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 PhariseeOn 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 PerspectiveThe 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