Orthodox Christianity: Not a Denomination, but a Way of Life

The following Homily was given on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee:

We read last night at Great Vespers:

Almighty Lord, I know how great is the power of tears.  For they led up Hezekiah from the gates of death. They delivered the sinful woman from the transgressions of her many years.  They justified the Publican above the Pharisee.  Now with my own tears I also pray:  “Have mercy upon me.”

It is with those same words, coupled with a lot of tears, that we continue to prepare ourselves for that time that true Christians crave more than anything else in this life.  Just as we tithe our time and material possessions out of love for God and for each other, so we also tithe our souls to God during Great and Holy Lent.  

We have 3 more weeks brothers and sisters, and I pray that you are craving the Lenten Season as much as I am, because how could you not?  Every year, we have 40 days, plus the Holiest Week of the year before Pascha, that are filled with enough Grace, which is supposed to last us through to the next Lenten Season!  I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my own reserves seem to be running on empty around this time of year!

Prepare yourselves!  Push yourselves to new spiritual heights!  Bow your head down low, because the spiritual fill-up is coming, if we only make the effort to get to the pumps to receive it! 

On this Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church gives us some examples of “how to”, and “how not to” approach this holy period.  We heard in the short Gospel reading, about the Pharisee who lived a life that looked wonderful on the outside.  He was a follower of the law.  He tithed.  He fasted. He no doubt spent time in the temple, participating in every ritual and in all of the services, and yet unbeknownst to him, something just wasn’t right in his spiritual life.

On the opposite side of the temple, we are shown the publican, a likely an unjust tax collector, who is beating his breast and saying those words that we are going to start hearing in our sleep as Lent approaches:  “Have Mercy on Me”.  

When speaking about this parable, one of the great saints and authors of the 20th century, St. Nikolai, tell us another parable in one of his books, about a man who went into a forest to choose a tree from which to make roof-beams for his new house.  As he was walking, he saw two individual trees which had grown right next to each other.  Even though they had come from the same soil, and had received the same amount of sunlight throughout the years, one of them, despite being very beautiful, smooth, and tall, had rotted away on the inside.  The other, which looked ugly and rough on the outside, the man discovered had a very healthy core.

After spending some time trying to make a decision, the man said to himself:  

“What use is this beautiful tree to me, if it has a rotten inside, and is useless for making a strong and sturdy roof?  The other one, even if it is rough, is at least healthy at the core.  All I need to do is put a little more effort into refining it, and it will make a fine beam.”  

So what do the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, coupled with the parable given to us by St. Nikolai, say to us about the state of our souls as Great Lent approaches?

One of the reasons that all Orthodox Christians love Great Lent, is because of the simple beauty of the worship.  Often, the services are done in the dark.  The choir is singing incredible hymns that are only sung during this period, with some of the most ancient and beautiful melodies that were ever written. You can literally see the incense rising in the candle light, like our prayers that are rising to heaven.  All of these things are incredibly moving and peaceful!   But while all of these things are helpful and good for our souls…there is still so much more that is needed!

It is the Gospel reading today, coupled with the parable of St. Nikolai, where we are reminded that our faith cannot just be what is on the outside! The rituals, the music, the incense, all of these things are useful, and extremely helpful in leading us to God…but what is more needful, is the attention that must be paid to the inside of our souls, which from time to time can be quite rotten.  

Lent is the perfect time to remind ourselves that Orthodoxy, first and fore-most, is not a religion or a denomination…it is a way of life.  That word we kept using last week, “Metanoia”, which is the Greek word for repentance, means changing our hearts…and that is what we are called to do during Great and Holy Lent!  We don’t just attend all of the services (which we all should and need to)…but we change the very core of our lives.  We re-check our priorities.  We learn to humble ourselves before others, and before the almighty God, saying those incredibly powerful words that are necessary for our salvation:  “Lord, have mercy on Me”.

May we all learn to pay more attention to our souls during this time of preparation, and enter into a true state of metanoia, as we approach the Holiest time of the year!