The center of the liturgical year in the Orthodox Church is Pascha, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection. It is extolled in the services as the Feast of feasts and Triumph of triumphs. Justifiably so, for as the Apostle Paul declares, if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain (I Cor. 15:14). Through His redeeming Passion, Christ freed us from the tyranny of death and opened for us the door to Paradise and eternal life. This is the goal of our life-long spiritual journey, a journey from death to life, from darkness to light. It is a long journey and we travellers get weary; we get distracted and wander off or even lose sight of the road. To help keep us focussed, the Church every year compresses for us this journey as it prepares us to greet the Feast of Christ's Resurrection, which is a foretaste of that eternal Pascha.
We usually think of this preparatory time as the period of Great Lent, but in fact it begins three weeks earlier with the Sundays of the Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son and the Last Judgment. Since we are not fasting yet, we tend to pay less attention to these preparatory Sundays than we do to the Sundays of Great Lent, and yet they are very important, as they give us a map, as it were, of our lenten journey.
Already a week before the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, which opens The Lenten Triodion, we hear intimations of the approaching period of lent. The Gospel reading for that Sunday relates the story of Zacchaeus, "the chief among the publicans," a rich tax-collector despised for his extortionary practices. He must have been a hard man, but the voice of his conscience had not been completely stifled, for he came to realize that he had taken the wrong path in life. But what could he do? Perhaps the great teacher people were talking about could help him. When he heard that Jesus Christ was to pass by, he climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to catch sight of Him over the crowd, for Zacchaeus was "short of stature." Any self-consciousness or concern that he, such a public figure, would be laughed at and scorned, was overcome by his intense desire to see the Lord, his desire to get help in order to set his life aright. And what happened? Jesus Christ not only acknowledged him, He came to his house. Zacchaeus' heart expanded in the presence of this Love, he resolved to make amends to the people he had wronged; in a word, he was on his way to a new life. As we approach the fast, we must have this same desire, the same state of mind as Zacchaeus. If we genuinely desire to catch sight of the Lord amidst the worldly vanities, God will visit us. We must simply have the desire to receive Him in the home of our heart.
The Gospel for the following Sunday tells us the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Both were in the temple praying. The Pharisee prayed, God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. Meanwhile, the Publican beat his breast, crying out, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! The Pharisee did well to tithe and to fast; he was undoubtedly a decent man, an upright citizen. Any virtue he possessed, however, was poisoned by his proud and arrogant attitude. He was self-satisfied and expressed no desire to change. As we enter upon the lenten struggle, we must beware of such complacency, of being satisfied with keeping the "rule" of the fast and judging those who do not. Such a prideful attitude can ruin all our good efforts. Rather, we should imitate the Publican. Here was a man who may have, like Zacchaeus, led a bad life and seen the error of his ways. He was trying now to please God, but found himself constantly falling into his old habits and giving in to temptations. He saw that he had no righteousness in him, that he was a helpless sinner in desperate need of God's mercy. "Lord," he cried, "help me!" Such humility invites God's grace. The Publican may not have fasted as the law required, he may have neglected other ordinances of the law, but his humility raised him above the legalistic pharisee, and he returned home justified.
The next preparatory week begins with the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. We should all be familiar with the parable, found in St. Luke's Gospel. How does it apply to us, to our spiritual life? The younger son was bored at home. He took his inheritance and went off into a far country, where he squandered what he had on riotous living. How often do we find ourselves enticed by the ways and the pleasures of this world, our hearts indifferent to the things of God, our minds wandering "in a far country" as we stand in church? The result? We become spiritually parched, like the prodigal son who experienced "a severe famine" in the land of his sojourning. Finally, when he was reduced to feeding swine, i.e., when he was in desperate circumstances, "he came to himself." He saw what kind of person he was; he realized he had deeply wounded his father, and he was willing to admit his error and ask his father's forgiveness. The fact that he had to travel a long way, without money, to return home demonstrates his strong resolve. We must have the same determination and show similar exertion in departing from sin and self-indulgence, and in making our way back to God and our true homeland which is in heaven. And with what joy the father received him-coming towards him when his son was still a great way off-, with what readiness he forgave him, just as God will greet and forgive us if we come to our senses, repent and have the determination to act upon our repentance.
