Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Triodion begins--The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

We have just put away the decorations for Nativity, blessed the waters and our homes celebrating the joy of our Lord's Theophany and now, before January is over, we have begun Triodion. I can't help but think how much though my fellow Orthodox miss at Vespers and Orthros for this day. Sure, they hear the gospel at the Liturgy which directly pertains to this feast, but the supporting hymnography, really hits home what this day means for us in the spiritual life.

The Gospel lesson for this day is short, incredibly short. In fact so many Gospel pericopes appointed for certain days are extremely short. Circumcision is only one verse; Transfiguration only two or four (depending on which account you read); Theophany is not much longer. Our Lord's words in his parables are meant to bring us straight to the point, not to be beaten up with fancy word analysis and redacted so that we can better understand the metaphors. The point of this Gospel: Humility!

Our Lord asks, "Who went home justified?" The answer is, of course, the Publican. Why? Because he humbled himself before God. And why is that such a great virtue to have? Because God has that virtue. We often don't think of God being humble, preferring such superlatives as greatest, most holy, most awesome, most compassionate, most loving, etc., etc.. But God is above all humble and that is why he is compassionate and loving. To be humble is to be humiliated. And God was humiliated (not always a negative term) because of his Incarnation in the flesh when He took on what we are and humiliated Himself unto death, even death on a cross, as St. Paul tell us. God's loving and merciful compassion is poured out for us because He, even before we sinned, as some Church Fathers say (cf. St. Athanasius), God was to come in the flesh and die, to raise us up so that we may take on the divine while we yet live here on earth. To be humble is thus to be Godlike.

I should say a few words about the Pharisee and his prayers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what the Pharisee says he does. There is nothing wrong with fasting and giving to the poor. In fact, as the fasting season approaches, we are reminded to do both and join more prayer with those virtues. Many people read this Gospel passage (incorrectly) and suggest that Christ is condemning works and that only our faith matters (sola fide). Such cheapens the Gospel. If our faith is a mental activity only, then we are not wholly transformed. If the flesh will not do as the body, then we have become schizophrenic beings instead of a union of mind, body and soul. Does our Lord not command us to love Him with all our mind, body and heart? If we only love with the mind, yet not the body, we do not love God and we cannot love God. God did not come in the flesh because He thought the flesh was bad or only to nourish the spirit. Such a thought is dangerous. It is modern day Manichaeism and gnosticism. God came in the flesh, assuming everything we are so that all things may be healed so that we can glorify our God in works (cf. Eph 2: 9-10). The Pharisee's problem is not with what he does but how his good works are motivated not for love of God, but for love of himself. Good works (on the surface) can come from bad people, but if they are not directed towards a love for God, then they are suspect by God.

The theme of this past Sunday is humility. Next week, the Sunday of the Prodigal Sun, the theme is return from exile. More then.

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