God, Be Merciful To Us, Sinners
Russian: Неделя мытаря и фарисея
Today, we begin the beautiful cycle of services from the Lenten Triodion. The word “triodion” means “three songs,” but really there are many odes in this book—all of them are offered for our spiritual benefit. The Holy Church is preparing us for Great Lent. Like any journey that is to be successful, the journey of Lent must be undertaken with proper resolve, commitment, and preparation. And this is why we do not just begin Lent one day, but take time to prepare for it; not merely waiting, but actively preparing our hearts, minds, and bodies for this journey to Pascha.
During these weeks before Lent begins, the Church, our loving Mother, offers us the treasures of the Gospel readings about the Pharisee and the tax collector, the parable of the prodigal son, and about Christ’s glorious second coming. It is easy to see that these passages are connected to each other and that together they carry the message of humility. In the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:14), we learn about the humility of the latter as the condition that allows him accept God’s grace that washes away his sins and renews within him a right spirit (Ps. 51:10). Only humility allows us to see our true state on our knees at the pig trough of sin, as did the prodigal son, and makes us come to our senses (Luke 15:17) and run to the Father’s house (Luke 15:18). Our choice to leave our sinful ways and to return home puts us in the Father’s embrace (Luke 15:20), and allows us once again to become His children. Finally, the Gospel reading on Forgiveness Sunday (Matt. 25:31-33) reminds us of the true meaning of humility: those who have learnt from Christ (Matt. 11:29) do not see themselves worthy of any reward (Matt. 25:37-39), Christ’s love lives in their hearts and shines forth through their acts.
But let us listen carefully; let us ponder: the very first lesson we are to learn on our path to Great Lent, the very first example that the Church offers us before the beginning of the fast, is not that of Saint Mary of Egypt, who exercised prayer and fasting in the wilderness, or that of Saint Anthony the Great, who is known for his severe asceticism, or that of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who fasted and prayed for one thousand days and nights. Rather, we are offered the example of a tax collector, a publican, who probably did not fast at all, at least not as much as did the Pharisee, but who “went down to his house justified” before God (Luke 18:14). What a strange thing: we are preparing for Lent, but all next week we do not fast at all, not even on Wednesday and Friday! This is not in order to fatten up before the fast, as some may think, but in order to set our minds and hearts straight, to help us understand the most important thing about fasting: a fast is not a diet; it is a medicine to cure an illness quite different from excess weight. Without the publican’s humility, without his realization that we are not even worthy to “raise our eyes to heaven” (Luke 18:13), without the words “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) becoming not just the publican’s prayer, but our prayer, our fast will be worthless and even dangerous, as our pride leads us to assume the Pharisee’s foolish stance: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men…” (Luke 18:11)
Let us then “flee the vaunting of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican,” let us remember this lesson as we enter into Great Lent in just a few weeks. As we prepare to fast, the first thing we must learn is that limitations in foods are not the ultimate goal, but a tool to help us take control over our passions. “Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them” (1 Cor. 6:13). The true goal of fasting is to learn humility.
Let us not boast to ourselves about the lack of oil in our potatoes—we equally lack the oil of forgiveness of people around us; or about the small size of our meals—our pride flows from us as if from the Horn of Plenty. The goal of fasting is humility and a clearer vision of our true fallen state. Until we come to our senses and realize that we are on our knees at the trough of our sins and passion, we will not want to get up and run back to the Father’s house.
“He who exalts himself shall be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God, and with fasting cry aloud as the Publican: ‘God, be merciful to us sinners.’”