We cannot, however, take God's mercy for granted, and the Church makes this clear to us the following Sunday, when it speaks to us about the Last Judgment, reminding us that God is not only a loving Father but also a righteous Judge. In the appointed Gospel reading, we hear about how the Son of Man will come at the end of the world to judge all men, when He will divide the righteous from the wicked "as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats." Each man will receive recompense for his deeds: those who have done good-who have shown compassion on their neighbor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the needy-will inherit everlasting life, while those who have neglected works of charity, who have not shown love to their neighbor, will go away into everlasting punishment.
It is not enough to repent in our thoughts or with our feelings, or even to express it in words. the fruit of real repentance is a change in our way of life. During the Vespers for that Sunday, we chant:
Knowing the commandments of the Lord, let this be our way of life:
Let us feed the hungry, let us give the thirsty to drink,
Let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers,
Let us visit those in prison and the sick.
Then the judge of all the earth will say even to us: 'Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.' On the very threshold of Great Lent, we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Here is an example of what happens when we do not fast, when we do not repent. Shall we remain outside the gates of Paradise, weeping in the darkness of our sins, far removed from God, or shall we hearken to the voice of the Church inviting us, urging us to "set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat," that cleansed by fasting and the works of repentance, we may be led back into Paradise, into the everlasting joy of our Resurrected Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The services for these preparatory weeks, beginning with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, are compiled in a special book, The Lenten Triodion, the "Book of Three Odes," so-called because the weekday canons at Matins during Great Lent contain not the usual eight or nine canticles or odes, but, as a rule, three. At the Sunday Matins, after the reading of the Gospel and the 50th Psalm, special stichera are chanted: "Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of Life." These stichera are sung through the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent. A special feature of the preparatory Sunday services is the chanting of Psalm 136, "By the rivers of Babylon," after the usual Polyeleos sitchera, "Praise ye the name of the Lord, Allelluia!" It was sung by God's chosen people in their exile in Babylon and reflects our bondage to sin that has taken us far from our heavenly homeland. These weeks also include a special commemoration of departed Orthodox Christians "from all ages," when we particularly pray for the souls of those who did not receive a church burial when they died, who died suddenly or violently, without opportunity for a final repentance. On the eve of this Saturday for the Dead, before the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we hear in church hymns from the funeral service.
On Wednesday and Friday of the final preparatory week, unless there is a major feast, the Divine Liturgy is not served, and on vespers for Wednesday we hear for the first time the lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, "O Lord and Master of my life . . ." The season has come.
For most of us, the dominant feature of Great Lent is fasting from certain foods. Here, too, these preparatory weeks lead us gradually towards stricter abstinence. Following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, the usual Wednesday and Friday fasts are not observed, that we might not boast in keep in he fasting "rules," and as a reminder that fasting is only a means, an aid on the path to salvation; it is not a ticket to heaven. The next week we return to the wise moderation of the Church's discipline, observing the usual Wednesday and Friday fasts. It is called Meat-fare Week, because at the end of that week, on Sunday, we stop eating meat for the duration of Great Lent.
The following week, Cheese-fare week, it is customary to eat "cheese fare," i.e., milk products and eggs. With the exception of meat, it is a fast-free week, although it is desirable to observe the Wednesday and Friday fasts until evening. Cheese-fare week is popularly regarded as a week of entertaining and indulging in the butteriest foods. But, as noted above, the church services for this week recall the fall of Adam and Eve-the result of indulgence. On Cheese-fare Saturday, the Church commemorates "all the righteous who shone forth in the ascetic life"-in fasting and prayer. It is a week to use up what dairy products we have in the house before Great Lent, to begin paring down our food intake, not to stuff ourselves as if we were going to starve for the next forty days. We enter Great Lent with the rite of forgiveness following vespers on Cheese-fare Sunday. Clergy and laity ask one another's forgiveness, and then the priest blesses everyone for their journey through the Great Fast. Strengthening ourselves with the desire of Zacchaeus, the humility of the publican, the resolve of the Prodigal Son, sobriety at the thought of God's righteous judgment and the lesson of Adam's expulsion from Paradise, we are well equipped "for the noble contest of the Fast."
"Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover." Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness.
Sources: The Lenten Triodion, Faber & Faber, 1978; Put' k Paskhe in Pravoslavnaya Beseda, Moscow, 1991 No. 2; The One Thing Needful, Archbishop Andrei of Novo-Diveyevo, St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1991; "Ot Pokayaniye k Obnovleniyu" by Archpriest Valery Lukianov, in Pravoslavnaya Rus, Jordanville, 1994, No. 3.