Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THIS WEEKEND OUR CHURCH opens the pages of the Triodion, the book containing the texts for all the services leading up to Pascha. This Lenten journey may be viewed on two levels, chronologically and spiritually. Both are important as we look ahead to our celebration of Pascha.

Chronologically, the period of the Triodion consists in three distinct sections: the pre-Lenten period, the Great Fast itself, and the Great and Holy Week. The first, the pre-Lenten period, progressively leads us to the coming Great Fast. It begins with two Sundays which introduce us to thoughts of repentance. Next we have a weekend of observances reminding us of our mortality: the Saturday of the Dead and the Sunday of the final Judgment. Finally, in Meat-fare Week, we are eased into the Fast by beginning to abstain from meat. The last pre-Lenten observance takes place on Cheese-Fare Sunday with the ceremony of forgiveness, in which we ritually ask the entire community to forgive us our offences so that we may begin the Great Fast with pure hearts.

The Publican and the Pharisee

On this first Sunday of the Triodion’s pre-Lenten period, we are presented with the Lord’s parable of the Publican or tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. As we begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded how the prayer of the Pharisee did not reach God while the Publican’s prayer was heard. The Pharisee’s devotions were “correct,” but, the Lord teaches, it is not enough to say the right words when the heart is not correct as well.

The basic attitude of the heart for which the Pharisee is faulted is pride: “I fast twice a week,” he boasts; “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12)… and that makes me better than that tax collector. The Pharisee is right in one sense: it is good to fast and to give tithes, but his good deeds are made void through his pride.

Reflecting on this parable in its hymnody, our Church describes the Pharisee’s prayer as “ungrateful.” He says, “I thank you, God,” but thankfulness to God is not revealed in his underlying attitude. His inner spirit is not focused on God’s gifts, but on his own perceived accomplishments. He does the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

A consequence of the Pharisee’s self-centered parody of religion is the judgmental way he regards his fellow man: “I am not like other men” (v.11): my devotions make me superior, more worthy in the sight of God. Christ takes the opposite view: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14)..

Keeping a Proper Perspective

The Scriptures often return to the place of formal religious practices in our spiritual life. Some people – we might call them iconoclasts – reject such practices outright as hypocrisy. The Lord is not one of them. He affirms the value of devotional practices, when kept in a suitable way. He condemns the Pharisees for their attitudes, not their actions. He tells His followers, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, … all their works they do to be seen by men” (Matthew 23:2, 5).

Our fasting should not be a matter of public display. “Moreover, when you fast,” the Lord says, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16, 17).

In Matthew 23, Christ specifies the place of devotional practices in a mature spiritual life. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). Devotional practices are commendable, but not as a replacement for mutual love.

During the coming Fast we may become so concerned with its devotional aspects, such as attending special services or avoiding meat and dairy products, that we become irritable with others and make void our striving to keep the Fast. The mature approach is that outlined by Christ in the verse above: observe the devotional practices, but do not ignore or abuse others in the process. As the Greek saying puts it, it is better to eat the fish than to eat the fisherman!

Isn’t Fasting Obsolete?

In the first century ad, some Christians coming from a Jewish background were concerned with keeping the ritual precepts of the Old Testament in addition to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. In the traditional Jewish view, it was keeping the precepts of the Law which makes a person righteous before God. St Paul repeatedly insisted that this was no longer the case. It is putting our faith in Christ, not the devotions we observe, which justifies us. The Law of Moses, the Apostle taught, was “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

For us, observing the precepts of the Fast are meant to lead us to Christ, not substitute for a relationship with Him. We cannot earn ourselves a place in heaven by fasting, or by any other practice we might undertake. We can fast and pray, however, to express our gratitude for the gifts of God who has united us to Himself in Christ. We fast, not to improve our standing with God, but to respond with gratitude to what He has done for us.

The Canon from the Triodion

Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith and completely turn away from the path of pride.                                    From Ode 1 God the Word humbled Himself and took the form of a servant, showing that humility is the best means to exaltation. All those who follow the Lord’s example, humbling themselves, will be exalted on high.

To lead us to exaltation with God, the Savior and Master revealed in His deeds the humility which can lift us up on high. With His own hands, He washed the feet of His Apostles.                                    From Ode 4

Let us hasten to follow the example of the Pharisee in his virtues and to imitate the Publican in his humility. Let us flee what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions.                                    From Ode 5

O faithful, let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! Let us never claim, ‘We are pure,’ as he did. Let us rightly follow the Publican in his humility and gain the mercy of our God.                                    From Ode 8

Like the Publican, let us pray to the Lord, entreating His mercy and flee from the Pharisee’s ungrateful prayer and the proud words with which he judged his neighbor, that we may gain God’s forgiveness and light.                                    From Ode 9

 
BEGINNING TODAY, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church calls on us to start preparing for the Great Fast. And how does it tell us to ready ourselves? – by telling us not to fast!

