Friday, February 27, 2015

you can say them as your own

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

If the faithful are keeping vigil in the church,
David is first, middle, and last.
If at dawn anyone wishes to sing hymns,
David is first, middle, and last.
In the holy monasteries, among the ranks of the heavenly warriors,
David is first, middle, and last.
In the convents of virgins, who are imitators of Mary,
David is first, middle, and last.
In the deserts, where men hold converse with God,
David is first, middle, and last.

(Attributed to St. John Chryrsostom)

I am glad to hear that we have many parishioners committed to reading the Psalter on a regular basis all through Great Lent.  In fact, I believe that for those of us who stay on schedule (one kathisma per day) each of us will get through the entire Psalter twice during the forty-day Lenten season (the Psalter is comprised of 150 psalms and is divided into twenty kathismata).  And as a parish, the entire Psalter will be read on a daily basis according to that same schedule for each group of psalter readers is comprised of twenty souls.  In fact, with two groups of twenty parishioners committed to this "parish project," that means the entire Psalter is read twice over on a daily basis!  The Psalter has been hailed as the Prayer Book of the Church, so it is fitting that we have embraced the psalms in such a manner.  I would like to encourage everyone involved to make this a priority as well as possible, and to work at fulfilling our stated goal. And, in addition, our Bible Study through Great Lent is focused on reading and discussing certain selected psalms in great detail and trying to discover how each particular psalm can impact our own lives today.

Tradition tells us that the Psalter was the work of King David, who had a gift for musical composition that combined so beautifully and powerfully with his relationship with God creating these unmatched hymns that we call psalms.  Although many of the psalms go back to King David, we now know that many others were written over the centuries-long history of ancient Israel.  There is also a great variety or "types" of psalms: lamentation, both individual and corporate; hymns of praise; royal psalms; liturgical psalms, historical psalms, etc.  These psalms clearly reflect the historical times in which they were written, with certain imagery that may seem strange to us today.  Therefore, a knowledge of the religious, cultural and social life of ancient Israel is very helpful in our understanding of the psalms.  However, as sacred Scripture, the psalms are certainly not limited to their historical settings.  St. Athanasius explains this well in his famous Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms:

    Among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides
    the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in
    all their great variety the movements of the human soul. ...  You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes,
    its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.  Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can
    select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.  Prohibitions
    of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin.  Repentance,
    for example is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show how to set about repenting
    and with what words your penitence may be expressed.

    It is possible for us, therefore, to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul's state, together with precept and example
    for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life's occasions, words both of
    repentance and of thankfulness, so that we fall not into sin; for it is not for our actions only that we must give account before the
    Judge, but also for our every idle word.

    For I think that in the words of this book all human life in covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be
    found in man.  For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptations or under
    persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you
    want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the
    words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

Therefore, the key in chanting the words of the psalms for each of us, according to St. Athanasius, is that "you can say them as your own."  That can be termed not only "applying" the words of a given psalm to our life; but of "actualizing" those very words as if they are being said for the first time when offered with faith and a humble heart.  It was for this reason, perhaps, as well as for others, that in the early Church, not only bishops and presbyters, but also many of the faithful knew the entire Psalter by heart!

As an example, we can take Psalm 15 (Hebrew numbering) which has been classified as a "liturgical psalm" because it describes entering into the temple of a worshipping pilgrim.  There is a dialogue in this psalm between the pilgrim who asks of God:

    O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
    Who shall dwell on your holy mountain?     (15:1)

The response, possibly from one of the ministers of the temple, describes to the pilgrim  the quality of life that is necessary to enter the holy precincts of the Temple on the "holy mountain" (Of Zion):

    He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
      and speaks truth from his heart;
    who does not slander with his tongue,
       and does no evil to his friend,
       nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
    in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
       but who honors those who fear the Lord;
    who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
    who does not put out his money in interest,
       and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

    He who does these things will never be moved. (15:2-5)

This strikes me as a psalm that will make us aware of how we today enter the "temple" of the church, where we will worship the Lord and receive the Eucharist.  In what spirit do we arrive at church?  How much have we gossiped on the way to church or judged others?  Do we watch our own words?  Do we honor those who fear the Lord?  Do we look to our neighbor and refrain from slandering others that we worship with?  Psalm 15 challenges us today with precisely those words that speak to our souls  in the way that St. Athanasius discovered in his own use of the Psalter.

