The week of Zacchaeus:  Embracing pre-lent by being pro-lent!

In the liturgical life of the Church, yesterday—Sunday, February 2, 2014—was called “The Sunday of Zacchaeus,” based on the narrative found in Luke 19:1-10.  This is the first “signal” or “echo” that the season of Great Lent is approaching – four weeks away from today to be exact.  (Great Lent always begins on a Monday in the Orthodox Church.)  This is unfailingly certain each year.  The date for this Sunday will, of course, change on an annual basis, because the date is ultimately determined by the date of Pascha, an unfixed date itself determined by the Church’s Paschalion.  But the Sunday of Zacchaeus will always be placed in this position in relationship to the beginning of Great Lent, which begins this year on March 3.  There thus exists a pre-lenten preparation in the Church that we will shortly begin with the use of The Lenten Triodion beginning next Sunday.

Why is this so?  In his now-classic book Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann provides the following insight:  “Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature.  Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening ‘worldliness’ of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another.  Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance.  Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning.  This preparation includes five consecutive Sundays preceding Lent.

In other words, if one is to find meaning in this period of pre-lent, one must be pro-lent!  We need to look forward to Great Lent, not as a burden to be endured; but as a season of renewal to be embraced – eagerly and decisively. Perhaps, then, we can extend the designation of the “Sunday of Zacchaeus” and now say that we are in the midst of the “Week of Zacchaeus.”  The intention would be to further meditate and reflect upon that wonderful passage and not forget it before we have had the time to further absorb its profound meaning for our own lives.

Zacchaeus, the “vertically-challenged” tax-collector becomes, for us, representative of our better impulses in his desire to “see Jesus.”  In order to simplify and to get to the heart of the matter, we need to lay aside all theological jargon, sophisticated reasoning, and misplaced rhetoric; and say with a kind of raw immediacy (that could actually make us feel a bit uneasy):  I desire to “see Jesus.” Though that may sound like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, it is actually rooted in the Gospels. In fact, this desire has immortalized Zacchaeus until the end of time – and beyond we believe!  In emulating Zacchaeus ourselves, we will be able to overcome our own “smallness of stature” and act decisively – “climb a sycamore tree” – and encounter Christ in a meaningful way.  In the case of Zacchaeus, he exposed himself to public ridicule by his outlandish public display of desire.  As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote:  imagine a business executive in suit and tie, climbing a street sign on a crowded downtown corner in order to see a wandering prophet passing by!  Overcoming such social self-consciousness is probably more difficult to achieve than imagined – especially for those of us untested by public reaction (friends and relatives) for the slightest breach of social etiquette done for a “higher cause.”

And there was, on a much more deeply-rooted level, Zacchaeus’ need to overcome his own sinfulness which, by that point in his life, must have been a hardened and frozen pattern of life.  He was a publican.  That was a tax-collector working for the hated Roman regime that conquered and occupied Israel.  Such a power position allowed him to cheat and defraud his own people to the point of being labeled “rich” by Saint Luke the evangelist.  He may have been despised by the people, but his “comfort level,” achieved after many years, must not have been easy to leave behind.  Mid-life changes do not come easily for anyone; rather, as the years roll by, they become more difficult.  One would imagine that others were skeptical about his “conversion.” We are reluctant to attribute to others – especially a change for the better! – what we can hardly conceive of in ourselves.  The path of conversion can be a lonely one.

There was a “price” Zacchaeus was forced to pay in returning to God.  Perhaps the following passage from the Apostle Paul would have explained the (unconscious?) motivation of Zacchaeus not recorded in the Gospel: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:7-10).

With the desire to “see Jesus,” even the “little man” can grow in stature – “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) – and become almost unrecognizable in the process.  This demands overcoming obstacles that are exterior and social, interior and personal.  This comes at a price.  The familiar and comfortable must be left behind for the unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  Like it or not, Great Lent will pose such choices to us on the conscious and unconscious levels of our existence.  Are we willing to follow and emulate Zacchaeus in this regard?