Every year, the Church spends a whole month teaching us about and preparing us for the Great Fast — why we need it, how we should and must approach it, what it will “do” for us in our spiritual struggles — through the passages read from Holy Scripture during services. In fact, the four Sundays preceding Forgiveness Sunday and the start of the Great Fast are known by their Gospel themes. You can use these four preparatory Sundays as a guide to introduce your children to the Orthodox understanding of the right desire to love and follow God, of repentance and forgiveness, and of humility and the “right mind” for spiritual struggle.
January 28th in 2001
Zacchaeus was the chief tax-collector appointed by the Romans, hated by his own people — the Jews — because he collected money not only for the Empire, but also for himself. He was fabulously wealthy but friendless, and considered the most despicable of sinners. The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus was very short — in fact, he “fell short” of God’s image! — and had to scramble up into a tree to see the Lord as he passed by in the street. The Lord saw Zacchaeus in the tree, his dignity forgotten in his desire to see Him and repent of his evil, and called out to him by name, saying that He would come to Zacchaeus’ house. The crowds murmured that He was disgracing Himself, socializing with sinners… but the Lord goes to those who need Him, like a Physician to the ill and dying!
February 4th in 2001
At the time of Christ, there were three Jewish sects: the Pharisees, who thought themselves very righteous because of their “superior” religious knowledge and rigorous observance of Jewish law; the Sadducees, who did not believe in the existence of angels or resurrection from the dead; and the Essenes, who led a very strict ascetic life in the desert. The Lord called the Pharisees hypocrites, because they made a great outward show of holiness in their daily lives, but did not truly repent of their sins. They looked down their noses at others, especially “sinners” like tax-collectors and Jewish agents of the Roman Empire (called Publicans) who did not strictly follow Jewish law.
The Lord told a story (called a parable) about a self-righteous Publican and a contrite Publican praying in the Temple to demonstrate that no one should be prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but should be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, because he is never far from salvation.
February 11th in 2001
In this parable told by the Lord, the son of a wealthy landowner takes his inheritance and wastes it. When his wealth is gone and he is “down and out”, he recognizes his error and returns to his father, hoping for a position as the lowest of servants in his father’s house. The father greets him with joy, and welcomes him without reservation: he is give his old position — a son of the manor! The elder son, who had never gone away and had always done as his father asked, is resentful… The father lovingly sets him straight: “You are always with Me, and it is fitting to be glad and to rejoice with your Father. For this son of Mine was dead in sin, and he has been revived by repenting over what he committed….”
February 18th in 2001
The Lord came to earth physically at His nativity, quietly and without glory. At the Second Coming, “He will come from heaven with supernatural wonders and manifest brightness. He will come with His body, so that He will be recognized as the One who has come before and freed the human race, and will come again to judge whether it has well-preserved what it has been given.
“No one knows exactly when the Lord’s Second Coming will occur. The Lord kept this hidden even from the Apostles, but He did allow for some visible signs to take place in the meantime. Some of the saints have expanded on the description of these signs. In any case, it is said that it will occur after the passage of seven thousand years of human history. Prior to the Lord’s reappearance, the Antichrist will come. He will be born, as St. Hippolytus of Rome says, of a defiled woman who will appear to be a virgin and will be from the Jewish race, from the tribe of Dan, one of Jacob’s sons. He will live a life imitating that of Christ. He will perform miracles, such as the ones Christ did, and will even raise the dead. Yet, all that he shall do will be an illusion: his birth, his flesh, and so on, as the Apostle Paul says: ‘The coming of the lawless one is according to the works of Satan, with all powers, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved’ (II Thessalonians 2:9-10). But, as St. John of Damascus says, Satan will not himself be transformed into flesh, but a man born of fornication will accept into himself all the activity of Satan. He will suddenly rise up in rebellion. Then he will appear to be kind and accommodating to all. There will be a great famine and he will supply the people with food. He will study the Holy Scriptures and practice fasting. Forced by the people, he will be proclaimed king. He will greatly love the Jewish race, restore them to Jerusalem, and build their temple.
“According to the Holy prophet Daniel, seven years before the end, St. Enoch and St. Elijah will come preaching to the people not to accept the Antichrist. He will imprison them, torture them, then behead them. Those people who choose to live piously, keeping their true religion, will flee far away. Finding them in the mountains, the Antichrist will tempt them by means of demons, but those seven years will be shortened for the sake of the elect. There will be a great famine, with all the elements undergoing a change, such that almost all living creatures will be obliterated.
“After this, suddenly, like lightning from heaven, the Lord will appear, preceded by His precious Cross. A boiling river of fire will go before Him, purifying all the earth of its defilements. The Antichrist will immediately be captured , together with those who have server him, and will be delivered to the eternal fire.
“When the angels have sounded the trumpets, then the entire human race will at once come together from the ends of the earth and from all the elements to Jerusalem — for Jerusalem is the center of the center of the world. Here thrones will have been set up for judgment. Yet each person will be with his own body and soul, all of which will have been transfigured and made incorruptible, and all will have one appearance. The elements themselves will have undergone an alteration for the better.
“With a single word, the Lord will separate the righteous from the sinners. The workers for good will go to receive eternal life and the sinners eternal torment. We ought to know that when He comes again, Christ will not require fasting or miracles, though these are good, but rather works of mercy and compassion, which are far better. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, both the righteous and the sinners will be judged according to six requirements: giving food to the hungry, providing drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting prisoners. By rendering these acts of compassion to the least of our brothers, we perform them for Christ Himself. Since these six requirements can be carried out by everyone, and where on earth, it can be understood why His judgment shall be a just one. Through this realization that God is manifested in love, every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”
Taken from the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, edited by Fr. David Kidd and Mother Gabriella Ursache, Rives Junction, Mi.: HDM Press, 1999., pp. 35-37.
Read the Gospel for each Sunday at home as a family during the preceding week. Ask younger children to color a copy of the icon, or write their own to illustrate the story, to help them remember the events and people.
Ask children to recall events for their own lives when they behaved like the people discussed in each Gospel and share them. For example, did they try to change a habit only to be ridiculed, or look down on someone else for doing the same thing they did (or still do)? Did they whine or become defensive when affection or acknowledgement was given to a sibling or classmate who made a special effort?
Choose a family project for the next year that allows you to perform some act of mercy together. You might consider working at (or starting) a community hot meal program, writing to your parish shut-in and hospitalized parishioners every week, etc.
by Nichola T. Krause
© 2001 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
URL: http://www.theologic.com/oflweb. This web site is donated and maintained by TheoLogic Systems, which provides software and information tools for Orthodox Christians and parishes world wide.