Prior to beginning the Great Fast, the Church provides us with a pre-lenten preparation. We experience this preparation with five Sundays—Zacchaeus, Publican and Pharisee, Prodigal Son, Meatfare, and Chessefare—wherein we are given lessons to look inward and evaluate ourselves in order to usher us into the Great Fast. The Sunday of Zacchaeus presents us with a tax collector, Zacchaeus, who was, as we know, one of the last to convert before Jesus ascended the Cross (the penitent thief who was crucified with Jesus was the final convert).
We can easily remember this story from the Gospel of Luke about a short guy who wanted to see Jesus. In fact, I can remember being in second grade in Sister Clement’s religion class, having to memorize the story of Zacchaeus to present it to the rest of the class. I remember the amazement I had that this man, a tax-collector who recognizes the fact that he has cheated people during his career, had such a desire to see Jesus that he climbed the sycamore tree in order to catch a glimpse of our Lord. Of course, when looking at the story in its totality, there is much more to be taken away than a man of short stature with a great desire to see our Lord.
Zacchaeus said to himself that it was curiosity that drew him to Christ, but there was something better that was stirring within him. Zacchaeus may have been afraid to acknowledge this. The fame of Jesus as a friend of Publicans had probably reached Zacchaeus and touched him. There is no other instance in the Gospels where Jesus so directly volunteered His company by inviting Himself to Zacchaeus' house. Christ never goes where He is not wanted, nor does He stay away from where He is wanted. This voluntary association with the outcast Zacchaeus is a symbol of Christ's mission. The desire to save Zacchaeus, coupled with His willingness to be identified with sinners, which led Him into the house of the shunned Zacchaeus, was why our Lord descended from Glory to earth and caused Him to dwell among us.
In our world today, we need not worry about being short of stature in order to encounter and see Christ. We attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and experience being in the presence of our Lord through the iconography in our church, through the services we pray, through His word in the Gospel and sermon, and, ultimately, in the reception of our Lord and Savior in the form of the Eucharist. Even though we have this awesome experience, we still allow our shortness to interfere in our relationships with Christ.
It is not necessarily the physical detriment of shortness that we experience that keeps us from seeing or experiencing our Lord. We experience shortness in several other ways that challenge our encounters. How many of us find that we are “short on time,” that we cannot take the time to volunteer, to visit the sick, or travel to be with families or friends. How many of us we are “short on money,” even though we may live a comfortable lifestyle. We consistently push ourselves to the limits with work just to make that extra $100 or $1000, or that because of the constant drive for worldly pleasures we sacrifice private and public prayer time because we just need more? How many of us find that we are “short on patience”—patience for older members of our family when it takes them an extra five minutes to get dressed or get to the car. Patience for the co-worker who may be undergoing personal hardship or tragedies but annoys us with his tapping foot or absent-mindedness in his or her reports. Patience for children (even in church) that are filled with the joy of life and cannot contain or confine themselves and sit still. Indeed, there are many forms of shortness that go well beyond the physical impediment that Zacchaeus experienced.
What we can learn from Zacchaeus is that we can overcome our shortness, but only if we desire to do so, for we have free will and the ability to choose to love and follow Christ; it is our choice to do so. Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his Great Lent (1969) describes the Sunday of Zacchaeus as a Sunday where we encounter desire—a desire to find Christ in our lives, see Him, and welcome Him to be a permanent part of our lives. The aforementioned forms of shortness—amid many others—are just a few examples of how we find it difficult to see Christ, perhaps not physically as Zacchaeus, but in terms of welcoming Him into our homes, our places of work, our very own souls. At the conclusion of this Gospel, our Lord says “The Son of Man has come to search our and save what was lost” (Lk 19:10), and as sons of Adam, we are part of that fallen world where we need to seek and accept Christ. May we enter these next few weeks on our journey to the Great Fast with a stronger desire to learn about Christ and His love for all of us. May we overcome our own spiritual maladies that stem from shortness with Christ by our side and His grace in our souls.