By Fr. Alexander Schmemann
If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility.
The...Sunday [after Zaccheus Sunday] is called the "Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee." On the eve of this day, on Saturday at Vespers, the liturgical book of the Lenten season-- the Triodion-- makes its first appearance and texts from it are added to the usual hymns and prayers of the weekly resurrection service. The develop the next major aspect of repentance: humility.
The Gospel lesson (Lk. 18:10-4) pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is self-assured and proud of himself. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he contributes to the temple. As for the Publican, he humbles himself and his humility justifies him before God. If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the one who all the time "gives credit" for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility-- be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national-- is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. Even our churches-- are they not imbued with that same spirit as the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution, every "good deed," all that we do "for the Church" to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?
The Lenten season begins then by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of the right vision. It is, therefore, rooted in humility, and humility-- the divine and beautiful humility-- is its fruit and end. "Let us avoid the high-flown speech of the Pharisee," says the Kontakion of this day, "and learn the majesty of the Publican's humble words..." We are at the gates of repentance and at the most solemn moment of the Sunday vigil; After the Resurrection and the appearance of Christ have been announced-- "having beheld the Resurrection...."-- we sing for the first time the troparia which will accompany us throughout the entire Lent:
Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple.
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.
Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgement.
But trusting in Thy living kindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
Excerpted from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann, from Chapter 2: "Preparation for Lent"