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Pre-Lent

The paschal sea­son of the Church is pre­ced­ed by the sea­son of Great Lent, which is itself pre­ced­ed by its own litur­gi­cal prepa­ra­tion. The first sign of the approach of Great Lent comes five Sun­days before its begin­ning. On this Sun­day the Gospel read­ing is about Zac­cha­eus the tax-col­lec­tor. It tells how Christ brought sal­va­tion to the sin­ful man and how his life was great­ly changed sim­ply because he “sought to see who Jesus was” (Lk 19:3). The desire and effort to see Jesus begins the entire move­ment through lent towards East­er. It is the first move­ment of sal­va­tion.

The fol­low­ing Sun­day is that of the Pub­li­can and the Phar­isee. The focus here is on the two men who went to the Tem­ple to pray—one a phar­isee who was a very decent and right­eous man of reli­gion, the oth­er a pub­li­can who was a tru­ly sin­ful tax-col­lec­tor who was cheat­ing the peo­ple. The first, although gen­uine­ly right­eous, boast­ed before God and was con­demned, accord­ing to Christ. The sec­ond, although gen­uine­ly sin­ful, begged for mer­cy, received it, and was jus­ti­fied by God (Lk 18:9). The med­i­ta­tion here is that we have nei­ther the reli­gious piety of the phar­isee nor the repen­tance of the pub­li­can by which alone we can be saved. We are called to see our­selves as we real­ly are in the light of Christ’s teach­ing, and to beg for mer­cy.

The next Sun­day in the prepa­ra­tion for Great Lent is the Sun­day of the Prodi­gal Son. Hear­ing the para­ble of Christ about God’s lov­ing for­give­ness, we are called to come to our­selves” as did the prodi­gal son, to see our­selves as being “in a far coun­try” far from the Father’s house, and to make the move­ment of return to God. We are giv­en every assur­ance by the Mas­ter that the Father will receive us with joy and glad­ness. We must only “arise and go,” con­fess­ing our self­in­flict­ed and sin­ful sep­a­ra­tion from that “home” where we tru­ly belong (Lk 15:11–24).

The next Sun­day is called Meat­fare Sun­day since it is offi­cial­ly the last day before East­er for eat­ing meat. It com­mem­o­rates Christ’s para­ble of the Last Judg­ment (Mt 25:31–46). We are remind­ed this day that it is not enough for us to see Jesus, to see our­selves as we are, and to come home to God as his prodi­gal sons. We must also be his sons by fol­low­ing Christ, his only-begot­ten divine Son, and by see­ing Christ in every man and by serv­ing Christ through them. Our sal­va­tion and final judg­ment will depend upon our deeds, not mere­ly on our inten­tions or even on the mer­cies of God devoid of our own per­son­al coop­er­a­tion and obe­di­ence.

… for I was hun­gry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and in prison and you vis­it­ed me. For tru­ly I say to you, if you did it to one of the least of these my broth­ers, you did it to me (Mt 25).

We are saved not mere­ly by prayer and fast­ing, not by “reli­gious exer­cis­es” alone. We are saved by serv­ing Christ through his peo­ple, the goal toward which all piety and prayer is ulti­mate­ly direct­ed.

Final­ly, on the eve of Great Lent, the day called Cheese­fare Sun­day and For­give­ness Sun­day, we sing of Adam’s exile from par­adise. We iden­ti­fy our­selves with Adam, lament­ing our loss of the beau­ty, dig­ni­ty and delight of our orig­i­nal cre­ation, mourn­ing our cor­rup­tion in sin. We also hear on this day the Lord’s teach­ing about fast­ing and for­give­ness, and we enter the sea­son of the fast for­giv­ing one anoth­er so that God will for­give us.

 

If you for­give men their tres­pass­es, your heav­en­ly Father will for­give you; but if you do not for­give men their tres­pass­es, nei­ther will your heav­en­ly Father for­give you your tres­pass­es (Mt 6:14–18).