We in the West have already had two of the six Sundays of Lent.
The East is just ramping up.
They start on a different schedule, and each of the four Sundays before Lent begins has its own clear focus. It is all about getting ready for Lent.
The Pharisee & The Publican
It started this week with “The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.” The morning prayer service (“Mattins” or “Orthros”) that comes before the Divine Liturgy is filled with hymns and prayers diving deep into the story Jesus told:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14 NRSV)
This Lent I’m praying through the Orthodox service book for the season, The Lenten Triodion. (I got mine as a gift. If you don’t happen to have a friend who is an Orthodox priest with an extra copy, Amazon carries it.)
And I have to say, it is pretty amazing to see the way the whole service is woven together to help worshippers take this biblical text seriously. There is no sermon — but singing and praying these words yourself takes the Word deep into your heart.
So, whether as a Lenten exercise or as preparation for Lent, consider the virtue of humility which Christ praises. Here are few short segments of the canticles on the theme from the Lenten Triodion:
Through parables leading all mankind to amendment of life, Christ raises up the Publican from his abasement and humbles the Pharisee in his pride. (p. 102)
Every good deed is made of no effect through foolish pride, while every evil is cleansed by humility. In faith let us embrace humility and utterly abhor the ways of vainglory. (p. 102)
From the dung-hill of the passions the humble is lifted up on high, while the proudhearted suffers a grievous fall from the height of the virtues: let us flee from his evil ways. (p. 103)
The Word who humbled Himself even to the form of a servant, showed that humility is the best path to exaltation. Every man, then, who humbles himself according to the Lord’s example, is exalted on high. (p. 104)
There is more. (A lot more.) But even a tiny sample startles me to attention: This is not any “works righteousness.” This is eager pursuit of the heart Christ praised — the attitude Christ said led to the sinner being “justified.”
And justification is a good Protestant goal, eh?
The Jesus Prayer
There is another great reason the Orthodox love this parable — something that shows how the Orthodox are taught to strive to live according to its teaching. You see it in another one of these canticles:
As the Publican let us also beat our breasts and cry out in compunction, ‘God be merciful unto us sinners’, that like him we may receive forgiveness. (p. 103)
That’s the heart, one of the biblical roots, of the Jesus Prayer, the key practice of Orthodox prayer life: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” and as many end the prayer, “a sinner.”
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What makes for healthy humility in the Christian life?
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