Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
If one should ever have a question concerning the purpose of Great Lent and the time leading to it, they should read the Gospels assigned to each of the Sundays of the Triodion.
Truly, if we are honest with ourselves, we can easily associate with the Publican and Pharisee; and with the Prodigal Son. These Gospels lessons pierce our heart and conscience as we are presented with the vices and passions which we strive so earnestly to bury deep into our hearts.
So that we are not cast off into the abyss of despair, the words of our Saviour refresh us, encourage us, and restore hope. In the case of the Publican and the Pharisee, our Lord teaches us the right way to pray. The Pharisee made a public display, boldly looking into the heavens and challenging God. It is as if he were saying, “Lord, I deserve my prosperity and all the good things I have earned in my life”. I did this….and I did that…BUT, at least I am not like these other wretches.
And behold the prayer of the Publican. We can picture the scene where he barely enters the temple, falling prostrate, unable to lift his eyes to heaven. So heart-felt was the prayer of this man that he beat his chest. It is as if he is saying: “Lord, do not justly condemn me for all that I have done, even though I am guilt and deserve your wrath and punishment” We can read his lips as he utters: “God be merciful to me the sinner”.
Our Lord ends this parable reassuring us that the heart-felt prayer is well pleasing to Him. Hear the Lord’s words:
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
Our hearts are moved with this retelling. So great is it that the Church prescribes it to be read each year. Each time we hear this, we glean something new and we are uplifted.
The second week we read the lesson known as the Gospel of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps one of the best known-Gospels and one certainly that has found its place in our current culture. This lessons touches each of us deeply. For parents, our hearts are torn with the thoughts of this being our child. For those who are not parents, we see elements in our own lives. How often have we squandered our Father’s wealth on prodigality? How often have we wasted the talents given to us? How often have scattered instead of gathered?
Once again, our Lord restores us in this lesson demonstrating that there is hope. The prodigal son came to his senses. Perhaps the most poignant phrase in this Gospel, “he came to himself”. A loose translation of Repentance, in Greek metanoia, can mean “coming to our senses”. Quite literally this term means a changing of the mind, ceasing our old manner of thinking. The prodigal came to his senses and recognized that even the servants in his father’s house were in a better condition than his present state.
The prodigal son returns home to his father. That journey home must have been filled with anguish and shame. How could he face his father? He was not returning victorious, successful, or even wealthy, to the contrary he was filthy, tired, hungry, and ready to take on the labors of a servant.
So great is this repentance! So great is the humility and acknowledgement of his predicament. And so great is the acceptance of the punishment that awaited him.
But lo, wonder-past-wonder, the father beheld from a distance his son returning home. In his joy, the father dropped everything and in a moment hurried out to see his son.
So great is the love of our God for us, sinful and insignificant as we are. In this Gospel lesson, many mysteries are revealed and our eyes are open. Now we recognize the parallel with the scripture:
I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Luke 15:4-7
What great joy filled the father when he found his son, one who was lost and is now found.