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.
The third Sunday presents the awesome vision of the Last Judgment. We hear the great parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) and learn that "our good account before the judgment seat of Christ" consists primarily in helping the least of our brothers and sisters. Finally, the fourth Sunday, the day before the beginning of Great Lent, we celebrate Forgiveness Sunday and hear that our own forgiveness depends on our forgiving others (Matthew 6:14-21). Forgiveness then becomes the necessary attitude for the good beginning of Lent.
Any good journey requires a lot of preparation. The period of the Triodion in the Orthodox Church provides a time and a message for the faithful to make the necessary spiritual preparations for the journey of Great Lent to reach the goal of celebrating the great feast of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
• • •
The Rev. Dr. Constantine Newman is pastor of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Newburyport.