While most of the nation is sitting around the television this Sunday enjoying Super Bowl parties, the Orthodox Church is beginning a special season of preparation. The season is called the Triodion (a reference to a change in the liturgical prayers that begin with this Sunday). It is a time to begin thinking about strategies for observing the disciplines of Great Lent.
This Sunday begins directing our thoughts toward the need for repentance. A hymn is introduced in Morning Prayer:
"Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Your holy Temple, bearing a temple of my body all defiled. But in Your compassion cleanse it by Your loving-kindness and Your mercy.
"Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Mother of God: for I have befouled my soul with shameful sins and have wasted all my life in slothfulness. By your intercessions deliver me from all uncleanness.
"As I ponder in my wretchedness the many evil things that I have done, I tremble for the fearful day of judgment. But trusting in Your merciful compassion, like David I cry to You: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your great mercy."
The church presents us with our sinful habits, not to produce guilt, but to move us to repentance. The Orthodox do not look on repentance as something legal, but in terms of health. Just as our bodies become sick when they are out of sorts, so also our souls become sick when they are out of sorts with their final goal, life in union with God. Repentance is putting ourselves back on our path; it is a reevaluation and reordering of our priorities; it is redirecting our lives toward true and unending life.
In order to show us the tools we need to navigate the path of Great Lent, the church gives us four special Gospel readings. The first Sunday presents us with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). We learn that true repentance does not consist in external practices, but in the secret transformation of the heart. The second Sunday shows us the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). We are reminded that no matter how far we have strayed from the Father, He waits patiently for our return and for the opportunity of restoring us to our status as sons and daughters.