January 28, 2018

History of the First Sunday of the Triodion (Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

By John Sanidopoulos

As we enter the period of the Triodion, which is the three week preparatory period leading up to Great Lent, it is important to remember from a historical perspective that the reason it exists is because as the history of the Church developed over the centuries, so did its feasts and commemorations and the meanings behind them. In the early centuries of the Church, the Sunday's of Great Lent were primarily associated with the Gospel Reading of the day, which were meant to catechize especially the catechumens who were preparing for Holy Baptism around Easter time. This is why before the seventh century, the Third Sunday of Great Lent was dedicated to the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This all changed however in the seventh century, when in 614 the Persian king Chosroes II sacked Jerusalem and took, along with the spoils, the relic of the True Cross. It was recovered fourteen years later by Emperor Heraclius II who defeated the Persians and in the spring of 629 personally carried it back to Jerusalem. The return of the True Cross to the Church of Jerusalem by the Emperor considerably enhanced the veneration of the Holy Cross, which eventually resulted in placing its veneration at the Third Sunday of Great Lent, since catechumens were becoming more rare at that time. Another reason the Third Sunday of Great Lent was dedicated to the Holy Cross was because on March 6th the Church celebrated the Finding the Honorable Cross by Saint Helen, but because it usually landed on a fasting day it could not be properly celebrated, so it was given a permanent placement on a Sunday in Great Lent when it could be properly celebrated. Today only the Doxastikon of the Praises during Matins and many Idiomela remind us of the Publican and the Pharisee on the Third Sunday of Great Lent.

Since the Gospel Reading also was replaced on the Third Sunday of Great Lent to focus more on the Cross, it was decided to move the Gospel Reading of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee to the fourth Sunday preceding Great Lent, as a lesson to be learned before entering the forty day fast. When exactly this was done is not clear, but it must have been in the seventh century, perhaps beginning in the Church of Jerusalem and eventually becoming universal by the tenth century. The Triodion hymns for the most part as we have them today were organized by Studite monks in ninth century Constantinople, drawing on hymns from hymnographers of Jerusalem from the seventh and eighth century (such as John of Damascus and his brother Kosmas the Melodist), with slight developments up until the fourteenth century, when the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas was added for the Second Sunday of Great Lent (which until the sixth century was dedicated to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and was replaced by the Healing of the Paralyzed Man until the fourteenth century). By placing the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee at the first Sunday of the Triodion period, the Church is trying to teach us the value of humility and to not merely trust in our own fasting and good works to gain mercy and favor from God. This is why the week following the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is a fast-free week, as St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, "for what profit is there in fasting twice a week, if in so doing it serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and if it makes you arrogant, haughty and selfish?"