by Fr. Basil Biberdorf
February 2 marks a confluence of special events this year: the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, Groundhog Day, and Super Bowl Sunday. This particular year brings with it the surprise—and perhaps the disappointment—of hearing the reading of the Gospel telling us about that short tax collector, Zacchaeus, and his climbing of the tree. The very next Sunday will begin the three pre-Lenten weeks.
The problem with pre-Lent for most of us is that it makes us think of Great Lent itself, and particularly of the deprivations of the season. As a result, a common attitude toward the pre-Lenten weeks is one of “indulge now, for tomorrow we can’t.”
And, so, during the fast-free week of the Publican and the Pharisee (February 9-15), the temptation is to eat as much as we can, gratifying each desire for food, whether steaks, burgers, desserts, eggs, or cheeses. The fast-free Wednesday and Friday provide merely more opportunities to enjoy. The week of the Prodigal Son (February 16-22) brings us back to a regular schedule, with abstinence from meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday, and our desire to make full use of the non-fasting days therein.
The undercurrent in all of these perspectives is that Lent is a time of deprivation, and, therefore, we must indulge our desires, satiate our bellies, and, indeed, distract ourselves from the difficult reality we need to face. This is a reality that is being held up before our faces in these pre-Lenten Sundays.
We have the image of the Publican and the Pharisee, which gives us the picture of forgiveness of the repentant sinner, and the failure of the attempt to become self-righteous before God. We have the Prodigal Son, which shows us not just the value of repentance, but indeed the expanse of the Father’s love and forgiveness toward the one who did not deserve it. We have the Last Judgment, which reminds us of our callousness, along with the fact that our insensitivity to those who bear Christ’s image will result in God’s denial of us at the Judgment. We have Forgiveness Sunday, and the recollection that without forgiveness, we will not be forgiven.
Our perspective changes if we think carefully about these pre-Lenten themes. If we contemplate these days, our thoughts move away from the idea that we must indulge as a defense against deprivation. Rather, we come to learn that we prepare in these pre-Lenten weeks for an arduous task. We develop the sincere desire that our hardened hearts not receive what they so clearly deserve: separation from God, and the torment of hell.
Lent in such a view comes to be not a time of deprivation, but an entire season of renewal and even comfort. In those transitional weeks between Zacchaeus and Forgiveness Vespers, we have the opportunity to cultivate our minds in the desire for God and a love for our brethren that is not conditioned on what they can give us in return. We have the opportunity to clean house by removing the temptation to the rich food and general laziness that too often distracts us from the tragic state of our souls. We can use these pre-Lenten weeks to guide ourselves in prayer, so that when the Lenten effort (and Lenten blessings!) begin, we are ready to participate fully, having set aside all earthly cares.
If our time in the pre-Lenten weeks is spent thinking upon what we’ll miss in the season to come, we will find ourselves burdened unnecessarily. Let us think instead upon Christ, and the Cross that awaits him, and embark on that journey, eager to receive every word he gives, never balking when those words interfere with our own plans for our lives. Let us turn instead to the prayer he gives us: “Thy will be done.”
May these weeks of preparation be filled with joy (and even food) at the prospect of growing in love for Christ and the salvation that exists only in him.