In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee – for many of us it’s the beginning of one of our favorite weeks of the year: a fast-free week. But the real purpose of this week is not simply/exclusively to not fast in order to prove that we’re not going to be Pharisees with the laws of Christ and the Church. In the same theme we were thinking about last Sunday – preparation – this week gives us a pointed opportunity to reflect on and to remember that the focus of our lives as Orthodox Christians is Christ.

Everything set before by the Church is just that – things – they aren’t ends in themselves; we’re provided with opportunities to grow in Christ. Prayer isn’t about having good attention and memorizing the prayers and feeling pious while we pray – prayer is an opportunity to communicate and commune with Christ. Fasting isn’t about giving up certain food – it’s about denying ourselves for Christ, following the guidelines of someone outside ourselves for Christ, taking a break from rich foods and long periods of meal preparation in order to spend time with Christ. Even Holy Communion, the end goal isn’t just to partake worthily of the Holy Eucharist, the end goal and purpose of this Liturgy isn’t just to come up and take Communion – it’s about Christ, offering myself completely to Him, and being joined with Him for my transfiguration my and salvation.

And so we take a break this week, and have time to analyze our mindsets and our motives, and to prepare ourselves to enter the Great Fast with a godly mind and with the proper intentions. But we have so much going on in life, and in the life of the Church, it’s easy for us to lose focus. I remember when I was a very new Orthodox Christian, and very enamored with all of the various aspects of the ascetic life – all of the things that I felt like I was expected to do now as an Orthodox Christian.

So I was talking with some of my friends one day, and I was very anxious to explain to them (which I had no business doing) the differences between the Orthodox understanding of salvation and other understandings that were popular in the Christian world. I spent all of my time talking about confession and communion and fasting and praying and Church. A 30 minute conversation about salvation, and not one mention of Christ! My focus was all wrong. My answers were wrong, not because they weren’t things that we do in the Church, and things that are very important – my answer was wrong because it wasn’t centered on Christ.

In the Old Covenant and the New, the focus of life was to be God. And in both Covenants, help was given to the people in the form of laws and commandments. Laws are for outlining proper and improper behaviour, helping to teach the people how to be godly people. But we have to remember that everything offered to us in the life of the Church is about cultivating and deepening our relationship with Christ.

I don’t believe that the Pharisees began with the idea of being hypocrites. The vast majority probably loved God, and they had a sincere desire to follow His will. But they were very easily trapped and their attention was redirected because they began to be overly concerned with fulfilling the Law. Fulfilling the letter of the law became the focus and the end goal – and somewhere in that, God as the reason and goal for the Law was forgotten. And the Church reminds us today how easy it is to fall into that trap.

Listen again to what Christ says of the prayer of the Pharisee – “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” If God had been his ultimate desire, no matter how perfectly he fulfilled the letter of the law, he still would have prayed with the humility of the Publican. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It doesn’t matter what we do, if our hearts are still far from God.

So, as we don’t fast this week, remember that this isn’t about “the law.” We don’t do things in the Church simply because we’re required – fasting, praying, coming to Church, tithing and almsgiving, etc. There certainly is some small benefit to doing things because we’re told to, but this is very easily perverted, as we see in the Gospel reading today. Our singular focus and desire in all that we do is Christ. This week, take the time to reflect on how our life in the Church, following her teachings and ascetic traditions (like fasting), brings us closer to Christ. We act in knowledge, not in ignorance or blindness – so as a portion of our preparation for Great Lent, examine that question – “am I living as an Orthodox Christian in knowledge, in a way that daily offers me the chance draw closer to Christ in every way.”

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!