Since the beginnings of the Church Christians have fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, remembering Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s passion. This coming week, however is one of the fast-free weeks of the Church year, when fasting is not prescribed. The other such weeks are part of a Great Feast – the Nativity, Pascha, and Pentecost. This is the only fast-free week not connected with a feast. What is the reason for not fasting this week?

The answer is found in the verse introducing the parable of the publican and the Pharisee read today: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18.9). Religious people who are “confident of their own righteousness” are complacent, self-satisfied with their level of observance. That level may be minimal – attending church on Sundays or even the greatest observances – or it may be more. The fault is the same whatever the level of observance: the complacent person feels no need to change his or her outlook; and so he allows no place for God to act within him. The complacent person thinks that he has complied with all of the requirements of religion. What more can be asked of him?

By setting aside the regular fasts this week the Church is telling the complacent person that what we do is not as important as the spirit in which we do them. Do you take pride in your fasting? Then don’t fast lest it leave you like the Pharisee.

Challenging Our Religious Complacency

In addition, religious complacency invariably sets us against others. When we take pride in our level of religious observance our next thought is often “I come to church regularly, not like him…. They’re not here for every lenten service … She’s half my age – why does she have to sit down when everyone else is standing?” and the like. We may not make these comments aloud but we don’t have to. They have already sullied out heart. As St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us: “What profit is there in fasting twice in the week, if your so doing serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and make you supercilious and haughty, and selfish?” (On the Gospel of Luke, Sermon 120)

Religious complacency also sets us against God, as odd as that may seem. When we see our acts of religion as our passport to heaven we are telling God we have no need of Him. We are saving ourselves. Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid, in his Explanation of the Gospel of St Luke, says that there are many offshoots of self-love. “Presumption, arrogance, and vainglory all stem from this root. But the most destructive of all these kinds of self-love is pride, for pride is contempt of God. When a man ascribes his accomplishments to himself, and not to God, this is nothing less than denial of God and opposition to Him.”

The error of the Pharisee is to confuse the means with the end. Acts of virtue or piety are meant to dispose our hearts towards communion with God, not turn us in on ourselves. As the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote, “From the [Pharisee] learn his works, but by no means his pride; for the work by itself means nothing and does not save.” We may – and should – do good things as responses to God’s love for us. We should not think that fasting, churchgoing or Bible reading automatically bring us to communion with God, merely because they are outwardly observed. Even when we practice religious observances from the best of motives, we can find them emptied of virtue through pride. In the words of St Gregory Palamas, “The unseen patron of evil … can bring down the roof of good works after its construction, by means of pride and madness.”

Humility Transforms Us

The antidote to the boastfulness of the Pharisee is humility which is nothing less than a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of a realistic view of ourselves and of God. Only He can transform us by granting us a share in His divine life. Of ourselves we can do nothing to earn God’s love or to share in His holiness. We can only respond to His eternal love for us by embarking on the path of repentance – that dying to self-love and egocentricity which leads us to life in the kingdom.

Humility – authentic self-understanding – doesn’t come easily at any time. It is deeply opposed to the values of the world. The late Father Alexander Schmemann saw how humility has no place in our secular culture. He wrote: “If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, self-glorification, and self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the one who all the time ‘gives credit’ for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility – be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national - is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. …”

Our culture also teaches us to feel superior when others fall. As a rule, the newspapers, TV and other media don’t tell us about the positive things people do – that doesn’t sell papers. A steady diet of looking at other people’s failings leads us to imitating the Pharisee’s “I’m not like that that.”

A more helpful approach comes from the nineteenth century Russian Saint, John of Kronstadt. He writes: “When the foolish thought of counting up any of your good works enters into your head, immediately correct your fault and rather count up your sins, your continual and innumerable offences against the All-Merciful and Righteous Master, and you will find that their number is as the sand of the sea, whilst your virtues in comparison with them are as nothing.”

In the vision of the Gospel, repentance and humility are more important and higher than all of the other virtues, continuing until the end of our life. Today’s kondakion sums up the Church’s prayer for all of us: “Let us shun the boastful words of the Pharisee and learn from the Publican humility with sighing; let us cry out to our Savior: ‘Have mercy on us, You who alone are merciful!’”

We Enter the Triodion Today is the first Sunday in the Triodion, the ten weeks leading up to Pascha. The term also refers to the book which contains the hymns, readings and prayers proper to this season. Triodion literally means “three odes” and refers to the canons at daily Orthros which contain three rather than the usual nine odes. The Triodion as we have it today was organized by Studite monks in ninth-century Constantinople. They drew chiefly on texts from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem by a number of outstanding hymnographers, including Andrew of Crete, Cosmas of Maiuma and John of Damascus – some twenty composers in all.

In general the prayers and services of the Triodion may be considered a great catechesis for the faithful, setting forth the entire scope of divine revelation through the reading of several books from the Old Testament and allusions to many others in the Great Canon and other hymns as well as patristic homilies and chants based on still other sacred texts. This catechesis is not about imparting information but about motivating us to embrace the great task of the season: repentance and the renewal of our life in Christ.

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