The church calendar tends to emphasize the feast days. We may move over them as our fingers might count the knots of a prayer rope. But the “knots” of the calendar are linked by preparatory seasons, times of repentance designed to focus our spiritual eyes on the “Founder of the feast.”
We have considered several of these seasons over the last two years. The Nativity Fast (sometimes called Small Lent) prepares for the Feast of the Nativity, and we have also briefly considered Ash Wednesday and Great Lent, the forty days before Easter. What follows briefly unpacks the Pre-Lenten Sundays, an on-ramp to Lent now mainly celebrated in Orthodox churches.
01. The Pre-Lenten Sundays: Parables of Repentance
Both eastern and western Christian traditions observe Lent, the period of repentance (including some kind of fasting) before Easter.The Easter season’s dates rarely sync between eastern and western calendars. In addition to celebrating Easter on different dates, the hemispheres of the church begin Lent on different days of the week. Western churches begin on Ash Wednesday; the Eastern church begins on Clean Monday. (Again, see Beauty for Ashes for more on this topic.) The eastern church also observes a Pre-Lenten season of 4 Sundays, and some communions add a fifth (Zacchaeus Sunday, see below). The dates in the sections below assume the Orthodox date for Easter (April 16 in 2023).
Since Lent is itself prepares us for Easter, it might seem strange to prepare for the preparation. But this observance provides a much-needed orientation for what lies ahead. “Knowing our lack of concentration,” writes Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “the ‘worldliness’ of our life, the Church calls our attention to the seriousness of the approaching event, invites us to meditate on its significance. Thus, before we can practice Lent, we are given its meaning.”Great Lent. Accessed online at Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/36415/36415-h/36415-h.htm
The four (or 5) Pre-Lenten Sundays, then, serve two purposes.
- They refocus our attention on God. Life in the modern economy runs on attention—it is an attentional economy, one where business and organizations compete for the limited attention of consumers. Because our lives distract us constantly from God and from our own need for him, we need help to refocus. The Sundays of Pre-Lent help to recapture our attention for the spiritual challenge of Lent and the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ at its end.
- They allow us to see the desired result of repentance. Repentance changes us so much so that we seem re-created by God, his worn and marred image recast in us by his mercy, incarnate in Jesus (1 Cor. 5:17). Our vision, blurred by the world, needs remaking, too, so we can see the possibility of the forgiven life. The Sundays of Pre-Lent use stories to highlight the lines that give our repentance shape—humility, return, the certainty of judgment, and finally, forgiveness.
02. Prologue to Pre-Lent: Zacchaeus Sunday
Eleventh Sunday before Easter (January 29)
Most churches begin the Pre-Lenten season with the fourth Sunday before Lent, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. But some churches begin their Lenten preparation with Zacchaeus Sunday, the fifth Sunday before Lent. (Other churches observe the Sunday of the Canaanite on this day.) Luke 19 recounts the familiar story of Zacchaeus, a rich and powerful tax collector who wants to see the famous Jesus. Because he is “a wee little man,” he climbs a tree to get above the crowd.
What Zacchaeus envisioned as a mere glimpse of Jesus becomes first an encounter, and then an engagement, with Jesus the person. From his elevated position, Zacchaeus does see Jesus. He gets more than he expected, however, because Jesus also sees him.
“Hurry and come down,” Jesus says, “for I must stay at your house today” (v. 5). Luke writes that he “hurried and came down and received [Jesus] joyfully” (v. 6).
Zacchaeus receives Jesus with joy, and his repentance and restoration take shape in costly ways, both financial and social. If we are tempted to be cynical about Zacchaeus, to assume he says what he does for show, Jesus disabuses the reader of any cynicism: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (v. 9).
Zacchaeus responds as we should to God’s Lenten invitation. Jesus invites us to the Easter feast, but we are invited to spend time with him first. And just as his encounter with Jesus transforms Zacchaeus, so do we hope for change and renewal.
