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.