Dear Friends in Christ,
Lent begins this year on Monday, March 7 (n.s.), and Pascha will occur on Sunday, April 24 (n.s.). The Church gives us forty-seven days to reflect and renew our lives and our commitment to Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. The saying, “you get out what you put in to it” applies here, though; March 7 is just around the corner, and we could easily forget about the beginning of Lent until it already in full gear! The Church knows we need spiritual sticky-notes, though, and for this reason, we have four Sundays leading up to Lent to remind us and prepare us.
To make an analogy, a lot of people commit to a diet before going on vacation, but before they know it, it’s time to hit the road and they haven’t got the look they were hoping for. By getting familiar with the diet plan, planning out the meals, and talking over our goals with our spouse or family several times before starting the diet, we’ll be accustomed to the new plan and ready to jump in completely. In the same way, we have four reminders. For convenience, I will list the four Sundays here, the basic theme, and a key point to reflect on.
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 13 (Luke 18:10-14). The Pharisees were the party of Jews at the time of Jesus who strove to do everything right, to keep all the rules. A publican, in contrast, was someone who collected taxes and supported the Roman occupation of Judea through his work. Publicans were often guilty of extorting money from the people, and made money by collecting more taxes than they were supposed to by force. When both went to the Temple, however, the Pharisee loudly declared his sinfulness while the Publican stood quietly in the back and whispered: “O God be merciful unto me, a sinner.” God forgave the Publican, who was objectively the greater sinner, because of his humility. Do we excuse our own sinfulness by comparing it to someone else’s?
Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 20 (Luke 15:11-32). One Son asked for his inheritance early (in effect, declaring his father dead to him) and took off for a life of fun. He squandered it all, and ended up feeding pigs, a job which was unlawful for a Jew and the lowest one could get. He repented, reasoning that in his father’s house, even the lowest servant was treated better. His father, seeing his son return, forgave him and instead of bringing him in as a servant, restored him to being his son. His older brother, however, was jealous, but the father reminded him that the faithful are always with God, but it is a cause for rejoicing when the lost are saved. Is our life one of service to the Father who will restore us to sonship through Jesus Christ even though we do not deserve it, or one of slavery to an unforgiving tyrant? Do we rejoice when we see others praised, or do others’ blessings cause us to feel jealous inside?
Sunday of the Last Judgment, February 27 (Matthew 25:31-46). Christ will stand in Judgment on the last day in front of all of the nations; all people will face God together at the end of time. Some who expect to be saved will not be, while others will marvel at their salvation. The criteria here is whether one served his fellow man. Faith in Christ is a living faith, one that has visible results, not an intellectual decision. We are judged in front of all people, because our faith is a community affair, and we cannot be saved by ourselves, but only in reference to our fellow man. Is our “faith” merely the recitation of a doctrinal formula, or does our whole life testify to Jesus Christ dwelling in us and guiding us every day? Do we treat each person whom we meet as if he were Christ?
The Sunday of Forgiveness, March 6 (Matthew 6:14-21). The day before Lent begins, we assemble in the Church and ask forgiveness of one another for all the sins we have committed against our brothers and sisters, because this Gospel teaches that Christ will not forgive us of our sins if we do not forgive those who sin against us. This Gospel also teaches us to fast purely and not as a show (a follow up to the bad example of the Pharisee and his boasting). We are to store up treasures in Heaven, not on earth. We deny ourselves meat and dairy products and avoid entertainment as much as possible during Lent so that we can prepare our soul, test it, purify it, and strengthen it. When we are judged at the end of time, will our soul reveal a treasure chest of grace, or will we only be able to recite a list of television shows and movies watched, concerts attended, and frivolous magazines read? Naturally some entertainment is permitted us in this life, but for many, it is the main focus while not at work. Will God be pleased with the way we spent our time while on Earth?
I encourage you to pray and meditate on these questions, and think about the themes of each Sunday as they occur. Naturally, in Church we will hear hymns and sermons that will elaborate on and enrich our understanding of these events. Now is the time to come and participate and prepare. Don’t be left behind this year, but rather take full advantage of the graces available to you!