The Triodion: preparing to prepare.
The First Sunday of the Triodion, known as The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.
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12:44 PM 2/13/2011 — If Lent is a time of preparation for Pascha or Easter, some may find it overkill to have a time of preparation for Lent itself. But it is the nature of the Eastern Churches, following ancient traditions, to cling to the practice of centuries past; and in centuries past, Lent was not just a time to prepare ourselves for Easter by giving up chocolate and saying a few extra prayers. When the Church was young—and the Apostles were still preaching the words of our Lord from memory—no one was born into the faith; they joined the Church as adults. And joining the Church meant a big change in a person’s life, especially in an age of persecution. Lent was a time of intense study and prayer and fasting and personal purification. Baptism, after all, is the restoration of Sanctifying Grace; one does not take it lightly.
And, as in all things, the Church follows the example of our Lord who, before beginning the work he came to do, fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days. He didn’t give up chocolate and television for forty days; he fasted and prayed for forty days. And so, the Eastern Churches, following a tradition handed down from the Apostles, places great emphasis on this thing we call the Great Fast;—what most others call the season of Lent—so much so that, before we even enter into it, we take time to prepare; kind of like a preparation for the preparation, which we call the Triodion: three or four weeks—depending on the date of Easter—during which we gradually ease ourselves into a spirit of self-denial.
Recently I went away for twelve days, as you know; and during that time I had the opportunity to go swimming. But I had not been swimming for a long time, and the water seemed cold to me. So, instead of diving right in—if you can picture such an ungraceful thing—I walked into the water slowly, little by little, splashing myself in order to acclimate to the temperature of the water. That’s what we do during the Triodion. We acclimate ourselves to, first, acknowledge that we are sinners and need to reform our lives;—that’s the point of today’s Gospel lesson—then we try to accustom ourselves to the notion that, in spite of our sinfulness, God really does want us to reform, which our Lord will illustrate for us next Sunday in the parable of the Prodigal Son; then we begin, little by little, to impose upon ourselves that measure of self-denial that makes the reform of our lives possible in grace: the Week of Meatfare, the Week of Cheesefare. Identifying specific objects for our mortification helps us to focus ourselves on the fact that our self-denial, if it is to have any effect, cannot be simply symbolic. We are every bit our bodies as we are our spirits. Our Lord didn’t sit down and think about what it would be like to fast for forty days in the desert, then try to imagine how that would change him; he actually went there and actually fasted.
And so, we begin. In the Gospel lesson today, our Lord speaks to us of two men who go into the temple to pray. Both of them are sinners. That’s important to remember: both of them are sinners. But only one of them admits it. And I believe that the tax collector who admitted he was a sinner left the temple a happier man. Why? Because he was honest. The Pharisee, on the other hand, instead of telling God his sins, tells God what a wonderful guy he is, how much he gives to the temple, how much he fasted, how much he prayed, etc. And Jesus says that this was not pleasing to God, not because these are not good things to do—because they are—but because he didn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t tell God his sins.
Every time we commit a sin and don’t confess it, we lie to God; for a lie isn’t just telling something that isn’t true, but also not telling something that is true. Every time we receive Holy Communion conscious of a serious sin that we have not confessed, we lie to God. And it’s a futile lie because God already knows the truth. The irony is that there’s no reason for it since we know, even before we confess our sins, that we’re going to be forgiven. If we tell the truth to God up front in confession, and express true sorrow for what we may have done, we know that we will be forgiven. The only thing that holds us back is admitting to ourselves that we are sinners. And if we’re not willing to do that, then we can’t even think of beginning Lent.
Some of you may have personal experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. For those that don’t, it’s a program of recovery from addiction which consists of a series of steps—twelve in all—that must be taken in order; and what’s the first step? The first step is admitting to yourself that you have a problem. And why is that the first step? Because if you’re not willing to admit you have a problem, there’s no program in the world that can help you. If you don’t tell the doctor where it hurts, he can’t cure you. If you don’t tell the therapist what’s bothering you, he can’t help you understand why. If you don’t tell Christ your sins, he can’t forgive you.
And so, as we begin this journey into the desert of our own souls, the Church presents to us these two men who walk into the temple to pray. One admits who and what he is, the other does not; and we must make a choice which example we will follow. The choice we make will determine a lot.
St. John said, "Anyone who says he is not a sinner is a liar"*. We all have sins. Some of us have big sins, some have sins that aren’t so big. Ultimately it doesn't matter; because if we take them all to the Lord—big, little, and in between—he will forgive them all. All that is important to him is what was important in the parable today: that we tell them honestly and with sorrow. The prayer of the tax collector is, therefore, the perfect motto for us as we prepare to enter into the journey of Lent: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Father Michael Venditti
* "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:8-10).