Today, Sunday the first of February, marks the entry into the 'Triodion', which is the primary liturgical book of the Lenten Period. The Church brings us all into this blessed period - a time of spiritual and physical cleansing, self sacrifice and humility - with the Gospel passage of the Tax-Collector and the Pharisee:
The Gospel of Luke 18:10-14
The Lord said this parable, "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
It is easy for us as Orthodox Christians to read this passage and understand why the pharisee was unable to have a loving relationship with Christ and his neighbour, however is it as easy to recognise our own pharisaic tendencies? There is no difference whatsoever between this parable and the way in which we treat our fellow human beings in our daily lives. It's really very easy to claim to understand this holy parable, however I think we'll find the way in which we easily judge brothers and sisters according to their morality, faithfulness to Church teaching, and social or religious group will tell a different story! We must remember that of course the Church's canons are important, and are there to guide the faithful Christian community, but at the same time unnecessary dwelling and concentration on the canonical law can be problematic and hypocritical, when Christ's mercy and love transcends rules and regulations. In one way or another every human being will sin and 'fall short of the Glory of God' (Romans 3:23) but more importantly, we should never give up on the path leading to salvation and righteousness - with the tax collector, the crucified criminal, and all of the Saints as our examples and guides, on this road of continual repentance.
'We mistakably believe that Saints were never tempted or did not live a secular life, with problems and temptations.' Demetris Salapatas, Theologian - extract from 'An Ascetic who became a Rapist who became a Saint'
This misconception that Demetri outlines for us, is far from the truth. Saints are those who fall, and continuously struggle - reaching humanity's very goal which is holiness, sanctity and Theosis. Many of us have to get rid of this troubling misconception that one of the main characteristics of the Church is to condemn this and that, as well as pointing fingers at people who live 'immoral lives.' We are all guilty, and nobody is free from immorality, uncleanliness, and pride. The Church, as our Mother, and as our spiritual hospital, provides us with the medicines of compassion, forgiveness, individual understanding and care, leading each of us back onto the path of true joy. The Church, founded by Christ and His very Apostles, has had over 2000 years of experience, knowing exactly how joy, life and love is obtained. Todays reading of St Paul's epistle to the Romans, points to the answer found in the parable: 'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Romans 8:28-39) No one but ourselves. As we have discussed, the Love of God is there for the worst of sinners, as long as we humbly turn to Him, opening our hearts, asking for this gracious love.
As we celebrate tomorrow's great feast of the 'Presentation of Christ in the Temple,' let us present ourselves with the humility which we find among repentant drug users, prostitutes, prisoners, the tax collector, and all the Saints and righteous servants of God who live and breath the words of todays Gospel, 'God, be merciful to me a Sinner.' Only then will we turn and flee from our pharisaic, hypocritical tendencies, in order to obtain communion with the source of salvation, joy, and love: Christ.
' Let us flee the proud speech of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, as with the groans we cry to the Saviour. Be merciful to us, for You alone are ready to forgive.'
- Kontakion for the Sunday of the Publican & The Pharisee