Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the Church continues her bombardment of the beachhead in an effort to soften up the resistance prior to the launch of the invasion of the Great and Holy Fast of Lent. D-Day is fast approaching and we hear once more this most familiar parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Our Lord uses an image quite familiar to both His listeners and to us. It is the image of two souls going to church, doing what we have done countless times during our brief lifespan.
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray,’” that is to say, they went up into the House of God to pray and to worship. The Temple in Jerusalem was the locus of God’s holy, abiding Presence. There in that sole place in all of Israel God dwelt in the Holy of Holies on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, flanked by two Cherubim, and enveloped with clouds of incense. There His priests went about their holy work offering up the daily sacrifices in the morning and in the evening on behalf of the people who came to confess their sins and make atonement or to offer up a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, or to offer up for any number of other reasons other sacrifices. This is precisely what we found the Holy Family doing on the feast of the Meeting of Our Lord, not long ago. Countless throngs of pilgrims would make their pilgrimage to the Temple’s holy precincts three times a year as prescribed in the Law. The worship of the true and living God initiated in Paradise in Eden, revealed further to the Patriarchs, and enshrined in Israel’s Tabernacle and Temple, was an ongoing affair. Prayer was offered up morning, noon, and night rising to the heights of Heaven as incense (Ps. 140 :2). The Church’s own prayer cycle is based on that of the Temple, a continuation of it and an expansion upon it.
And so, “’Two men went up into the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a publican.’” The worship of God is undertaken by any number of souls in various spiritual states at any given time, just as the parable of the sower of seed suggests (Mt. 13:3-9, 18-23). In fact, does not our Lord say in several of His other parables that the Kingdom of Heaven is made up of weeds and wheat together or good fish and bad alike (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50)? There are no assurances that those who gather to worship and to pray are of a pure heart (Ps. 23 :1-10). And, we come to the services of God’s House for any number of reasons. Some are better reasons than others, to be sure.
The good thing is that we have come up to the temple to pray, to place ourselves in the Presence of the true and living God, just as did these two men – the one a notorious scoundrel and the other quite pious, but falsely so. We know that because of how he “’prays.’” He prays, says our Lord, “’thus with himself,’” that is to say, to himself. He brags to himself about his piety and devotion and how he compares to that notorious scoundrel. “’”God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men,’” he boasts, “’extortioners, unjust, adulterers, even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”’”
For this soul, undeniably very religious and whose pious acts are worthy of our emulation, coming up into the Temple was more about himself than it was about God. In fact, truth be told, he made an idol of himself, he substituted himself for God, he replaced God with his own ego, he “’prayed thus with himself.’” The right worship of God, including our prayer, demands a proper disposition of our heart and mind and soul. It demands that the eyes of our spirit be focused exclusively on God and not on ourselves or on our neighbor. Prayer and worship is not a pep rally for the self. It is rather all about God, basking in His goodness towards us sinners, imbibing His grace, partaking of His divine nature for our own transformation and re-configuration, giving Him the praise and thanksgiving rightfully due His holy Name. One of the ways for us to enact this spiritual focus on God is to turn physically towards the East to pray, facing His Altar with the priest and our brethren, which is the ancient Tradition of prayer and worship.
When we come up into the temple to pray, beloved, we must lay aside all earthly cares (Divine Liturgy/Cherubicon), including those about our neighbor who may or may not be as shiny a penny as you. These earthly cares create impediments and obstacles to our true prayer and right worship, and they become distractions leading to our downfall. Like Amish horses, we must put on blinders so that we see only straight ahead at any given time looking solely to God, focused on how it is we measure up to His holiness and righteousness. We cannot ascend the mountain of the Lord or stand in His place confident in our righteousness as the Pharisee here, and self-congratulatory (Ps. 23 :3); Lk. 18:9). To do so is to despise God, to despise His righteousness in Christ made ours through the Mystery of Baptism and renewed in the Mystery of Repentance and Reconciliation and in the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. In fact, it is to despise the Mystery of the Church herself in which we are being sanctified and stand redeemed, thinking to ourselves that we don’t need these things because we’re ok. We’re not like those others. We’re as good as they are, maybe even better, and somehow that justifies us!
