The biggest and most joyous day in the life of the Church is the bright day of the Resurrection of Christ, the “Feast of Feasts, and Triumph of Triumphs”. This is the day of our Divine Redeemer’s glorious victory over the enemies of our salvation, the devil and his offspring. Because of the extreme importance and incomparable significance of this day, no other day of the year is celebrated with as much joy and exultation as the bright day of the Resurrection of Christ, our Holy Pascha.
We should also note that the feast of Christ’s Resurrection is not considered one of the Twelve Great Feasts, but is in a class by itself. If we look at the iconostasis of old Orthodox churches where there is a separate row on the iconostasis for the Twelve Great Feasts, it is obvious that the total number of icons is 13 and not 12. The icon of the Resurrection is in the center, flanked by the icons of the Twelve Great Feasts, six to the right, and six to the left.
Wishing to call special attention to this day, the Holy Church has established a long period of preparation called ‘Great Lent’ which is in the Lenten Triodion. It is called ‘great’ because, of all the fasting periods, it is the longest and strictest. It begins already seven weeks before Pascha, and consists of 40 days. When you add Holy Week, there are 47 days in all.
Great Lent is designated by the Church primarily as a time for repentance. The struggle for repentance should be our main task for the duration of Great Lent. Long before Great Lent actually starts, the Church prepares us for the struggle for repentance little by little. Just after celebrating the festive days of the Nativity and Theophany of Christ, we already hear in church this call “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17) by the Lord who has gone out into the world for his public ministry to the human race.
Then, on the Sunday before the start of the period of the Lenten Triodion, we are given the example of a repentant sinner in the person of the chief tax collector Zaccheus. Because the Lord did not despise him for his sinfulness, but mercifully visited his home, Zaccheus underwent a drastic change in his soul towards a new life. The Church uses Zaccheus as an example of sincere repentance, and with this brings us to the preparatory Sundays of Great Lent.
Each of the four preparatory Sundays bears a special name which is associated with the Gospel reading for that day: 1) the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, 2) the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 3) Meat-fare Sunday, or the Sunday of the Last Judgement, and 4) Cheese-fare Sunday, the casting out of Adam from Paradise, usually called ‘Forgiveness Sunday’.
Starting with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the Church puts a touching hymns on our lips: ‘Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance...’ (see the Lenten Triodion). This is sung after the Gospel reading at every Saturday night vigil during Great Lent. What is the meaning of this hymn?
Great Lent is a time for an all-round spiritual cleansing and sanctification. A complete renewal and spiritual rebirth is necessary. This takes struggle. It is a long and hard process for which one has to prod and force oneself. This is not possible without a personal struggle, without the individual efforts of each person himself. God does not save a man without his participation, or against his will. God gave man free will and reason in order to turn away from evil and choose good, and He does not force anyone into the kingdom of heaven.
On this first of the preparatory Sundays, the parable of the publican and Pharisee is read. Here the Holy Church teaches us that true repentance should be based on humility, which is a sincere realization of one’s sinful uncleanness, unworthiness, and irresponsibility before God. True heartfelt contrition is devoid of any conceit, any self- praise and self-exaltation, devoid of all confidence in one’s virtues and hope in one’s good deeds. The Pharisee praised himself for his good deeds, and while what he said about himself was true, if we think of the words of the ‘prayer behind the ambo’ at the end of the liturgy, if we do not see our sins and put down others thinking that we are better than they, our virtues are cancelled out. The Pharisee went out from church shamed in his pride, while the humble publican who saw only his sins before him was justified by the Lord.
Here it is worth emphasizing again that what the Pharisee said about himself was all true, that he fasted and gave tithes to the church, but this truth did not save him. We are reminded of the expression often found in the writings of the Holy Fathers that we should first “live by the truth, and only then fight for the truth”. We must not put “live by the truth” in second place and “fight for the truth” in first place. The hierarchy of spiritual values should never be changed!
In contemporary life, with ecumenism, sergianism, apostasy from Christianity, and, in general, with heretical surroundings, everything is exactly the opposite of the above-mentioned teaching of the Holy Fathers which is based on the Holy Gospel, for first they fight and after that all the rest is easily forgotten.
The basic tenet of this wonderful parable for our life is expressed in these final words: “for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Lk. 18:14) Amen.