    For a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone.
    A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense.

    St. Basil the Great

The psalms as prophesying Christ will be the subject of a future meditation.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Great Lent: Be balanced, but be serious

Dear Parish Faithful,

The following meditation has been posted on the OCA website.  Thought I would share it with the parish on this first day of Great Lent as a kind of summary of my meditations from last week.

Great Lent: Be balanced, but be serious
“Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence, and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, and with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage.  So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life” [Matins of Monday in the First Week of the Fast].

On Monday, February 23, 2015, Orthodox Christians around the world begin their Lenten journey.  We are well aware of the challenges ahead of us, but these challenges—and our resolve to meet them with humility and firmness of faith—only reinforce how essential it is to live according to the Orthodox Way as the surest preparation for the paschal mystery.  We have two basic choices to make:  to respond with perseverance as we “gird our loins” to cross over the desert of the fast en route to the “Land of the Living,” where we encounter the Risen Lord, or to wimp out!  I trust that only the former choice is uppermost in your minds and hearts.

We are given the tools of the ascetical life by Christ Himself—prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  At our most basic biological level we need to eat and drink to sustain our lives.  Yet our passions transform that need into its opposite:  to live in order to eat.  As Christ teaches us, “Man does not live by bread alone.”  That is the truth we would like to “taste” as we are tested by fasting.

In addition, we have the following tools to strengthen us in our Lenten efforts:

+  the many liturgical services unique to Great Lent;
+  the reading of the Scriptures;
+  faithfulness in prayer;
+  the confession of our sins in the Mystery of Repentance; and
+  the love of our neighbor through almsgiving.

With the first day of Great Lent on the immediate horizon, may we come up with a “domestic strategy” that allows us to integrate the season of Great Lent into our lives, rather than reducing the season to mere symbolic gestures.  Be balanced, but be serious.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Astonishing Discoveries during Lent

Dear Parish Faithful,

We begin Great Lent and the practice of fasting from certain foods and drink on Monday, February 23.  This fasting is an essential component of  our over-all Lenten effort as we, as human beings, are a psychosomatic unity of "soul and body."  For the soul/spirit to be liberated to some extent from "this world," and "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16), the body must be disciplined to some extent, so as not to keep us overly enmeshed in the desires of the flesh.  As a desert father once said, "I discipline the flesh in order to save the body."  And Christ Himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness as He prepared for His ministry that would culminate with the Cross.  We follow the example of the Lord when we, too, fast for forty days. We should not reduce Great Lent to this "food fast" - a very common temptation - but we cannot eliminate this fast if we take Great Lent seriously, by some pseudo-spiritual reasoning that treats the urges of the body as inconsequential.

I would once again like to rely upon Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent as a sure guide in this essential aspect of the upcoming Lenten season:

    There is no Lent without fasting.  It seems, however, that many people today either do not take fasting seriously or, if they do, misunderstand its real spiritual
    goals.  For some people, fasting consists in a symbolic "giving up" of something; for others it is a scrupulous observance of dietary regulations.  But in both
    cases, seldom is fasting referred to the total Lenten effort.  Here, as elsewhere, we must first try to understand the Church's teaching about fasting and then
    ask ourselves:  how can we apply this teaching to our life ...?

Fr. Schmemann begins his approach to fasting based upon the typology of the Old Adam who broke the fast; and the New Adam who kept the fast.  Consequences of great significance followed after these two very distinct decisions and two very different paths:

    What then is fasting for us Christians?  It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total
    dependence on food, matter and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam,
    being part of it, we still depend on food.  But just as our death - through which we still must pass - has become by virtue of Christ's death a passage
    into life, the food we eat and life it sustains can be life in God and for God. Part of our food has already become "food of immortality" - the Body and
    Blood of Christ Himself.  But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens us, our communion
    with God, rather than that which separates us from God. Yet it is only fasting that can perform that transformation, giving us existential proof that our
    dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, that united to prayer, grace, and adoration, it can itself be spiritual.