But, when we go up into the temple to pray, our focus is to be on God and we are to look only at ourselves in His light, and not at our brother or sister. This is the prayer of St. Ephraim which we will undertake in the holy season of Lent: “Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.” This is the spiritually fatal mistake of Pharisaism when in our religious zeal we judge and condemn others. In a sense, we outdo Jesus Who alone is the Judge of all souls! True prayer and worship, on the other hand, leads us to repentance. It leads us to self-condemnation and not to self-promotion at the expense of another. In other words, we don’t inflate ourselves by deflating another. Like all the saints, we examine our life and not that of our brother or sister. We must stand and be measured against, not our brethren, but against the only true canon or measure, what the Apostle calls “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ep. 4:13). Jesus Christ, the perfect God-Man, is our measure! Attend! Hear what our Lord says in His Sermon on the Mount:
‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? . . Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye’ (Mt. 7:1-6).
We must examine ourselves without mercy so that we might receive the mercy of God in prayer and worship. For, at the heart of this prayer and worship, is that most famous Psalm of repentance of the Prophet-King David prayed at every service of the Church, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy . . . .” (Ps. 50 :1-21). We come into the Presence of God as sinners and we do so in the utter humility of the publican. This humility wins the favor of the Master, and all of us who wish to be saved at the dread Final Judgment must be as absolutely humble as this publican, imploring that God, too, be merciful to me, the sinner. “[J]udgment is without mercy,” says the Brother of our Lord, “to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy,” beloved, “triumphs over judgment” (Jm. 2:1-13).
As we begin now to ease our way into the Great Fast of Holy Lent, the Church calls us true and right worship and prayer. She calls to repentance, to the ruthless self-examination of our lives, to call sin sin and to root it out of our lives, and she calls us to utter humility which alone saves us. She bids us to find mercy in time of need and to give mercy to our brethren in need. She sets before us for our contemplation our mortality. Sacred Scripture reminds us in no uncertain terms that we are dust and to dust we will one day return (Gn. 3:19). The Wisdom of Sirach aids us in completing “the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance” (Litany of Supplication). He tells us for our spiritual edification, “Arrogance is hateful before God and man.” He, then, asks a probing question, “How can he who is earth and ashes be arrogant?” Just who am I to play the Pharisee against my brethren who are likewise as feeble and as frail as I am? How can I set myself up as better than any other? Smarter? A better follower of the science? If only others would only do just as I do and think as I think, then this world would be better off! Indeed,
How can [I] who [am] of earth and ashes [dare] to be arrogant? Because even while living, [my] insides are decaying. . . . When a man dies, he will inherit reptiles, wild animals, and worms. The beginning of a man’s arrogance is to depart from the Lord, . . . . (Sr. 10:7-18).
Such is vanity, cries the Preacher! And such vanity, beloved, we know only ends in death eternal. Nothing good, nothing salvific, comes from arrogance. Such “arrogance was not created by mankind,” Sirach tells us, but we certainly participate in it willingly, even gladly (Sr. 10:18)! Such arrogance is the work of the evil one whose envy of us has sought to return us to the dust of the earth as quickly as possible (WS 2:23-24), that is, until our Lord Jesus Christ took on our flesh so that we might take on His divine nature (2 Pe. 1:4)!
This is the glory of Pascha which starts today with our first step into Great and Holy Lent. Let us, beloved, not fritter away this divine gift, but rather enter into its joy – the joy of humble repentance! Let us practice and incorporate into our lives the good and pious deeds of the Pharisee while, at the same time, rejecting his arrogance and embracing the utter and true humility of the publican. And, then, we can pray truly and worship the only true and living God rightly.
“’Two men went up into the Temple to pray,’” says our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. But, only one of them returned home justified. “’[F]or everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’”
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
2 Tm. 3:10-15