23 - Publican and Pharisee, February 8, 2009

II Timothy 3:10-15

Luke 18:10-14

Imagine the climate in a parish whose members pray like the Pharisee in this morning’s Gospel. Then, imagine the climate in a parish whose members pray like the Publican. If we truly prayed the prayers of the Orthodox Church, we would pray like the Publican. How can that be? Have we not been baptized? Are we not saved? Why, then, when we embrace the Orthodox Christian Faith, are we taught to pray like the Publican?

In the Orthodox Church, we call baptism Holy Illumination. It is our own Theophany when we are illumined to see with the eyes of faith the Holy Trinity. We see with the eyes of faith. We see with the eyes of our heart. We do not see God with our physical eyes. That’s reserved for the pure in heart. Very likely we are do not understand how the Three Persons of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are not three gods but one God. But something resonates at the core of our heart when we learn that God is not of the world and therefore he cannot be comprehended by the worldly mind. He transcends the mind and its logical categories infinitely. This doctrine or teaching that God transcends the world resonates in our hearts as Truth and so we confess and embrace the doctrine of the Holy Trinity because we feel its truth in our heart. The doctrine of the Trinity is its own proof, its own witness and it proves itself to us directly in our heart even though our mind cannot understand it. Embracing it in faith, we feel our inner being illumined with a sense of divine love and joy. That sense of love and joy is a divine, uncreated energy of God touching us and bathing us in its light – for God is love, and the reason God is love is because he is Holy Trinity, Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one essence. And that sense of love and joy descending upon us from above is why we can say that our baptism is our own Theophany when we see God with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of our heart.

Now, the eyes of faith are opened to behold the Holy Trinity through our confession of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word of God in whom all things were made, who was in the beginning with the Father, who is of one essence with the Father. We confess this transcendent divinity of Jesus even as we behold him in the flesh. We confess it because we feel clearly in his words recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures an authority that is not of this world. And so, even though we may not be able to understand the doctrine of the Incarnation, we again see with the eyes of faith, the eyes of our heart – we feel its truth resonating at the core of our heart – that there is something about God that he can come out of himself and become what we are and so unite himself to us completely, even to the point of death on the Cross. The Incarnation of God is the proclamation of God’s love for the world; for it was because of his love for the world that God gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him might be saved. The proclamation of the Savior’s Incarnation and of his death on the Cross tells us that the doctrine of the love of God is not an abstract idea, not a religious theory, but a concrete reality of flesh and blood. Whoever believes in him, whoever follows after him, whoever loves him, will be saved. To be saved means to become one with God in love. This doctrine of the Church proclaims the purpose of our existence: it is not simply to exist, to live and die, but to become partakers of the divine nature, to become one with God in love as he has become one with us in love.

This is the teaching of the Church that we received in our catechism, and that we embraced with our whole heart. The teaching itself, the teaching that God is love because he is Holy Trinity, and that his love is not an abstract idea but a living concrete reality in the mystery of his Incarnation and his death on the Cross for our sakes, and that he calls us from his Holy Resurrection to take up our cross and follow him that we might become one with him in love – this teaching of the Church pierced the darkness of our life with an immaterial ray of divine light that spread like living waters throughout our soul, soaking it in joy and hope. These were the living waters of Christ’s Holy Spirit that he promises to those who would take up their cross and follow him in love. And it was in the light of that hope that we approached the baptismal font, not as the end of our salvation but as its beginning. The Church tells us in the Feast of Theophany that the better and changeless path that ascends to God is revealed in the waters of baptism, the waters of the Jordan, which means that the road to God begins, it does not end, in our baptism. This is one reason the Church teaches us to pray like the Publican. Our salvation is not completed. We are not yet righteous. We are but on the road to salvation; we are on our way to becoming righteous, but we are still sinners. Indeed, the Church in so many ways is always reminding us that we are the first of all sinners; and if we would pray from our heart the prayers of the Church, we would never pray in the mind of the Pharisee. What’s remarkable about this is that the Church is the body of Christ. This means, then, that Christ himself never prays like the Pharisee – and so neither do those who unite themselves to him in holy Baptism – which is to say that the climate in a Church where the members are praying like the Publican carries the sweet fragrance of Christ, because their prayers arise like incense.

