Preparation To Lent
2 February I973
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
We are now, day after day, coming up to Holy Week and to Easter; already last week we heard a reading of the Gospel that prepares for this ascent.
This long preparation that leads us from Christmas to the Resurrection is divided in the Orthodox Church in several periods, a first period in which the readings of the Gospel and the prayers of the Church are addressed to us; we are confronted with a succession of situations and we are called to go through a succession of self-examinations that will lead us to the time, to the moment when, having prepared ourselves, we can then turn away from ourselves and concentrate our attention only on what will be happening, on the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In these weeks of preparation we will be confronted with several readings that indicate to us what we have got to face in us and what we have got to overcome in order freely to stand in the presence of the mystery of salvation. Last week we were faced with the blind Bartimaeus; he knew he was blind because his blindness was physical and he was aware that the world around him was unattainable, was beyond reach and beyond his grasp. We live in a world which is not only material; right at the core of this world, active, transforming, transfiguring both the spiritual reality of it and the physical reality of it, is our Living God. Are we not completely blind to His presence? Do we not live in complete darkness, do we see, do we perceive another dimension than space and time, another object of contemplation than people and things around us? Indeed, when we are confronted with people, do we see anything beyond objects, do we see in them the depth of the human mystery, the greatness of their eternal calling, the dimension of God and eternity in them and in all that is around us?
Today we have heard the story of Zachaeus. Zachaeus had one thing to overcome in order to be able to meet Christ face to face: vanity, the fear of human judgement, the fear of ridicule. This man, well known in his city, accepted the humiliation of being laughed at, because he so earnestly wanted to see Christ. He was not a good man, but there was in him a depth that could not be satisfied with the life he led, there was in him a longing so strong, so powerful that he passed by human judgement in order to meet Christ face to face, and he met Him. Of all the crowd whom Christ saw with His eyes, He saw particularly that man, He called him down from the tree, and He went with him, bringing into his house all the fullness of the divine presence, and all the glory of salvation that had now come to him.
Next week we will hear about the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee was pure in his life, righteous before God and men, the Publican was evil in his own eyes and in the eyes of men and, he thought in the judgement of God.
But the Pharisee did not know something which the Publican knew, – that mercy may perform miracles, that mercy of man suspends human cruelty and the mercy of God may suspend judgement and condemnation. He stood at the threshold of the Temple because Temple stood for the holiness of God and the realm of justice and righteousness, and he had no place in it. But he stood at the threshold hoping for the miracle of compassion and the miracle of forgiveness to reach him. And he was forgiven because he discovered: God at the depth at which the Pharisee, with all his justice, could not see Him: the Pharisee was within the realm of law, this man – the Publican – entered by faith and hope, by the folly of hope and faith into the realm of grace.
And then, the prodigal son will confront us with what is essentially sin, not sinful actions, but the state of sin which is expressed so simply and so crudely in his words to his father, ‘Father, – he says, – let me enjoy now what I would and will enjoy when you are dead. It means, whether you live or whether you are dead matters nothing to me, our relationship can be broken at any moment; what matters is that I should enjoy the fruits of your labour and the freedom which your absence, your death will give me.’ This is the essential sin, this is the way in which we treat God, receiving from Him everything and dismissing Him until we have spent all His gifts and need more of His help. This is also the way in which we treat one another. How much does a person mean, and how much does that mean which we derive from a relationship? The person means little, the fruits of a relationship may mean a great deal more. This also is that sinful attitude which rules out the person to concentrate on the gift. We have in the prodigal son also a vision of what repentance is: how from hunger and loneliness and despair one can come back to one's senses, remember that we have a father, a brother, a friend, and go back to him, trusting that he has not changed, that he still is a father, still is our brother, still is our friend, ready to accept from him whatever judgement we deserved, but also ready, at any cost, to re-establish the relationship that was between us.
Lastly, at the end of this period, is read a passage on judgement. We are to stand one day and be judged by our conscience and by our God. We will have to answer for all our life, all its emptiness, its trivialities, all that has not been done in our life perhaps more that what has been done, because God can forgive sin, He cannot create within our life what we have not cared to make of it.
Let us go through these weeks, step after step, trying to understand where we stand with regard to the parables and the challenge of God in His Gospel. When we will have done this, not only in our mind and heart, but putting right all that can be put right, we will be in a position to enter into that period of Lent which will concentrate on the message of the Gospel first and then on the events, real, concrete, dramatic events of Holy Week. But by then we must have done all our work concerning ourselves, by then there will be no space and no time to remember ourselves. We must be able to forget everything and to remember only the Passion of the Lord, Love crucified, a Man who gives Himself to death for faith in us and compassion.
Let us start now on this journey and let us come to the day of the Passion ready with a clear sight, a broken heart, prepared by a deep tilling of our spiritual ground and the ground of our life, to see, to perceive and to be transformed by what is beyond words, but can be seen, received and understood at the depth of ones soul. Amen.