The Church provides us with a series of Sundays to prepare us for the journey of Great Lent. The Sunday of Zacchæus is the first of these signposts that teach us how to approach the Fast.
This Sunday we learn that we are like Zacchæus himself: we strain on tip-toes to look over the tumult of our lives to see Christ, but cannot due to our short (spiritual) stature. Since we cannot see beyond the crowd (our sins and passions) on our own, we climb the tree of Great Lent that the Church has given us so as to be able to see the Resurrection of Christ at Pascha. And in the process we discover that Christ is seeking us, and as He did with Zacchæus, “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
This Sunday’s Gospel reading tells how Christ brought salvation to Zacchæus the tax-collector, and how his life was changed simply because he “sought to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3). The desire and effort to see Jesus begins the entire movement through Lent towards Pascha. It is the first movement of salvation. Our lenten journey begins with a recognition of our own sinfulness, just as Zacchæus recognized his. He promised to make restitution by giving half of his wealth to the poor, and by paying to those he had falsely accused four times as much as they had lost. In this, he went beyond the requirements of the Law (Ex. 22:3-12).
The example of Zacchæus teaches us that we should turn away from our sins, and atone for them. The real proof of our sorrow and repentance is not just a verbal apology, but when we correct ourselves and try to make amends for the consequences of our evil actions.
We are also assured of God’s mercy and compassion by Christ’s words to Zacchæus, “Today salvation is come to this house” (Luke 19:9). After the Great Doxology at Sunday Matins (when the Tone of the week is Tone 1, 3, 5, 7) we sing the Dismissal Hymn of the Resurrection “Today salvation has come to the world,” which echoes the Lord’s words to Zacchæus.
Zacchæus was short, so he climbed a tree in order to see the Lord. All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We are also short in our spiritual stature, therefore we must climb the ladder of the virtues. In other words, we must prepare for spiritual effort and growth.
History tells us Zacchæus went on to become to become the first bishop of Caesarea: “Of Cæsarea of Palestine, the first was Zacchæus, who was once a publican; after whom was Cornelius, and the third Theophilus.”*
St Zacchæus is additionally commemorated on April 20.
*Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, ANF(7), 477-8.