Super Bowl Prep for our Journey of Lent

Who’s going to watch the Super Bowl tonight? It’s the biggest sporting event of the year! One out of every three Americans (117 million people) will watch it, and imagine, a 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl costs an astounding $6.5 million. The Super Bowl pits the Los Angeles Rams against the Cincinnati Bengals, but do you want to know some fascinating facts about the Cincinnati Bengals? They haven’t been in the Super Bowl for 34 years. In the last 32 years, they haven’t even won a playoff game. (Compare that to Tom Brady 35 playoffs wins.) Two years ago, the Bengals were the worst team in the NFL when they went 2-14 and last year they only slightly improved by winning 4 games. Yet, this year, they’re in the Super Bowl.

How does a team go from the worst record in the NFL to the Super Bowl in only two years?

Obviously, the Cincinnati Bengal organization had to do some serious preparation and hard work to improve their team. They had to figure out who were the best players they could get and with  those players, no matter how good they are, they had to work hard, change their attitudes, and greatly prepare and work hard throughout the season to reach and compete in the Super Bowl.

I begin with this sports analogy - and we can remember how Saint Paul loved to use sport analogies to get across his theological points – to highlight the need for preparation and hard work to reach the goal of the Super Bowl.

The same could be said for all those athletes competing in the Winter Olympics, another great example of incredible and constant preparation and hard work for only a few to reach their goal of competing and trying to win a medal in the Olympics.

Well, today we Orthodox Christians throughout the world begin our own preparation, and get ready for some serious and hard work as approach the greatest event not only in the year, but in all of history. We begin our preparation and turn our eyes toward the day of Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! Why do I say we begin today? Because today marks the beginning of a ten-week period called the Triodion, which is a book of hymns that mark the first four Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent and then leads us through the entire Lenten season up to Pascha.

The Church gives us a three-week preparation before Clean Monday, the official beginning of our 40 Day Lenten Fast that leads to Holy Week and then Pascha. Think about this - we have a three-week period to prepare for a 40-day preparation for our journey through Holy Week which culminates on the day of Pascha, Easter, Jesus Christ’s Resurrection from the dead.

So how do we prepare?

It’s both a physical and spiritual preparation. We prepare to fast – first this week by having NO Fast, even on Wednesday and Friday, followed by a typical week of fasting on Wednesday and Friday, then comes a week of abstaining from all meat but not dairy, and then we begin our 40+ days of without meat or no dairy. And this physical fast even includes the first days of Great Lent when we actually try to eat nothing at all – a total abstinence from food. All this physical discipline is preparing our body to connect with all the spiritual discipline of our heart and soul as we turn its attention utterly toward seeking after God.

As we partake of the physical preparation of fasting, we simultaneously turn our preparation to a spiritual fast – learning to control our passions and habits. Each of these first four Sundays before Great Lent focus on a particular aspect of spiritual preparation. Today we hear the Gospel of the Pharisee and Tax-Collector and are reminded of sober repentance and sincere humility. Next week we focus on the Prodigal Son, which highlights the different stages of repentance as well as focuses on the extravagant love and mercy of our heavenly Father. The third week we hear about the Last Judgement and understand how we will be judged by the compassion and concrete love we show to those in need. The final Sunday before our Great Lenten journey actually highlights the need we have to forgive one another. We cannot even start our 40-day journey toward Pascha if we’re not willing to forgive those who have harmed or hurt us in any way.

Each of these Sundays draws our attention to a specific way we must prepare ourselves in order to truly encounter the Risen Christ and enter into His victorious defeat over death.

So, let’s go back and focus on today’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. From this story we realize that we cannot draw close to God if we don’t live in a state of continual repentance, and repentance is not simply self-pity or regret over past mistakes. Repentance is a radical change of direction in our lives, a renewed mind that seeks a fresh and vibrant relationship with God and with others.

The central problem with the Pharisee was his contentment with self. He was happy and proud of himself and of his status with God. He praised himself for his good deeds and condescendingly looked down on others, especially people like the tax-collector. Such self-assurance left no room for God to act in his life. When we become too full of our ego, we leave little to no room for anyone else, including God.

How many of us fall into this self-centered temptation? We highlight the good that we do; we exaggerate the nobility of our actions; we magnify all that we think is right and true within ourselves and in the process, we fail to truly “know ourselves.” We become blinded by our own ego and fail to see ourselves as God sees us; yes, there may be some good with us but we fail to truly realize our many shortcomings and sinful actions; we aren’t willing to admit that we aren’t fully living up to the divine potential God has placed within us.

The Tax-Collector, on the other hand, knows himself too well. He acknowledges his own failures; he admits his many shortcomings; he knows well his own sins and therefore deeply desires a change of heart. “God be merciful to me the sinner.” The fundamental spirit of repentance that demands a change of direction and a conversion of heart is something the tax-collector intensely desires. He is dissatisfied with self and truly realizes he is poor in spirit. This extreme humility in acknowledging who he is and where he honestly stands with God, however, opens up the possibility for our Lord to heal him of all his brokenness and sinfulness. A truly humble heart opens us up to truly encounter the Divine.

This is why the Desert Fathers would say, “Better is the one who has sinned if he knows he has sinned and repents, then the person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.” These words summarize the distinction between the spirit of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector.

Thus, as we begin our preparation for our journey into Great Lent and to Pascha itself, we remember that this journey begins with the humility of truly knowing ourselves and then repenting. Repentance is the sincere turning away from all that is egocentric, turning away from all that is focused on self and not on God, and desiring an authentic change of heart that will allow the Holy Spirit to live in us and to guide us on the path of humility.

“Better is the one who has sinned if he knows he has sinned and repents, then the person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous.”



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