As I sit down to write this article, it’s hard to believe that Great Lent is just around the corner. It seems like only yesterday, we were in the midst of the Forty Liturgies of the Nativity Fast. Despite this feeling, when we hear certain Gospel readings in church on Sunday, we know that Lent is drawing near. This is because our Church does not let great feasts or important seasons sneak up on us. I thank God for the Sunday readings that come just before the beginning of the Triodion, such as the Ten Lepers, Zacchaeus and the Canaanite Woman. These three Sundays present to us important themes that are necessary spiritual tools for the upcoming Lenten journey of repentance and return to God: gratitude, desire and faithful perseverance. We do not always read these Gospel passages each year, depending on when Lent begins, but this year we are blessed to have all three.
Every year, four Sundays before Great Lent begins, we bring out a liturgical book of the Church called the Triodion, “the book of Three Odes.” This book contains all the hymns and readings that take us through Pre-Lent, Great Lent and Holy Week, right up to the very threshold of Pascha. This year the Triodion starts on February 5th. The Triodion always begins with the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This reading teaches us that a necessary virtue to draw closer to God is simple, authentic humility without hypocrisy. This humility is clearly expressed in the prayer and disposition of the Tax-Collector, and it is contrasted with the pride and self-love of the Pharisee. Although the Pharisee is “religious,” his focus is not on God but himself, and on self-justification rather than on repentance. It is also worth noting that this entire week is fast-free to remind us that externals by themselves do not justify us before God.
Listen to Fr. Theodore explain the meaning of the Icon of the Publican and Pharisee after Vespers on 2/4/2017:
On the second Sunday of the Triodion, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the clearest blueprint we have in Scripture of repentance. We see in the younger son the negative, dehumanizing ramifications of turning away from God: isolation, deprivation, nakedness, misery and distortion. We also get to see what happens when the same son comes to himself and remembers his relationship with his father and begins his return. We see the Father, who is God, continually looking and waiting for His son’s first sign of repentance. When He sees the son turn his face toward home, He runs down the road to embrace His son, restore his sonship (ring, shoes and robe) and reconcile His son to His household (kill the fatted calf and throw a party). In this same parable, we again get to see the negative consequences of legalism and self-love, in the older son, who becomes jealous and fails to enter into the joy of his Father and the restoration of his younger brother. During this week, we fast, as normal, on Wednesday and Friday.
The next Sunday we read the Gospel from St. Matthew on the Last Judgment. There are many truths expressed through this reading. First, we are reminded that every human being will go before Jesus Christ and be judged. The criterion will be whether we have seen Christ in those around us during our lifetime and have ministered to them in love. Secondly, we hear from Christ that it is God’s will for every human soul to be forever with Him in His Kingdom. “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” It is the misuse of our own free will that causes us to reject God and our neighbor and brings about our own condemnation. Thirdly, we are reminded that God loves us so much that He identifies Himself with us, and even with the least of us. Fourthly, we see that both the righteous and the unrighteous are surprised by God’s judgment, showing that we have neither the ability nor the blessing to judge another or ourselves. Finally, the end of this Sunday’s reading clearly states that heaven and hell are forever. “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This Sunday is also called Meatfare Sunday, for this is the last day we are permitted to eat meat, while we are permitted to eat dairy each day of the week including Wednesday and Friday. This gradual increase in ascetic strictness falls in line with this Pre-Lenten period being a preparation for the intensity and rigor associated with Great Lent and Holy Week.
The last Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent is called the Sunday of Forgiveness. On this day, we read from the Sermon on the Mount, and hear Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. If we want to be forgiven by God, we must forgive others. On this same day, we are invited to participate in a special Vespers of Forgiveness. At the end of this Vespers, we are invited to reconcile ourselves to one another by tangibly asking each person present for forgiveness. From a horizontal perspective, this serves to spiritually clear the slate and provides us with a clean beginning. It also clears the way to God, for we know that reconciliation with our fellow brothers and sisters enables our reconciliation with God. This day is also called Cheesefare Sunday, for it is the last day to eat dairy products. The very next day is Clean Monday, the first day of Great Lent.
Great Lent is indeed a journey. It’s a journey of repentance, a journey closer to God, whereby we can, by God’s grace, participate and experience Christ’s humility, His love and His victory over sin and death. The starting point of this journey is also presented to us on this same Sunday of Forgiveness. We are given the image of Adam sitting outside of Paradise, exiled and fi lled with sorrow. He is looking back at what he lost. Our Lenten Journey begins with identifying with the Old Adam. We, too, are spiritually exiled from Paradise, but rather than looking back, our focus is ahead. Our journey and all its Pre-Lenten preparation have as their destination the saving Passion, Crucifixion, and glorious Third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the New Adam. May God indeed bless this preparatory period, and may our entire Journey to Pascha bring us into closer union with God.