25 - Publican and Pharisee, Feb 24, 2013

II Timothy 3:10-15 (Sunday)

II Cor4:6-15 (Forerunner)

Luke 18:10-14 (Sunday)

Matthew 11:2-15 (Forerunner)

This Gospel of the Publican and Pharisee opens the Lenten Triodion. With this Gospel, we enter the sacred precincts of Great Lent. Almost immediately, the sacred presence that permeates the Church already is more palpably felt, and one can feel a sacred stillness settling on the soul. We are drawing near to a holy sanctuary that is shrouded with a spiritual presence and a sacred stillness.

Dearly beloved, that holy sanctuary is the tomb of Christ. The spiritual presence is the “Glory of God”. It is the same Glory that descended on the holy tabernacle of Israel in the wilderness, on the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation, on the Christ in the waters of the Jordan, and on the holy disciples at Pentecost.

As the Gospel of the first of the four Sundays that will bring us to the shores of Great Lent, I think this Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee is preparing us for that fourth Sunday when we “step off the boat” and “pass over” onto the shore of Great Lent with the sacred rite of forgiveness.

For it comes to me, as I examine my inner life against the lives of the saints and the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha that none of us even begins to understand the deep mystery of God’s forgiveness; and that, few if any of us can say – and if we do say it, we may be in danger of deluding ourselves – that we have found the forgiveness of God. And, I see this Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee, and indeed, all the Gospels of this pre-Lenten period, setting us on the path that would bring us to that “place” (that maqom) where we would find the forgiveness of God.

I don’t mean in what I’m saying that God has not forgiven us; I’m saying that we have not found the forgiveness He bestows on us - even though we give our obligatory annual confessions. It is well and good for us to believe that God has forgiven us, for indeed He has. We know this from the words of Christ on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But it is not well and good for us to believe that we have found that forgiveness simply because we have “confessed our sins” as the Church requires of us. For then, we remain “sick” in our sins and unhealed.

Of course, I need to explain this. This is very likely a startling “revelation”.

Beloved faithful, because of our sins we are spiritually dead. We find God’s forgiveness of our sins, then, in the tomb of our heart.

To find the forgiveness of God in the tomb of our heart means, of course, that we must get to the tomb of our heart. But, we can’t get to the tomb of our heart, we don’t even make the “turn” in the road that sets off for the tomb of our heart, if we are in the least bit like the Pharisee.

We must deny ourselves. We must decrease that Christ may increase. We must lose our life for the sake of Christ and His holy Gospel so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. We must take up our Cross to follow Him and to be united with Him in a death like His. We must lay aside every excuse, every rationalization, every self-justification, every bit of denial and stand before God and say in a broken and contrite heart, “I have sinned. Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

To come to confession and confess our sins is the beginning of the path that leads to the tomb of our heart. But not until that confession is accompanied by a laying aside of every excuse and by the tears of a sacred mourning does that confession begin to draw near to the tomb of our heart as to the tomb of Christ’s Holy Pascha. It is in that tomb that we find the forgiveness of God that He has poured out on all people from the love of His Holy Cross. And, only when we have truly died to ourselves in that tomb in the likeness of Christ’s death, does the forgiveness we find in that tomb raise up in us the fruit of repentance: it is the fruit of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

This is the Gospel of the Church that helps us to discern the lie that would have me believe that I am forgiven, I am justified, simply by doing the obligatory things of the Church. Because if that’s all I do, I’m like the Pharisee. If, like the Pharisee, I fast and pray and read Holy Scripture, if I have not come into the tomb of my heart and died to myself, I have not found the forgiveness of God that raises me up in the resurrection of His Christ. I am like a white-washed tomb; pretty, proper and prim, pious and religious on the outside, but dead on the inside, dead in my heart. I have not found the Resurrection of Christ because I have not yet died in Christ; and so, the reality of Christ’s Resurrection can be nothing more to me than a religious idea at best, not the reality that Christ says it is: a reality that is in the world but not of it.

In the prayer of the Publican, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!” the Church directs our eyes to the portals of Great Lent drawing near. If we would join our feet, our hearts, our souls and minds to those eyes, and sincerely follow the gentle guidance of the Church, she will by and by, like the pillar of cloud leading the Israelites through the wilderness, lead us to the tomb of our heart and into the forgiveness of our sins in the cleansing of our heart, and she will put in us a new and right Spirit, the Spirit of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Amen.