Once again, by the grace of God, we have reached the threshold of the Great Lent, dear brethren. The Church leads us into this Lent gradually, by means of special hymns during the evening services and the reading of special parables during the liturgies. Yesterday evening we heard for the first time - and will continue to hear throughout the entire Lent - the following very moving Lenten canticle: “Open unto Me, o Giver of Life, the gates or repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.”
This first of the three preparatory weeks before the Great Lent is called the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee; and so today we have heard a parable concerning these two people.
We see two people who have come to the temple to pray. The haughty Pharisee entered the temple and, standing up front, began to pray. He gave thanks to the Lord for being different from other people: he comes to church regularly and prays, he keeps fast during all the prescribed times, he gives a tenth of his earnings to the church. And he especially thanked God for not being such a sinner as others, — as, for example, the publican standing not far from him.
The publican, on the other hand, stood in the back and did not look at anything or anybody. He was fully aware that he was very sinful, and he only asked God: “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
Here we see two examples of prayer. The Pharisee, even though he gave thanks to the Lord in his prayer, was nevertheless full of pride. The Lord heard the prayer of the Pharisee and accepted it, but at the same time He clearly points out to us that this prayer did not contain the power which leads to repentance, and through repentance to salvation. But this power abounded in the prayer of the publican, who did not speak of his virtues, but only knew his sins and humbly asked the Lord for forgiveness.
Every year we hear this parable of the publican and the Pharisee, and we know that it teaches us the virtues of humility and repentance. But not only humility and repentance: this parable also teaches us how to pray.
Prayer is our first and basic virtue. How we engage in prayer, so will we engage in other virtues. When we pray, we should not think of anything else. In our prayers we must show total humility, as did the publican. In our prayers we must express our gratitude to God, as did the Pharisee. In our prayers we must fully open our hearts and believe in the Lord’s words: whatever you wish, ask for it, and your Heavenly Father will provide it.
At the end of today’s parable it is said that the publican left the temple more justified than the Pharisee. However, it is not said that either of them was fully justified or fully rejected. Thus the Lord points out to us that it is only humility which leads towards repentance, and repentance leads to a forgiveness of sins; but, at the same time, we must not forget that the doors of repentance are always open to everyone, and that even proud people, if they become truly humble, have the opportunity to enter them, and that it is not only a single instance of humility which can justify us, but a constantly humble frame of mind.
Thus, dear brethren, beginning from this day to prepare ourselves for the Great Lent, gradually tuning ourselves to humility and repentance, we must remember in our prayers that the forgiveness of our sins depends on our attitude towards God and our neighbors. Amen.
Preparation for the Great Lent
With the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee we begin preparing ourselves for the most important period of time in the church year – the Great Lent, which, in turn, prepares us for the crowning moment of the entire year, the feast of feasts – the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why must we prepare for the Great Lent so gradually? We find the answer to that in nature. Nature does not wake up from the deep sleep of winter all at once. First the snow must melt, the ice covering the waters must break up, the air must become temperate, the sun must shine warmly, – and only then can everything revive, become green, bloom anew…
The same happens with our soul. The soul freezes and is confined by our sins, and it must first thaw out and warm up before it can reach the requisite conditions for entering the Great Lent and drawing the optimum advantage out of it.
Preparation for the Lent consists of four Sundays, or four stages on the way to spiritual cleansing. The first Sunday – of the Publican and the Pharisee – teaches us humility. After acquiring humility we go on to the next stage – the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, – which is repentance. From repentance our soul proceeds to the fear of God – this is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and then we approach the threshold of the Great Lent through heartfelt remorse and weeping over our sins – this is the Sunday of forgiveness, when we commemorate Adam’s exile from paradise and lament over the loss of it.
The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee reveals to us the depth, the power, and, at the same time, the simplicity of humility. The Pharisee was actually not a bad person, he followed all the religious laws and commandments, and he sincerely believed himself to be virtuous. But he came into the temple of God and sinned through pride and contempt, and, believing himself to be first, turned out last. Does not the same hold true for many of us, dear brethren? We seem to come to church regularly, take communion, observe the lent, and engage in charitable deeds. But at the same time we pass judgment on our fellow men, we despise them, we think that we are spiritually better and more perfect than they… and thus we turn into that very Pharisee.
But the publican, though he was a sinner, came into the temple, stood in the back, humbly lowered his head, felt his total unworthiness, and sighed from the depth of his heart: “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” “And this man, – the Gospel tells us, – went down to his house more justified than the other.” In these words, dear brethren, we find the key to righteousness – humility. Total humility, total awareness of one’s unworthiness in the eyes of the Lord. We must not forget that through humility even a sinner can find the way to salvation, even a sinner can potentially become righteous. And the best example of that will be subsequently given to us by the Church on the fifth Sunday of the Great Lent, in the extraordinary life of St. Mary of Egypt.
Let us heed the voice of the Church, which teaches us in the kontakion of this first preparatory Sunday: “Let us avoid the vain boasting of the Pharisee and learn the sublimity of the humble words of the publican,” i.e. let us avoid the vainglory, the conceit, and the boastfulness of the Pharisee, and instead, let us learn from the publican the heights to which man can be elevated by means of deep humility. Or, in the words of a religious poet: “We stand before God most exaltedly in the depth of sublime humility.” Let us follow the example of the publican, so that we may pass through life and enter vindicated into our celestial home – the Kingdom of God.
Lord, have mercy on us sinners! Amen.