His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros
Homily at Great Vespers
Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee – the Beginning of Triodion
February 8, 2020 – 5:30 pm
Saint Photios National Shrine
St. Augustine, Florida
Tonight, we commence the Triodion, a season of preparation that leads us to Holy and Great Lent. We hear in the first hymn an exhortation that, if we can fulfill it even a little bit, we shall find ourselves transformed:
Μὴ προσευξώμεθα φαρισαϊκῶς, ἀδελφοί· ὁ γὰρ ὑψῶν ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, ταπεινωθῶμεν ἐναντίον τοῦ Θεοῦ, τελωνικῶς διὰ νηστείας κράζοντες· Ἱλάσθητι ἡμῖν ὁ Θεός, τοῖς ἁμαρτωλοῖς.
Brethren, let us not pray like the Pharisee: for he who exalts himself shall be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God, and with fasting cry aloud as did the Publican: God be merciful to us sinners.
This is the beginning of our efforts for Lent; efforts that will try our appetites, stretch our patience, and even test our emotions. The trials that we will go through are an annual reminder of the struggle that is essential to a committed and authentic Christian life. For without ἂσκησις – a word most difficult to translate because it is so layered with meaning:
it is impossible to break the self-centeredness in which we are so often imprisoned, and to live in the freedom of love.
It seems to me that this place, dedicated to missionary work – the extraordinary apostolic labor of Saint Photios the Great, and to the Πρωτοπόροι of our communities, that this is the right place to speak of these things.
For every missionary who goes forth in the Name of the Lord struggles to find even “hearers of the word,” much less those who will listen and become “doers of the word.”[*] There is always frustration, disappointment, and even failure in missionary work. Those sent up the River Danube by Saint Photios did not always find a willing audience. But as the Lord says:
Ἐν τῇ ὑπομονῇ ὑμῶν κτήσασθε τὰς ψυχὰς ὑμῶν.
By your patience, you will gain your souls.[†]
Here is the key to hard work in the Field of the Lord. He told His Disciples to “lift up your eyes and behold, the land is already white for the harvest.”[‡] He meant for them to understand that the people were ready to hear the message, but the Disciples had to be willing to go gather up what others had prepared. The same is true for us as well. Two thousand years after the Epiphany of our Lord upon this Earth, there has been plenty of preaching about him – plenty of talk – but what of the hard work of demonstrating the love of God and our love for others? This is where ἂσκησις is required.
My friends, look no further for inspiration than those forefathers and foremothers who are commemorated in this precious National Shrine of our Holy Archdiocese. Was it easy for them to pick up their lives and move to a foreign land? We all know the answer. Generations later we see the successes in every endeavor that our Community has undertaken, but much of this success was never seen by those first immigrants who made our lives possible. They planted, but they left the harvest to us.
Therefore, my beloved Christians, let us not shirk from the hardships of the Fast. Let us not pray like the Pharisee who compares himself to others. Let us remember those who sacrificed to spread the faith and those who worked their hands to the bones to give us a better life. Following their example, and the example of this humble tax collector, we shall be deemed worthy to complete the course of the Fast, and to arrive at the Holy and Glorious Pascha of the Lord.
So be it! Γένοιτο! Amen!