Just as people go to church for different reasons today, people surely had a variety of motives for going to the temple in Jerusalem during the first century. Our gospel reading tells us that the Pharisee went in order to remind God and himself of how much better he was than anyone else, especially the miserable tax collector who stood off to the side humbly begging for God’s mercy for his many sins. Presumably, upstanding religious leaders like the Pharisees would be more likely to pray in the temple than would professional thieves and traitors like the tax collectors of that day, but Christ saw these men differently. It was the lowly publican who asked only for mercy as a sinner whose prayer was heard, while the self-righteous Pharisee went home unjustified
On the feast of the Presentation of Christ, we also remember that the Theotokos and St. Joseph went to the temple, bringing the infant Jesus Christ, forty days after His birth, in accordance with the requirements of the Mosaic law. They made there the offering of a poor family, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. The One brought into the temple that day fulfilled all the foreshadowing of the Old Testament’s priestly and sacrificial imagery, for He is the Great High Priest Who offers Himself, Who becomes the Passover Lamb through Whom we may enter into the Heavenly Temple, the very life of God. His offering and priesthood are eternal, as He now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. In every Divine Liturgy, we participate in the true worship of heaven through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are able to do so precisely because Christ fulfilled all the promises, hopes, and expectations of the Old Testament. His young Mother, the New Eve, and the elder Joseph brought the New Adam into the house of the Lord, where the Holy Spirit inspired the old man St. Simeon to proclaim that this Child is the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.” The aged prophetess St. Anna recognized Him likewise.
The presence of these elderly Jews reminds us that Christ fulfills the ancient promise made to Abraham. Having grown up in the temple after being presented there as a young child herself, the Theotokos stands as the culmination of many generations of faithful preparation for this Messiah. Men and women and the young and the old appear in this scene. And in this very Jewish context, Simeon even mentions the Gentiles. This feast reveals that the One presented in the temple forty days after Christmas is the eternal High Priest Who comes to save the entire world, to fulfill the entire creation in the Heavenly Temple.
Unfortunately, some like the Pharisee totally misunderstood this glorious Old Testament heritage fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As we begin the Lenten Triodion today, we recall that the Pharisee thought that the temple was a place primarily for the self-righteous condemnation of others. He used the word “God,” but really prayed to himself, being thankful that he was so much better than others, especially the tax collector. He reminded himself of all the kinds of people whom he thought he surpassed and of the virtues of his fasting and tithing. His spiritual practices surely did him more harm than good.
As we begin the Lenten Triodion today, the three weeks of preparation for Great Lent, we all need to come to terms with the question of what we focus on when we come to church, whether for Sunday Liturgy or other services, and when we undertake any spiritual discipline. It is entirely possible, of course, to put ourselves physically in the church temple with an unholy attitude. If coming to services is simply a matter of doing what is required or expected, then we can fall easily into the self-righteous attitude of evaluating other people’s behavior. Perhaps like members of clubs take attendance or record who has paid their dues, we can take it upon ourselves to evaluate others, whether they are members of our parish or not. We can try to justify our own failings because at least we are not as bad as this or that other person. If we have an attitude like that, however, we will damage our souls and lose all the benefit of being in the house of God.
As the tax collector’s good example shows us, the only person’s sins we should be concerned with are our own. Regardless of what we may be tempted to think about others, when we stand before the Lord we do so as those in need of mercy. The only way to put ourselves in the place to receive that mercy is to embrace the humility of the tax collector and to refuse to fall into the judgmental pride of the Pharisee. There will be a lot in Lent that someone could be prideful about it. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, forgiveness, repentance, and church attendance are all blessed spiritual disciplines, but we can corrupt them by having a self-righteous attitude of praising ourselves and condemning others. Whenever we do that, however, we join the Pharisee in an idolatrous temple of self-worship. But when we take on these practices with true humility, we follow the much better example of the tax collector.
Fortunately, true spiritual disciplines can easily open our eyes to our true spiritual state. For example, we often find it so hard to pray and to keep our minds and hearts focused during services or in our daily prayers at home. Forgiveness, fasting, and generosity to the poor are great challenges to most people. In contrast to our self-indulgent culture, the Church follows our Lord in setting a high standard before which we all fall short. And whenever we allow into our hearts the false belief that we have met Christ’s requirements while others have not, we fall really short. Honest acknowledgement of our spiritual weakness, and of how we so easily corrupt even the best disciplines, should lead us immediately to the humble prayer of the tax collector who begged for the mercy of God and was concerned only with his own sins.
By cultivating that kind of humility during the struggles of Great Lent, we will enter into worship properly and in a way that is pleasing to our Great High Priest, Whose salvation is not a reward for mastering a law or convincing ourselves that we are better than our neighbors. The Jerusalem temple was a building with merely human priests who offered the blood of animals. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has ascended to the Heavenly Temple in which He intercedes eternally for us with the Father. We participate in that heavenly worship in every Divine Liturgy. The proper attitudes in services, and for all Lenten disciplines, are humility and repentance before the awesome divine glory in which we participate through the grace and mercy of our Great High Priest. If we approach Lent with the spirit of the tax collector, then we will enter more fully into the joy that Christ has brought to the world in fulfillment of the ancient promises as “a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.” May it be so for us all.