    Ultimately, to fast means only one thing:  to be hungry - to go the limit of that human condition which depends entirely on food and, being hungry,
    to discover that this dependency is not the whole truth about man, that hunger itself it first of a spiritual state that is in its last reality hunger for God

    It is for this reason that we need first of all a spiritual preparation for the effort of fasting. It consists in asking God for help and also in making our fast
    God-centered.  We should fast for God's sake.  We must rediscover our body as the Temple of His presence.  We must recover a religious respect for
    the body, for food, for the very rhythm of life. All this must be done before the actual fast begins so that when we begin to fast, we would be supplied
    with spiritual weapons, with a vision, with a spirit of fight and victory.

    Great Lent, p. 93, 96, 97.

On a personal and domestic level, everyone must set some goals that are realistic, but yet challenging, and make every effort to stay with that initial "plan" throughout Great Lent.  Perhaps in the process, if we actually take Lent seriously, we can make some of those astonishing and liberating discoveries about food, the body, and the world around us, so that we move from the level of being consumers to the level of being Eucharistic in our approach to life.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Participating" in Lent

Image result for orthodox icons lent

Dear Parish Faithful,

I still stick by my contention that a "good beginning" for Great Lent will give us the "momentum" and resolve for a "good ending" to Great Lent.  And this good beginning is not simply based on our well-planned lenten menus and recipes. I would like to here concentrate on the liturgical services unique to Great Lent.  Our participation in these services may just pose a greater challenge than fasting from certain foods and drink.  And that challenge is again probably the result of our "busy schedules" which almost seem immutable and unchangeable in their demands on our time and energy.  This is an old problem and one that will not disappear any time in the near future. This is a component of life that is here to stay. And it certainly challenges our role as "stewards" of our time.  Our schedules control us far more than we control them. The "world" is decidedly indifferent to the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church!  But is it really "impossible" to make some adjustments and expend some effort for the sake of our spiritual lives that are nourished in the Church and nowhere else?

I will again turn to Fr. Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent in order to share some of his thoughts on this interminable challenge to perhaps find some guidance on what to do:

    No one, as we have already said, can attend the entire cycle of Lenten worship.  Everyone can attend some of it.  There is simply no excuse for not making Lent first
    of all the time for an increased attendance of and participation in the liturgy of the Church. Here again, personal conditions, individual possibilities and impossibilities
    can vary and result in different decisions, but there must be a decision, there must be an effort, and there must be a "follow up."  From the liturgical point of view, we
    may suggest the following "minimum" aimed not at the spiritually self-destructive sense of having fulfilled an obligation, but at receiving at least the essential in the
    liturgical spirit of Lent:

    In the first place, a special effort must be made on the parish level for a proper celebration of the Forgiveness Sunday Vespers.... It must become one of the great
    "parish affairs" of the year and, as such, well prepared.... For, once more, nothing better than this service reveals the meaning of Lent as the crisis of repentance,
    reconciliation, as embarking together on a common journey...

    The next "priority" must be given to the first week of Lent. A special effort must be made to attend at least once or twice the Great Canon of St. Andrew.  As we
    have seen, the liturgical function of these first days is to take us into the spiritual "mood" of Lent which we described as "bright sadness."

    Then, throughout the entire Lent, it is imperative that we give at least one evening to attend the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with the spiritual experience it
    implies - that of total fasting, that of transformation of at least one day into a real expectation of judgment and joy.  No reference to conditions of life, lack of
    time, etc. are acceptable at this point, for if we do only that which easily "fits" into the conditions of our lives, the very notion of Lenten effort becomes absolutely
    meaningless.  Not only in the 20th (and 21st!) century, but in fact since Adam and Eve, "this world" was always an obstacle to the fulfillment of God's demands.
    There is, therefore, nothing new or special about our modern "way of life." Ultimately it all depends again on whether or not we take our religion seriously, and
    if we do, eight to ten additional evenings a year at church are truly a minimal effort...

To repeat what Fr. Alexander wrote (emphasis added):  "There is simply no excuse for not making Lent first of all the time for an increased attendance of and participation in the liturgy of the Church."  Excuse the cliché, but if "there is a will, there is a way." Strong desire can assist us in overcoming certain obstacles.  If we cannot do the "impossible," then we may have to strain ourselves a bit to do the "possible."  I fully agree with Fr. Alexander's guidelines as expressed above as something to aim for as a family or as an individual.  Great Lent demands some effort.  And that is a basic precept of the Gospel.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Lent - a school of repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

"To the questions:  What is repentance?  Why do we need it?  How are we to practice it? - Great Lent gives the answer.  It is indeed a school of repentance to which every Christian must go every year in order to deepen his faith, to re-evaluate, and, if possible, to change his life.  It is a wonderful pilgrimage to the very sources of Orthodox faith - a rediscovery of the Orthodox way of life."

- Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 9)

In his book, Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann actually begins with the Sunday of Zacchaeus and the four pre-Lenten Sundays.  We have now been through four of those five Sundays as we prepare for this year's Great Lent only a week away from today.  Looking at this pre-Lenten period collectively, Fr. Alexander summarizes it thus:

    ... The weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church.  This is the time for the response, for the decision and the planning.  And the best
    and easiest way here is to follow the Church's guidance - be it only by meditating on the five Gospel themes offered to us on the five Sundays of the pre-
    Lenten season:  that of desire (Zacchaeus), of humility (Publican and Pharisee), of the return from exile (Prodigal Son), of the judgment (Last Judgment),
    of forgiveness (Forgiveness Sunday).  These Gospel lessons are not merely to be listened to in church; the whole point is that they are to be "taken home"
    and meditated upon in terms of my life, my family situation, my professional obligations, my concern for material things, my relation to the concrete
    human beings with whom I live. If to this meditation one adds the prayer of that pre-Lenten season, "Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of life ..."
    and Psalm 137 - "By the waters of Babylon ..." - one begins to understand what it mean to "feel with the Church" how a liturgical season colors the daily
    life.  (Great Lent, p. 90-91)

Yesterday was, of course, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, a "commemoration" that can only have an impact on our lives if we take seriously the notion that each and every one of us will stand before the "dread judgment seat of Christ" at some appointed time in the future, hopefully able to offer a "good defense" (apologia).  In this Last Judgment, we will find out just who we actually were in our lives in this world.  There will be nowhere to hide and nothing to hide.  All will be brought out into the open - or rather before the dazzling light of Christ in glory.  What we will present to Christ to judge us by is what we are "working on" right now in the day-to-day existence of our lives.  That is a thought simultaneously intimidating and hopeful.  It is intimidating because we all know that we can somehow get lost along the road of life - in our passions, our petty preoccupations, and in any predispositions to sin.  It is hopeful because to give a "little one" a cup of water to drink is praised by Christ as an act of meaningful charity - and that is always an act that will expand the heart to embrace the neighbor in an act of personal love, delivering us from the "hell" of self-absorption and self-isolation.  As I like to say, each and every one of us is working on our own eulogy to be shared with others at our respective funerals. Our life is the text of that upcoming eulogy that we are "writing," again, on a daily basis. I am hoping that the priest can say about me more than that I was a "nice person" who took care of my family and "minded my own business." The Parable of the Last Judgment goes far beyond such prosaic considerations and confronts us with how we responded to the "other," especially the one in need (of clothing, of food, of drink, of hospitality, of a visit).  The parable is about the discovery of the "person" more than about "social activism," I believe. 

In the words of Fr. Schmemann:

    The parable of the Last Judgment is about Christian love.  Not all of us are called to work for "humanity," yet each of us has received the gift and the grace
    of Christ's love.  We know that all men ultimately need this personal love - the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole
    creation is reflected in a unique way.  We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied
    them.  And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny
    part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ's love.  Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we
    have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged.  For "inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me ..."
    (Great Lent, p. 26)

The limitless patience, compassion and love of God are revealed in the incomparable Parable of the Prodigal Son. According to Christ, it is never too late to repent.  And yet, the Parable of the Last Judgment reveals the equally essential truth that we will "answer" for the life we led given to us as a gift from the God who is love.

Great Lent - Journey to Pascha

Dear Parish Faithful,

One of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann's books that has become something of a "classic" is Great Lent - Journey to Pascha.  Countless Orthodox Christians - at least in North America, though the book has been translated into other languages - have been deeply inspired by Fr. Alexander's fresh and dynamic analysis of the meaning and purpose of the Church's unique Lenten services.  It is hard not to experience the Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete; or the Presanctified Liturgy in a new and exciting way after reading Fr. Alexander's book.  Fr. Alexander makes one look forward to these services.  Even his approach to Great Lent as a "journey" to Pascha is deeply captivating.  As Fr. Alexander wrote at the very beginning of his book:

        When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going.  Thus with Lent.  Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter,
        "the Feast of Feasts."  It is the preparation for the "fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation."  We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this
        connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.  (Great Lent, p. 11)

The entire book is a brilliant guide in helping us to understand the connection between Great Lent and Pascha. I would say that this book is one of those "must reads" for all Orthodox Christians.