So, in our baptism, we are illumined to behold with the eyes of our heart the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the ineffable mystery of the Word’s holy Incarnation. But I can testify from my own experience, and I believe you can, too, that we are illumined to behold something else.

I was baptized outside of the Orthodox Church. My baptism was consummated by the sacraments of confession and Holy Chrismation when I and my wife and at that time two children were received into the holy Orthodox Church 26 years ago. I was born and raised in a Christian home, but I can testify that I never really saw my sins until I embraced the Orthodox Christian Faith and was “illumined” in the sacraments of confession and Holy Chrismation.

I would go so far as to say that it is this keen consciousness of one’s own sin that is one of the distinguishing marks of true Christian piety – which is to say that the climate in a Church where the members are praying like the Publican is a climate of humility and compassion, of grace and truth. But there is more that I want to say on this point.

The Church’s doctrine calls us out of the world of darkness and into the light of God, and so it sets us apart from the world. But this doctrine that sets us apart from the world actually unites us to the world in our hearts. For the doctrine strips away the masks we all like to wear and reveals the sin that lies in our own heart beneath the mask that we, who call ourselves Orthodox Christians, like to wear. We do not love God as he commands. We do not love our neighbor as he commands. We, who call ourselves Orthodox Christians, are not the first of the righteous but the first of all sinners.

So then, we see three, even four things happening in a Church that prays like the Publican. First, we are illumined in the light of Christ to see our own sins, so that we look on our neighbor no longer in the arrogance of self-righteous judgment but in a spiritual kinship, seeing that none of us is righteous, we have all each and every one gone our own way. Second, we are illumined to see that God is faithful and just to cleanse us from our sins when we confess our sins; and in the joy that comes from tasting how good the Lord is toward us who are unworthy, the first of all sinners, our feeling of solidarity with the world gives birth in our hearts to a desire to offer ourselves to God in the love of Christ on behalf of all and for all. Third, we are illumined to behold the incomprehensible mystery that our prayers for the salvation of the world, offered to God on behalf of all and for all, are the very prayers that God the Son in his Holy Spirit is offering ceaselessly to the Father, in accordance with the will of the Father. How is it possible for the members of a Church praying like the Publican, who are illumined to see that they are the first of all sinners and who in that light see the depths of God’s love for the world, how is it possible for them to pray as did the Pharisee? And so, a fourth thing will happen in a Church that prays like the Publican. Her members may each one begin praying something like the prayer attributed, I believe, to St Bernard of Clairveaux: “More love, O Christ to Thee, more love to Thee.”

You should now be illumined to see also why it is that praying like the Publican does not lead to despair. When we confess our sins to God, we let go of them and we open the door of our heart to receive not the condemnation of his judgment, but the mercy of his judgment that cleanses us from our sin and illumines our darkness in the divine light of his uncreated grace that sows in our heart divine seeds of humility and love, which causes us to pray in the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving, of the Church: “I thank Thee, O Lord, that thou hast not rejected me a sinner but hast made me worthy to be a partaker of Thy holy things.”

In the Lenten fast we are about to undertake, we fast from food and drink so that we may learn to hunger and thirst after the righteousness of Christ. Through prayer and fasting, we separate ourselves from gluttony and lust that we may separate ourselves from self-righteous arrogance and unite ourselves to the humility and mercy of Christ, to become one with Christ who became flesh and ascended the Cross to become one with sinners, “of whom I am first”. The climate in a Church that prays like the Publican is a climate of humility and mercy, of grace and Truth, whose members are so united to Christ that they pray not only for themselves but on behalf of all and for all: “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.” May God teach us who are the first of sinners to pray like the Publican. Amen.