In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory Forever. For those who came to vigil yesterday evening, we heard for the first time what might be called the theme song of Great Lent. If you were not there to hear it, perhaps the choir might sing it during communion. Today marks the opening of the book of the Lenten Triodion, which literally means the book of the three odes. It’s theme song also speaks of an opening:
Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-giver, For my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple. Bearing the temple of my body all defiled; But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.
Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen
Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.
Have mercy on me O God, according to Thy great mercy,
and according to the multitude of Thy compassions,
blot out my transgressions.
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgement.
But trusting in Thy living kindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
Let’s face it, brothers and sisters. For all the time we have spent in Church, attending Divine Services, who among us can say we truly know how to pray, what to pray for, and with whom and to Whom we are praying? Many of us grew up prizing spontaneity in worship and prayer— that whenever we address God, we should pray from our own heart, not some prayers written by someone else in a language we cannot understand. But what really do we understand? Even when prayer is uttered in our own native tongue, how close do the words of our mouth come to the meditation of our heart? Whether the words be our own or the printed words of Scripture or the Fathers, who among us can keep their inward attention on the meaning longer than a few minutes? C.S. Lewis in his work Mere Christianity writes about this difficulty in prayer:
If you are interested enough to have read thus far you are probably interested enough to make a shot at saying your prayers: and, whatever else you say, you will probably say the Lord’s Prayer. Its very first words are Our Father. Do you now see what those words mean? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realize what the words mean, you realize that you are not a son of God. You are not a being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greed, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it. Why? What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing.Mere Christianity by c.s. lewis
And this is what we are invited to do when we do not feel the words we are uttering (even when they are in another language): to pray them anyway like children who play at being adults. We pretend in the hopes that some day (perhaps by surprise and always by grace) the pretense may become the reality. For prayer itself is like learning a new language. At first, we babble like infants, incoherent but sincere. And slowly by slowly the words begin to form properly, penetrate deeper and deeper into our being and become our own.
This morning’s Gospel presents two very different kinds of prayer, or rather a character who merely appears to pray and another who is the model of true prayer and humility. The parable opens, “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One a pharisee and the other a tax collector.” By appearance, we should expect more from the former who by his discipline and virtue had immersed himself in the teaching of the law. If the parable were modernized, we might say he was a pastor or bishop instead of pharisee. At any rate, he was someone you would expect would know how to speak to God. So, listen again to his alleged prayer: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.” Notice to whom he is praying. He addresses God but he is really speaking to himself. If we performed this parable onstage, we might have him deliver his prayer in front of a mirror or delivering a velfie (a video selfie). He continues, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men— extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.”
So, we see that not only is he really speaking to himself and his own ego, but he is also actually there in the temple to make some kind of political statement against those who like the Apostle Matthew shook people down for a living (#expose_the_extortioners) and those who colluded with the Romans (#overthrow_the_occupiers_of_Isreal). Then after making his political speech, he goes into publicizing his prayer rule and boasts of his extreme asceticism and almsgiving: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” At this point, we really need to wonder who he is talking to in his foolishness. His words seem clearly to shame and humiliate the publican present whose entire life is the opposite of this man of God’s. Yet in that moment, the pharisee loses all the grace he has gathered by his devotion. It is tempting to read this parable and make the pharisee out to be the total bad guy, but the canon from the Matins service teaches otherwise:
Let us make haste to follow the pharisee in his virtues and to emulate the publican in his humility, and let us hate what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions… The pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but the publican outran him on foot, for he had yoked humility with compassion.Ode 5, Matins for the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
So how does the publican respond in the face of this obvious challenge to his livelihood and reputation? What might we do if similarly slighted? Mount a smear campaign on the hypocrisy of all religious leaders, #phony_pharisees? Maybe start a counter PR campaign to boost his own image, #publicans_who_are_actually_pleasant? What does this publican do to defend himself? The Scripture indicates that he has come to the temple for a VERY different purpose. His posture and his SILENCE show us that he has come to actually speak to God. The verse says, “And the tax collector standing a far off would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’.”
I remember one of the first times I attended an Orthodox Church. I had what my kids call my booky book which I still carry in my breast pocket, and in it, I had written all the questions I intended to grill the priest with after the service. Probably had my Bible too that I carried everywhere with me just in case I ran out of questions in my book. I came to the temple that day with the posture of the pharisee, ready to critique and correct what I perceived to be remiss with what I saw (did you catch how many times the word “I” appeared in that sentence?) But instead of grilling the priest, God sent to me a child of only two years old, toddling up next to me in the pew. He also came to the temple that day to pray, but his prayer was not self-referential, and it certainly did not involve scoring political or theological points for his team. Rather he stopped, looked up at a larger-than-life icon of St. Anthony the Great of the Desert and almost lost his balance in wordless wonder. After witnessing this, I put my book away and decided to change my posture of prayer.
And what exactly is the posture we should assume in our prayer? Some of you who are new to the Orthodox Church might feel intimidated by all the reverence and majesty contained in many of our services. Some of you came from churches or worship services that were quite a bit less formal. Or perhaps you feel put off by hearing prayers in another language. Know from this morning’s Gospel parable the real reason for all this form and rich tradition— It is based on a fundamental relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and the prayer uttered by the publican which is also the prayer at the end of the theme song of Lent. Called by some the sinner’s prayer, we Orthodox Christians believe it should be prayed not just at the beginning of one’s life in Christ but throughout our life. So often that it becomes part of the air we breathe, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Prayer from the heart, whether it comes in the form of words or simple, silent devotion will always involve a posture of pleading for mercy. Good strength to you all as the Lord opens to us the gates of repentance in the coming Great Lent. Amen.