In Ch. 5, "Lent in Our Lives," Fr. Alexander has a section entitled, "Taking It Seriously ... "  In this section, he anticipates all of the objections (excuses?) that we bring forward to explain how we really can't do a whole lot more than "observe" Great Lent somewhat minimally because of our "busy" lives and schedules.  Great Lent is so antithetical to our culture that we find ourselves only negatively "giving up something" for the season as a way of meeting certain perceived obligations - some fasting, confession before Pascha, etc.  In the process, the depth of Great Lent that Fr. Alexander spent the greater part of his book explaining, basically disappears from sight. As he writes:  "This obligation having been fulfilled, the rest of Lent seems to lose all positive meaning." (p. 88)  At this point, Fr. Alexander reveals his capacity to be both challenging and provocative, when he questions these assumptions and objections that we make:

        We can say without exaggeration that although Lent is still "observed," it has lost much of its impact on our lives, has ceased to be that bath of repentance
        and renewal which it is meant to b in the liturgical and spiritual teaching of the Church.  But then, can we rediscover it, make it again a spiritual power in
        the daily reality of our existence? The answer to this question depends primarily, and I would say almost exclusively, on whether or not we are willing to
        take Lent seriously.  However new or different the conditions in which we live today, however real the difficulties and obstacles erected by our modern
        world, none of them is an absolute obstacle, none of them makes Lent "impossible."  The real root of the progressive loss by Lent of its impact on our lives
        lies deeper.  It is our conscious or unconscious reduction of religion to a superficial nominalism and symbolism which is precisely the way to by-pass and
        to "explain away" the seriousness of religion's demands on our lives, religion's demand for commitment and effort.  (p. 88-89)

Fr. Alexander goes on to explain that Orthodoxy, unlike the Western churches, has not "adjusted" the genuine traditions of the Church to make the practice of our Faith more practical under current conditions (abandoning the fast, etc.). We have not lowered the standards of the Church so as to make the practice of our Faith - and Lent in particular - "easy."  He claims that that would be a "betrayal" of the living Tradition of the Church. But he qualifies this by saying that Orthodox Christians, by adopting a kind of symbolic nominalism, simply practice a different form of compromise that can result in self-righteousness.  He continues, by writing:

        So much in our churches is explained symbolically as interesting, colorful, and amusing customs and traditions, as something which connects us not so
        much with God and a new life in Him but with the past and the customs or our forefathers, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern behind this
        religious folklore the utter seriousness of religion... The spiritual danger here is that little by little one begins to understand religion itself as a system of
        symbols and customs rather than to understand the latter as a challenge to spiritual renewal and effort.  More effort goes into preparing Lenten dishes
        or Easter baskets than into fasting and participation in the spiritual reality of Pascha.

Fr. Schmemann wrote this book back in 1969.  The culture has become increasingly de-Christianized since then.  The challenges are even stronger today.  Which means that we are greatly tempted today to reduce Great Lent to some nominal practices that may ease our conscience, but will do nothing to renew our relationship with the living God.  That would reduce Great Lent to a "religious custom" without much spiritual content.  I believe that Fr. Alexander is perfectly right when he further writes:

        To take Lent seriously means then that we will consider it first of all on the deepest possible level - as a spiritual challenge which requires a response, a
        decision, a plan, a continuous effort.  It is for this reason, as we know, that the weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church.  This is the
        time for the response, for the decision and planning.... The important point is that during this pre-Lenten season we look at Lent as it were from a distance,
        as something coming to us or even perhaps sent to us by God Himself, as a chance for change, for renewal, for deepening, and that we take that forth-
        coming chance seriously ... (p. 91)

In a manner that is hopefully neither pretentious nor self-righteous, my pastoral intentions are that we as a parish will take Lent seriously. We are going to follow the guidance of the Church in our liturgical services as well as possible; and proclaim the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness as we prepare to proclaim the Gospel of death and resurrection.  The question for each and every person or household within the parish then becomes:  Can I/we take Lent seriously. What is the depth of my/our commitment?  What can I/we do to go beyond any form of nominalism so that Great Lent means something in our lives?  What kind of "adjustments" must we make in  our homes to take Lent seriously?  Is my life shaped by the Church or by the world?  Without taking Lent seriously how we can we possibly believe that the "gates of repentance" will be opened to us by the Lord?