03. The Lenten Triodion: The Sundays of Pre-Lent
The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee
Tenth Sunday before Easter (February 5)
The Lenten Triodion begins with Jesus’ parable of the publican (or tax collector) and the Pharisee from Luke 18. In the story, two men enter the Temple to pray under identical circumstances: they are both sinners in God’s eyes. The Pharisee’s prayer, though, betrays a fundamental pride. His focus is on his outward efforts to please God: regular fasting and giving. He is grateful—but for his superiority to nearly everyone, including “this tax collector” (v. 11).
The tax collector cannot even bring himself to look up. He knows his heart, his inward sinfulness, and pleads for God’s mercy. His words are very close to the words of the Jesus Prayer, used by Orthodox Christians to pray “without ceasing.”
When Jesus explains the story, he puts the publican’s humility in a central place for repentance and justification. This humility is not self-hatred but clear vision. As Francis Fénelon wrote, “Humility is nothing else but truth.” We come to see ourselves (and God) in the purest, truest light when we allow God to give us humility.
These lines from the hymn for the day can serve as a prayer and a guide for humility: “Let us flee from the boasting of the Pharisee and learn through our own sighs of sorrow the humility of the Publican. Let us cry out to the Savior, ‘Have mercy on us, for through You alone are we reconciled.’” The door to Lent is low, and we must bow humbly to enter.
04. The Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Ninth Sunday before Pascha/Easter (February 12)
After recognizing our great need for God in humility comes our need to return to him. Repentance is return, in essence, as the Greek is metanoia, a reversal or changing of mental direction. This reversal is hinted at in the publican’s story, in his plea for God’s mercy.
But the Prodigal’s story builds on humility to illustrates our need to return to God. Imagine the story as both stretching before a marathon, which prepares us for the exertion, and as the kind of visualization of the goal that inspires us to push through hardship. One reading for the day captures this perfectly:: “Seeing in the person of the Prodigal Son our own wretched condition—inasmuch as we are sunken in sin, far from God and His Mysteries—we might at last come to our senses and make haste to return to Him by repentance during these holy days of the Fast.”
Again, the story is straightforward and familiar. The prodigal demands his inheritance to live and spend his life as he chooses, and he leaves for a far country. There he finds not the liberty he wanted but tremendous loss, until he becomes so hungry he is willing to eat the pigs’ food. Only then, does he remember his former life, where even the servants had “more than enough bread.”
His plan to return doesn’t include presumption on his relationship to his father, which would betray pride. He will do anything to remain with his father, including becoming a servant in the house where he was a son. Instead, he is welcomed home, completely restored, and his father rejoices in the homecoming as if it were a resurrection.
We share the Prodigal’s hope: having recognized our great need, to return in hope from our self-imposed exile, and to be received by our Father with joy. Again, the hymn orients us for the coming season of repentance:
“O Father, foolishly I ran away from Your glory, and in sin, squandered the riches You gave me. Wherefore, I cry out to You with the voice of the Prodigal, ‘I have sinned before You Compassionate Father. Receive me in repentance and take me as one of Your hired servants.’”
05. Judgment Sunday (Meatfare)
Eighth Sunday before Pascha/Easter (February 19)
The last two Pre-Lenten Sundays bookend the final week before Lent, which will begin on Clean Monday (rather than the Wednesday observed in the West). Both Sundays are better known by names related to the great fast, but their stories again aim to capture our imagination for repentance.
Meatfare Sunday focuses practically on beginning the fast. After this day, Christians remove meat from their daily diet until Easter, beginning slowly the longest and strictest period of fasting in the church year.
Spiritually, the day has two focuses, evidenced in the epistle and Gospel readings.
- To position us for fasting. In 1 Cor 8:8 – 9:2, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” The connection may seem obvious: We’re about to start fasting, and we shouldn’t take pride in that spiritual discipline.But in this case, food also provides a way to consider how the community’s members treat one another. Some in Corinth experienced significant freedom where food sacrificed to idols was concerned. Others were wounded by this freedom. Paul’s point is that one person’s freedom may enslave another, and we cannot simply write off our weaker brothers and sisters.
