The Orthodox Witness - Anticipating Great Lent

Orthodox Church Tradition is notable for the intensity and importance it gives to the Lenten experience. To me, it’s analogous to a six-week retreat or revival.  Not just Great Lent but the whole period of Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha, culminating in Pentecost.  In this long period of time, we are invited to renew our whole experience of salvation, of entrance into the death and rising of Christ, of our anointing in the Holy Spirit.  It’s like being converted, baptized, and chrismated anew – being reborn in faith, hope, and love.

 So vital is this great center of the year, and center of our spiritual life, that there’s a period of four weeks in which we receive ‘catechesis’ – that is, instruction in how to approach God and one another – before Lent even begins.  We aren’t meant to plunge into the intensified prayer, fasting, and repentance of Great Lent without a reordering of our minds.  For this, we’ve received the treasure of the four pre-lenten Sunday – or really, five preparatory Sundays. It won’t hurt us to review them briefly so that we know where we’re headed when we come to Liturgy in February and early March.

 Today’s Gospel (luke 19:1-10) tells of Zacchaeus the tax-collector, whom Jesus encountered on the road and to whose home Jesus invited Himself.  Zacchaeus made his living by a corrupt and predatory profession.  Everybody knew it.  But Jesus Christ came to him with no conditions.  Zacchaeus, humbled and broken in his heart by this divine mercy, imposed conditions of repentance and restitution on himself.  Humble self-awareness opened his heart to The Word of God.  Next Sunday’s lesson (Luke 18:10-14) is Jesus’ parable of the Publican (Tax Collector) and the Pharisee, two men praying in the Temple at the same time.  The publican might easily be Zacchaeus after his repentance.  His humility before God and his unabashed expression of need for God’s mercy, exalt him and lift him up; while the self-righteousness and judgmental pride of the Pharisee pull him down, emptying him of any virtue whatever.

The question of these first two preparatory Sundays is this: where do we stand: with Zacchaeus or with the pumped-up Pharisees?

 The third Sunday brings us the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).  This very beautiful, understated parable reveals to us God’s attitude toward anyone who has spurned His way and His life, but just wants to come back.  The Son Of God portrays His Father here as totally open, full of generous mercy, without recriminations or qualifications, expressing nothing but unconditional love for the one who seeks to share His life.   No matter how ‘prodigal’ we have been, God loves us as his children and just wants us back in earnest.

We should never lose sight of this parable, especially when we hear the Father characterized by those less informed than His only-begotten Son as vengeful, punitive, and frightening. It isn’t so.

 In the March issue, we’ll look at the last two pre-lenten Sundays, which tell us how we are to face and accept our sisters and brothers made in God’s very image.   (To be continued)

 --- Fr Tom  (2/9/19)