Why we don't fast during the week of the Publican and Pharisee
by Hieromonk Job (Gumerov)
The parable of the publican and the Pharisee gives an image of the spiritual truth that God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (Js. 4:6). The Pharisees were representatives of the social-religious trend in Judea during the second century B.C. Their distinguishing characteristic was an intense zeal for observing the Law of Moses. Religious life requires that a person be attentive to himself, that he have moral sensitivity, humility, and pure intentions. If he doesn’t have these, a hardness of heart gradually creeps in on him. Then a pseudo-spirituality inevitably comes. The result is spiritual death. If instead of humility there is self-opinion and pride, instead of sacrificial love there is spiritual egoism, then it is not hard for the devil to take over such a person and make him an accomplice in his evil deeds. People who are unbelieving or spiritually inattentive do not even know or guess how often they do just what the enemy of our salvation wants them to do.
Phariseeism is not a vocation or a membership in some kind of religious organization. Phariseeism is a state of the soul. It begins with self-opinion and self-aggrandizement. Just as soon as a person’s attention to himself and strictness with himself relaxes, the first shoots of a dangerous plant appear, the fruits of which can kill the soul. Death comes as a result of poisoning with the poison of pride.
The main moral characteristic of a Pharisee is self-love and egoism, which directs all the movements of his soul. We rarely think about how much egoism and therefore, phariseeism we have in ourselves. Our insensitivity to our surroundings, our constant coldness, the lack of a constant readiness to sacrifice our time, energy, and convenience for the sake of others shows how far we are from the repentant publican, who with a contrite heart pronounced only five words, but departed justified.
By cancelling the Wednesday and Friday fast during the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, the holy Church desires to keep us from pharisaical self-complacency, when the formal observation of Church rules (fasting, prayer rule, and church attendance) becomes the goal of spiritual life. The holy fathers teach that all this must be fulfilled, but it must be seen as a means for acquiring spiritual fruits.
The Pharisees considered themselves to be wise and knowing. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace (Js. 3:17-18).
RETURN FROM EXILE - The Sunday of the Prodigal Son
On the third Sunday of preparation for Lent, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son (LK. 15:11-32). Together with the hymns on this day, the parable reveals to us the time of repentance as man's return from exile. The prodigal son, we are told, went to a far country and there spent all that he had. A far country! It is this unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God. A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly "at home" in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.
Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and "objective" enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of "pleading guilty" to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked-- without which neither confession nor absolution have any real meaning or power. This "something" is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home....
One liturgical peculiarity of this "Sunday of the Prodigal Son" must be especially mentioned here. At Sunday Matins, following the solemn and joyful Psalms of the Polyeleion, we sing the sad and nostalgic Psalm 137:
'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion... How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy...'
It is the Psalm of exile. It was sung by the Jews in their Babylonian captivity as they thought of their holy city of Jerusalem. It has become forever the song of man as he realizes his exile form God, and realizing it, becomes man again: the one who can never be fully satisfied by anything in this fallen world, for by nature and vocation he is a pilgrim of the Absolute. This Psalm will be sung twice more: on the last two Sundays before Lent. It reveals Lent itself as pilgrimage and repentance-- as return.
For teaching on the approach to the Sunday of the Last Judgement and Cheesefare Week, you are invited to coffee with Sr. Vassa:
Sr. Vassa and Fr. Thomas Hopko teach us about this: