This past Sunday (yesterday) was the Sunday we celebrate as “The Publican and the Pharisee.” It begins our three week preparation for Great Lent. It is hard to believe all the fasting and all the preparation for Pascha are already upon us. But let me tell you, I am excited for Great Lent! It is an opportunity to truly become simple in how we live, how we eat, and how we pray. We pray more, we attend more services at Church (my favorite is Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. Absolute favorite part of Great Lent. Thank you, Fr. Justin Rose, for that!) and we watch every bite that enters our mouth. It is good for the discipline in our lives, for us to experience Great Lent. I actually look forward to fasting. If you could see all of me, I am sure you would find that laughable, because I am overweight. But I also love silent retreats – by far my best retreat experiences have all occurred at a silent retreat. And since I blog, quite often rather prodigiously, most people find the thought of me being silent laughable. It is truly a case where opposites do attract!! I love Great Lent, and I love silence. Who would ever have thought that???
Our priest, Fr. Michael, gave a wonderful homily this week on the issues brought up by this look at a publican and a pharisee. Publicans were the tax collectors. They were not liked by the general population, because they took their money – but quite often, they took more than what was really owed to the government, which is why they were usually very rich. The Pharisees were seen as the upper echelon of the religious class. They could always be found near the Temple; they knew the law and they kept to the “letter of the law” very strictly. One of the most famous quotes from this Sunday is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” He is pictured in the Icon standing, with arms outstretched to God, in a place of honor, and prays to God, looking down on the Publican. The Publican, however, shows us in the Icon that he thinks of himself as a sinner by entering and remaining in a low place, inconspicuous to fellow worshipers, and the famous quote about him in this reading is: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Christ then exhorts us all to repentance by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14). In the Icon, we can see images of how these two men leave the Temple. The Pharisee is shown leaving the Temple unforgiven and still in need of repentance, whereas the Publican, who came to the Temple, knowing his sinful nature, is shown leaving the Temple, forgiven and exalted. We are all expected to know our faith and to practice it to the best of our abilities, as the Pharisee. And we are also expected to behave as the Publican; we enter the Temple and seek forgiveness, knowing how very much we need it.
One of the questions asked during Father’s homily was, “Who do you identify with more, the Publican or the Pharisee?” And that question made me think. So often, we preach to others, but we do not live what we preach. How many of us tell people to fast, to keep Sundays holy, to pray, to keep a holy home, and yet we do not fulfill our own commands to others? I know I fail miserably in so many areas. And each Lent I pick myself back up and try it all over again. For me, Great Lent is the time I rededicate myself to my faith, sort of like New Year’s Eve, when people write lists of what they want to accomplish in their year. For those of us who follow the Church’s calendar, Pascha is the start of our New Year. Great Lent is when we think about how we want to practice our faith, share our faith, and live our faith. We start from scratch, so to speak, when we limit food intake and extend prayer time and religious observances. It is a time to reconsider how we will approach our next year. I certainly never make resolutions that are life-long, because I know myself and know I am not strong enough to do that. I will let myself down. So I only take little bites at this. I resolve things that are doable, and not on some fantasy list. Great Lent is my opportunity to be still, to listen more intently to what God is asking of me, and to begin to be the person HE wants me to be. I resolve every year to be a better person. Honestly, I can say that because I only take small bites, the changes I try to enact usually stick! And that feels pretty good. I am a far better person than I was in my 20s,40s, or even last year. I believe Great Lent gives me this chance every year to opt to be better at the end of those 40+ days. (When we add weekends, and exact starting and stopping times, Great Lent is really about 45 days or so). For us in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, and for the Orthodox, Great Lent is kept every day, not just Wednesdays and Fridays. The Church gives us this entire week to eat what we like – even on Wednesday and Friday, to prepare us for Great Lent, and to share with us that the Church knows this next period of fasting and abstinence is a difficult one. More and more as the years go by, many of my friends and I do not just “give up” something like coffee or chocolate. We add things. We pray more. We volunteer our time in our communities. We resolve to spend more time as a family. We read more and watch TV less. There are so many ways to keep Great Lent as a special time, rather than solely giving up things.
Part of Great Lent is facing ourselves, as the Publican did. We beat our chests and we ask for forgiveness. We see those dark places that are a part of who we have become and we strive to allow the Light of Christ to enter in. We pray more, we seek God more fervently. And I am excited to get started!!! This Sunday gave us pause, gave us a moment with some words from Christ, and a homily from our priest, to stop a moment and ponder – are we more like the Publican or the Pharisee? The Kontakion for the day tells us:
“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 do others see me? To them, am I the Publican or the Pharisee? God gives us this coming time of Great Lent to work this out for our salvation. I am looking forward to this opportunity to once again get my “house in order.”
“Mine eyes are weighed down by my transgressions, and I cannot lift them up and see the height of heaven. But receive me, Savior, in repentance as the Publican and have mercy on me.” (Doxastikon of the Aposticha, Saturday Vespers).