- To remind us how repentance prepares us for judgment. The Gospel reading relates Jesus’ metaphor of the last judgment as separating sheep from goats in Matthew 25. There, God’s judgment depends on love that is practiced—or not practiced—as the fruit of repentance.Love, Jesus says, will identify his followers (Jn. 13:35). In Matthew 25, he makes plain that love must be more than mere emotion. It must take form in his disciples toward potentially surprising groups. His categories—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner—comprise those who live on society’s margins.These have-nots, these ne’er-do-wells, are too often ignored or actively disdained and dismissed by the more “productive” members of a society. Jesus identifies with these marginal people—“As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (verse 40). Loving them is loving him, and this active love prepares one for final judgment.
An essential word of caution is warranted here. Our ultimate salvation does not depend on piling up enough or the right works. The Scriptures are plain: our redemption is based only on God’s mercy (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus’ story here, along with the rest of the New Testament, illustrates how crucial love is as a response to redemption. It is the only expected and acceptable response to God’s forgiveness and mercy. As Jesus says elsewhere, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk. 7:47).
06. Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare)
Seventh Sunday before Pascha/Easter (February 26)
On the final Sunday of Pre-Lent, the strictest phase of the Lenten fast begins in earnest with the elimination of dairy, eggs, wine, and oil. (Wine and oil are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays, and on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25.)
The day’s liturgy focuses not merely on fasting but on forgiveness. Yes, the Gospel reading includes Jesus’ words about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, with specific instructions that should guide us any time we fast. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites,” Jesus says. Instead, keep your fasting between you and God. “Anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others.”
As noted above, pride presents a significant spiritual danger to those who fast. The Epistle reading (Rom. 13:11 – 14:4) again mentions how those who eat food sacrificed to idols view and treat those who abstain. All laws depend on the law of love, because “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
But this law of love also impels forgiveness, which takes stunning shape after this Sunday’s Vespers liturgy in a practice described in a previous essay in this series:
Following the liturgy, the entire congregation lines the church and then moves toward one another in a rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. Each encounter is an exchange of mercy where the words “Forgive me, I am a sinner” are answered by “God forgives.” The rite involves more than words, however. The person asking for forgiveness bows in humility, and she receives a kiss of reconciliation in return….
Practicing forgiveness in this way recognizes the effects of the Fall and the brokenness of our condition, but also the real promise of reconciliation promised in the gospel. Participants essentially say to one another, “I recognize you, because in you I see myself. And God has reconciled us both to one another and to himself.”
The next day, Clean Monday, Lent begins with not only a cleaner diet, but also with a clean slate among those in the community.
07. The Promise of Lent
A “lifestyle of repentance” is our best weapon to fight sin, and the Pre-Lenten liturgies are a training ground for living this lifestyle. We may be tempted to follow in the Pharisee’s footsteps, criticizing those whom we consider less spiritual. We may trust in our own holiness, not recognizing our need to return as the Prodigal does. We may ignore the needs of others, all while we profess our love for God. God calls us to lay those temptations aside.
We are reminded above all that this preparation for and participation in Great Lent, while difficult, is not the harsh discipline of a sky-bound tyrant, grudgingly followed by lowly slaves. Instead, we can hear the Father’s gracious words to his children in Jesus Christ, forgiving their weakness, welcoming them home, and calling them toward eternal life with him.
08. Practices to Consider
- Fasting isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’d like to consider this discipline during Lent, assuming your physical condition allows it, consider abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and Holy Week. (Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis calls this “level one” of nine levels of growth in fasting practice; see The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.)
- Spend each week of Pre-Lent reading the Gospel readings daily—the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the Sheep and Goats, and Jesus’ teaching on fasting. Pray that God would allow you to see yourself clearly (humility), desire your place with him (return), love the least of these, and practice radical forgiveness.
- Consider using a short daily prayer to practice a posture of repentance during Pre-Lent and Great Lent itself. One option is the Jesus Prayer; one variation is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Another option is the prayer of St. Ephrem: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.” Let the prayers serve to refocus your attention when distracted.