This is a question I think we all would benefit from considering: Why does this parish exist? What is our purpose? What is our mission?
Today, we celebrate the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom. It is also the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which is, in a way, the start of our preparation for Great Lent – itself a time for us to prepare for the celebration of Pascha, and our Lord’s victory for life over death. We can be guided in our consideration of the question about our parish’s mission and purpose by today’s remembrances.
St. Basil the Great, among many other things, is credited with writing the Divine Liturgy that we use ten times each year, particularly on the Sundays in Great Lent, as well as on the eves of the Nativity and the Theophany of our Lord. From the congregation’s point a view, apart from a different hymn to the Theotokos after the consecration of the Body and Blood of our Lord, the only noticeable difference from the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is that some of the responses from the choir are longer. This is because the prayers said quietly – “secretly” – in the altar are much longer. The prayers tend to be much more penitential in nature, which is why the liturgy of St. Basil is used for Great Lent and the eves of the great feasts. These are truly beautiful and profound prayers, and I would encourage you to read them. St. Gregory wrote the liturgy for the Presanctified Gifts; also a very moving service, markedly different from the other liturgies we use. And, of course, we should all be familiar with the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the “workhorse” of our worship services – being celebrated today.
We are all familiar, I am sure, with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. One of the men depicted in the parable is in the Temple, praying, it seems, to God, but actually, he is praising himself. The other knows that he is a sinner, unworthy of any good thing from God; and so he humbles himself, praying, simply, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Our Lord is teaching His disciples that the mercy of God is given to those who are humble.
How does the celebration of the Three Hierarchs, and of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, help us answer the question about our parish mission and purpose? From the holy Hierarchs, we learn the importance of worship in our lives as Orthodox Christians; and especially the celebration of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Receiving the Holy Mysteries cleanses us, and strengthens us, so that we can labor and do our part in the transformation of our being. To receive the Mysteries, we prepare ourselves by prayer and fasting, and by penitence, confessing our sins, and humbling ourselves, and not thinking that we are somehow worthy of any good thing, apart from the love and mercy of God. This is a lesson we learn from the Publican, as he prays with humility for the mercy of God.
Let me conclude by giving you my answer to the question. The mission of our parish is to help each one of us to save our souls; and, as we labor to do so, to reach out to others in the world around us, who dwell in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to bring them the light of the love of God in Christ, so that they, also, may see the way to save their souls, and share that journey with us. We have no other reason to exist; we have no other purpose, than the salvation of souls.
The Orthodox faith is the true faith; there is no other way for us to be saved. The Orthodox way of life – of prayer, and fasting, of giving alms and offerings, and struggling against our passions; of loving and caring for each other, in humility considering all others to be more worthy than are we, ourselves; and worshipping God – this is the way we put the Orthodox faith in action; this is the way we save our souls. And when we do so, our lives are transformed, and we become different – and, by God’s grace, perhaps this difference stirs up something in others, and causes them to desire it for themselves. Then we can play a part in their salvation, as well as our own.
There is one other lesson we should learn from the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee, when he sees the Publican, compares himself to the Publican, and thinks he is the better of the two. The Publican thinks of no one else, but sees only his own sins. We need to do the same. We should not see what others in Church are wearing, and think less of them. We should not see what others are doing, and think that we know more, or are better, because we know how to cross ourselves, or when to bow, or any other form of external devotion. It is good for us to know these things; and we all should do all that is in our power to conduct ourselves properly for worship. But let us examine only ourselves, and let us be critical only of ourselves, and so be strict only with ourselves; for when we do, we are like the Publican; and so we also may have hope that our sins will be forgiven, and our souls will be saved.