Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 13, 2022
2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today I want to tell you about something amazing that was sung at Matins today for the first time this year. At every Sunday Matins (and on feast days, too) there are three hymns sung after the Gospel reading, just after Psalm 50 is read. On almost every Sunday throughout the year they are the same, but today they change.
And we sing these new hymns every Sunday from today up through the Fifth Sunday of Lent. So they will be sung nine times, and then they go away for another year.
So today we’re going to take a few minutes to look at these hymns and ask what they mean and how they work in terms of our journey to Pascha. Here is the first of these three hymns:
Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-giver; for my soul goeth early to the temple of Thy holiness, coming in the temple of my body, wholly polluted. But because Thou art compassionate, purify me by the compassion of Thy mercies.
This hymn directly addresses God, calling Him “Life-giver” and saying, “Open to me the doors of repentance.” Today we ask God to open these doors as we proceed not just toward Great Lent in three weeks but, as we sing, “to the temple of Thy holiness.” So the basic theme is set up here of entering into repentance because the soul is going to the temple of God.
Why do we need to enter into repentance in order to go into God’s temple? The hymn says it is because we come “in the temple of [our] body, wholly polluted.” In other words, we have a problem—we want to enter into God’s temple, but we are polluted.
And so we ask for God’s compassion here, saying, “Purify me by the compassion of Thy mercies.”
So the basic narrative is set up: We want to approach the temple of God, but we are polluted, so we ask God to open the doors of repentance to us, purifying us with His compassion. The next hymn takes us a bit deeper.
In the next hymn, we enlist the aid of the Virgin Mary the Theotokos:
Prepare for me the way of salvation, O Theotokos; for I have profaned myself with coarse sins, and consumed my whole life with procrastination. But by thine intercessions purify thou me from all abomination.
Here we admit that the profanation that we experience is because of our sins. The English word profane is very apt here, because historically the word profane means something “outside the temple.” So if something is profane, it cannot be inside the temple. It belongs outside. And it also prevents entrance into the temple, because it is profane.
Worse still, we admit here in this hymn that instead of doing something about this profanation, we consume our lives with procrastination. We put it off. But now, we ask for the Virgin Mary the Theotokos to prepare the way of salvation, asking her to purify us through her intercessions from all these abominations that keep us outside the temple.
Finally, we sing this third hymn:
If I think upon the multitude of my evil deeds, wretch that I am, I tremble for the terrible Day of Judgment. But, trusting the compassion of Thy mercy, I shout to Thee like David, Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
Here, realizing the depths of our sins, the “multitude of [our] evil deeds,” we tremble, because the Day of Judgment is coming. And because we realize the seriousness of our situation, we cry out to God as David did—a reference to Psalm 50—“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.”
So having heard these three hymns, let’s unpack what’s going on here. Most importantly, we need to understand a theme that appears throughout Holy Scripture—the theme of uncleanness. From the Bible, we know that someone can become unclean through his sins. But we also see that places and objects can become polluted because of sins.
The response that God gives to this pollution is purification. This is what is meant by atonement in the Bible, by the way—it is to purify, to cover over, to purge away what is impure and polluted, whatever is profane and inappropriate for the place where God is worshiped.
This purification is not something that happened only in the Old Testament with its complex system of purifications and sacrifices. It happens in the New Testament, as well, with baptism, with the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus, with Peter being told by God that all animals had been made clean by God—and most of all, with the death of Jesus, which purifies the whole world through His sacrifice on the Cross.
We can understand the idea that people and things need to be cleaned up before they are brought into the temple, into the church. But why? Why is it so urgent? Why not just ask to enter into the Great Feast of Pascha, into the Kingdom of God, without having to go through this purification? Why won’t God just open the door and say, “Come on in” to everyone?
It is because of something else we see in the Scriptures, which we might call “death by holiness.” You see, to approach God in a sinful state is actually dangerous. It results in harm. It can result even in sickness or death. St. Paul warns, for instance, that those who receive the Eucharist in an unworthy manner can get sick or even die.
But this is a theme set up from the very beginning. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise not because Paradise needed to be protected from them, but because they needed to be protected from Paradise. It became dangerous for them because of their transgression against God.
When the earth was filled with the wickedness of the giants in the presence of the Lord, the Flood came and wiped out all living things except those on the ark with Noah.
In Leviticus, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were struck down by God because they approached the altar and offered incense while in a drunken and careless state, offering up “strange fire” before the Lord that was not the fire appointed.
In Acts, Ananias and Sapphira are struck down dead by God when they lie to to St. Peter, which he says was a lie to the Holy Spirit. So they approached one of God’s own apostles with lies in their hearts.
So here we are, entering on the path toward Pascha, toward eating the sacrifice of the holy altar on the holiest day of the year. And we pause. We take stock. We see ourselves for who we really are.
And we begin to repent. We begin to come back to God and to be faithful, to be loyal, to be persistent in our worship, our fasting, our chastity, our almsgiving—and why? It is because this is how we are purified.
We are being purified so that we can come to the temple and commune with our savior Jesus Christ, to be with Him at the table and receive not destruction because of what happens when holiness comes into contact with sin, but rather the great elevation and perfection of humanity that comes when we are prepared to be with Him.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.