From the February 2023 edition of “The Light”
The Church starts the Lenten preparation by giving the faithful a gentle nudge starting with Zacchaeus Sunday, which precedes a period in the Church calendar called the Triodion, which is a progression of themes leading to Forgiveness Sunday and beyond. When we discuss Zacchaeus on a Sunday, the Church nudges us to say that Great and Holy Lent is around the corner. The Church Fathers, in their infinite wisdom as they assigned the Gospel readings to the Triodion, are alerting us to focus our minds, hearts, and even stomachs on Christ, as we will see.
The progression of themes is especially important, and is as follows:
The Sunday of Zacchaeus tells us how Zacchaeus, who was short of stature, had a burning desire to see Christ. And, as his example shows us, we should also have such a burning desire for Christ. Luke (18:10-14) tells us that Zacchaeus went to great lengths to see Jesus and repent of his sins of excessive tax collections and defrauding people. In doing so, the Church alerts us that Great and Holy Lent is around the corner.
Depending on when Pascha falls each year, the progression of themes may be interrupted for possibly more than a week to introduce a major feast day like the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, 40 days after His Nativity.
The progression of themes continues as the Triodion begins. The first Sunday of the Triodion is always the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. This Sunday introduces us to the humility of the Publican as he realizes his sinfulness and requests God’s mercy versus the arrogance of the Pharisee and the lack of realizing his dependence on God’s mercy.
The progression of themes here is that if we don’t have a burning desire for Christ like Zacchaeus, we can’t have humility like the Publican and beseech the Lord for His mercy. Rather, we would be arrogant like the Pharisee only to discover the fallacy we live.
The following Sunday’s Gospel reading presents the parable of the Prodigal Son, which reminds us of his repentance, after realizing his sinfulness and wasting his father’s wealth. The reader is encouraged to read Luke (15:11-32) for more details about this subject.
The progression of themes continues: if we don’t have a burning desire for Christ (like Zacchaeus), we can’t have humility (like the Publican). If we don’t have humility, we can never be repentant (like the Prodigal Son).
The next Sunday’s Gospel reading is about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) and how Christ, at His second coming, will have the sheep at His right-hand (i.e. those who did good deeds by feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the imprisoned, etc.) and the
goats at His left-hand (i.e. those who didn’t do good deeds). Jesus sent those who did good deeds to Heaven (as He told them, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”) and those who didn’t to Hell (as He told them, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”). Imagine what would happen to those who did evil deeds!
Notice that both groups on the right- and left-hand sides were ignorant of what they did! The ones on the right-hand side had “holy ignorance” as the Church Fathers say, since they did good deeds without expecting anything in return. The ones who were on the left-hand side were ignorant of the fact that they did not help others.
The Church Fathers have assigned another theme to The Sunday of the Last Judgment. It is Meatfare Sunday as well, which means it is the last day we eat meat until Holy Pascha (fish is allowed on the feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday). Thus, the Church is focusing, gradually, even our stomachs on Christ.
The progression of themes continues: if we don’t have a burning desire for Christ (like Zacchaeus), we can’t have humility (like the Publican). If we don’t have humility, we can never be repentant (like the Prodigal Son). If we can’t repent, then our judgment (on the Last Judgment Day as presented by the Last Judgment Gospel reading) will be harsh!
The next Sunday, the last Sunday of the Triodion, is Forgiveness Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21). The Church is letting us know that if we don’t forgive each other, God will not forgive us and our Great and Holy Lent effort, no matter how diligent, is in vain!
In addition, the Church Fathers have assigned two more themes to Forgiveness Sunday. It is Cheesefare Sunday as well, which means it is the last day we eat dairy products until Holy Pascha. Thus, the Church is further focusing our stomachs on Christ.
The third theme on the last Sunday of the Triodion, Forgiveness Sunday, is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and, by extension, we are expelled from Paradise as a consequence of the Original Sin (although we aren’t guilty of the Original Sin). However, the Church doesn’t keep us hanging for long! On Great and Holy Friday, as we pass under the Bier reentering the nave, we symbolically enter Paradise, having labored throughout Great Lent in fasting and intensified prayers during the extra services and our personal prayers.
The progression of themes before Holy and Great Lent is this: if we don’t have a burning desire for Christ (like Zacchaeus), we can’t have humility (like the Publican). If we don’t have humility, we can never be repentant (like the Prodigal Son). If we can’t repent, then our
judgment (on the Last Judgment Day as presented by the Last Judgment Gospel reading) will be harsh. Furthermore, if we don’t forgive each other, then our fasting and prayers during Great and Holy Lent will be in vain and God will not forgive our sins.
Furthermore, every Sunday of Great and Holy Lent has at least two themes. I invite you to discover them as you journey to Holy Pascha. This is our second preparation period as we march to the Empty Tomb on Holy Pascha.
Our third and final preparation period (the first one being the Triodion and the second being Great and Holy Lent) is Holy Week. Every day of Holy Week has at least one theme that is intended to prepare us further for Holy Pascha. I invite to discover those themes as well on our Lenten journey.
I pray that you continue to have a spiritually edifying Triodion, Great and Holy Lent, Holy Week, and a glorious Holy Pascha! God bless you all!
May God bless you and may the Holy Trinity protect you all.