opinion we hang onto are usually the very people whom we do not even respect. But we are “small men” and would rather not work at trying to lift ourselves up and out of the hole that we dug for ourselves. It’s easier to stay with the crowd.
Zacchaeus was different. In all humility he sat in that tree and waited for the coming of the Lord. What happens next is a total reversal of the plot. We saw that it was Zacchaeus who desired to see Jesus. But now, who finds whom? It is the Christ who finds Zacchaeus. As He approaches, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, finds His faithful servant prepared and waiting for Him. “Zacchaeus, come down, for today I must stay in your house,” (Luke 19:15) Jesus says. What a beautiful picture! The seeker becomes the one sought after.
There is another reversal as well. Our old adage of being “up a tree”, meaning that we are in trouble is now turned on its ear. For here was Zacchaeus, up a tree, but not in trouble: he is saved.
Let us begin our preparation for the Great Fast in all earnestness and seriousness. Let us stop deluding ourselves into thinking that we are the best that we can be and therefore have no room for improvement. Let us imitate Zacchaeus and let us desire to see Jesus with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength. Let us put all other things aside as we prepare. Let us place God first in our minds, in our hearts and in our souls. Then we shall truly have begun our preparation for the Great Fast.