The Catholic Church has opened holy doors of mercy at cathedrals and churches around the world to signal the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy 2016.
As I thought about what this grand gesture might mean for those of us who belong to the Byzantine Rite, I began to think about how often we pray for God’s mercy in our rite.
In the Byzantine Rite, the holy doors of mercy are opened every day in daily prayer and in Divine Liturgy.
At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest and deacon pray together words that have been prayed by others before them since the fifth century:
“Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us. We sinners bring this appeal to You, O Master, for we have no defense.”
They follow these words with a prayer that begins:
“Lord, have mercy on us, for we have put our trust in you.”
Before kissing the icon of Christ and that of the Mother of God, they pray:
“Open the doors of mercy to us, O blessed Mother of God, that we who hope in you may not perish but be delivered by you from danger, for you are the salvation of the Christian people.”
In every Divine Liturgy, we pray for God’s mercy for ourselves and others seventy-five or more times. In each of the hours of the daily office, we pray for mercy at least thirty times and often more than fifty.
The deacon prays Psalm 50 (51) at the start of every Divine Liturgy, and this great psalm of confession and repentance is prayed at four of the eight daily hours.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity.”
In preparation for Lent, we hear the clearest statement about mercy in Scripture, Our Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee as written by Luke (18:10-14).
In the parable Our Lord teaches that the prayer of the Publican will win this humble supplicant salvation, while that of the proud and self-centered Pharisee will not. Our Lord begins the parable with these words:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.”
The prayers of these men could not be more different.
The Pharisee’s prayer is self-congratulatory. He gives thanks to God for being unlike moneylenders, adulterers, and men like the Publican, a tax-collector. A man who values the actions he takes, he recounts that he fasts twice a week and tithes.
“O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men ….”
The Publican, however, stands away from others in the temple. His eyes are lowered, and he beats his chest. His prayer is simple:
“O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
His humility will save him. Perhaps like the Pharisee he fasts twice a week and tithes, but unlike the Pharisee he seeks God’s mercy.
In the Byzantine Rite, the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee is the first of four Sundays of preparation for Lent. It is preceded by Zacchaeus Sunday and the gospel about a different publican Our Lord encounters in Jericho (Luke 19:1-10).
Zacchaeus is filled with joy when the Lord tells him that he wishes to reside in his house during his time there. The crowd murmurs that Our Lord will stay with a sinner; but Zacchaeus stands before the Lord and says:
“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold.”
Zacchaeus condemns no other; he opens his heart to the Lord; and Our Lord responds that salvation has come to his house.
At the core of Byzantine Rite spirituality is the Jesus Prayer. Repeating this prayer of mercy over and over again, hundreds of times a day, is transformative:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The Byzantine Rite is a school of mercy that teaches us to recognize our sins and to pray always for God’s mercy. Through this constant prayer, we learn to be humble; we learn to be merciful.