We will hear more from Fr. Alexander Schmemann's classic Great Lent as we draw closer to its beginning on February 23.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"Humility is a powerful force"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Humility is a powerful force."  Prince Myshkin in The Idiot by Dostoevsky

In the Orthodox Church, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14) is the first of a cycle of  appointed Gospel readings that inaugurates the pre-Lenten season.  In other words, on an annual basis, precisely four weeks before Great Lent begins, we hear this parable proclaimed in the Liturgy.  The intentions of the Lord in delivering this parable are clearly expressed in the solemn pronouncement following the parable itself:

        For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.  (LK. 18:14)

The pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee - he who "exalts himself" - is rather starkly contrasted with the humility and repentance - he who "humbles himself" - of the Publican. From these two examples of a revealed interior disposition, it is only the publican who is "justified" according to Christ.  With a kind of "folk-wisdom" that would have resonated for his rural flock in early 20th c. Serbia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich recasts the parable in an earthy story form that seeks to reinforce Christ's teaching:

        A man went into the forest to choose a tree from which to make roof-beams.  And he saw two trees, one beside the other.
        One was smooth and tall, but had rotted away inside, and the other was rough on the outside and ugly, but its core was
        healthy.  The man sighed, and said to himself:  "What use is this smooth, tall tree to me if it is rotten inside and useless for
        beams?  The other one, even if it is rough and ugly, is at least healthy on the inside and so, if I put a bit more effort into it,
        I can use it for roof-beams for my house."  And, without thinking any more about it, he chose that tree.
And just to be certain, Bp. Nikolai drives home the moral point in the following conclusion:

        So will God choose between two men for His house, and will choose, not the one who appears outwardly righteous, but
        the one whose heart is filled with God's healthy righteousness.

The Pharisee acted according to the Law, keeping himself externally free from sin, fasting twice a week and paying a tithe on all that he had.  It would be wonderful if members of the Church lived and acted like that with such consistency!  However, it is the interior orientation of the heart that Christ is most concerned with; and it is here that the Pharisee twisted righteousness into self-righteousness which is basically a form of idolatry - worship of the "self."  Do any of us escape that self-deceptive trap?  If not, then better to admit it, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us:

        It is evil to sin, though help can be given; but to sin, and not to admit it - there is no help here.

The humility of the publican is perhaps best expressed in a series of short descriptions - unwillingness to look up towards heaven, the beating of the breast, the plaintive cry:  "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner" - rather than in an intellectually-constructed abstraction.  Moved by an awareness of God's holiness and his own sinfulness, the publican did not fear to openly express his humility upon entering the Temple. But why do we fear humility?  How does the very concept of humility seem to frighten us, if only unconsciously?  Perhaps we fear being taken advantage of, of being used by others, of "losing ground" in our struggle to not only get ahead, but to simply survive in a harsh world. We equate humility - wrongfully, I am convinced - with weakness, timidity, fear of conflict, etc.  We may occasionally use the language of humility, but deep down, we "know better." We may even practice a cautious form of humility but only if that will allow us to remain in our "comfort zones."  But do we actually know better?  Can we actually ignore a universally-acclaimed Christian virtue without having experienced it ourselves?  And yet, we literally depend upon the humility of Christ for our salvation!  And we praise and glorify Christ precisely because of His humility!  Perhaps, then, if we ever made a sustained effort to be humble, we would appraise this essential virtue differently.  As the saints teach us:

        Until a human person achieves humility, he will receive no reward for his works.  The reward is given not for our works but for our humility.
        (St. Isaac the Syrian)

        A humble person never falls.  Being already lower than any, where can he fall?  Vanity is a great humiliation, but humility is a great exalting,
        honor and dignity.  (St. Macarius the Great)

The Gospel - based on the scandal of the Cross - has turned many things upside down.  In God's judgment, according to Christ, the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted.  The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee sets this choice before us.