“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” (Lk. 19:5)

For many of us, on the Sunday when we hear the Gospel reading of the ‘vertically challenged’ tax collector, Zacchaeus it means one thing for certain: the liturgical season of Great Lent will be upon us before we know it!

The details of his encounter with Jesus are familiar to all of us.  Zacchaeus, a sinful and avaricious tax collector, despised by everyone, hears Jesus passing by.  He experiences a sudden desire to see him in the flesh and climbs up a tree in order to catch sight of him.  Jesus notices him perched on a branch and orders him to climb down and take him to his house where Jesus dines with him.  As a result, Zacchaeus undergoes a total conversion from his sinful ways.

In many ways, the story of Zacchaeus mirrors our own personal story because each of us sits, mired in the morass of our sins and temptations, much like Zacchaeus at his money table.  Unfortunately, many people today remain in this deplorable state for a lifetime, content to be so.

But the story of Zacchaeus demonstrates to us that it does not have to be this way.  We are not necessarily doomed to live out our lives in sin and despair.  Jesus Christ came to this earth as man and God, to change the direction of our lives and to make them better.

Jesus is always seeking us out, always calling us by name, but many times the concerns and comforts of our life stifle His voice from reaching our ears, much like Zacchaeus, whose short stature prevented him from seeing Jesus through the crowd of people.

But something wonderful and unexpected happens to Zacchaeus.  He suddenly feels a tug of desire at his heart.  He realizes that he must, at all costs, see Jesus for himself, up close.  And, leaving his personal dignity at his table, he makes a spectacle of himself as he clambers, like a child, up a tree and onto an overhanging branch in order catch a glimpse of Jesus, passing by.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

What was this strange desire that suddenly came over him?  And, more importantly, can we also experience this same feeling that would enable us to leave our sins at the side of the road and radically change our lives and devote them to Jesus, as well?  The answer is: yes, we can, but not alone!

Fortunately for us, the Church realizes that we need help in hearing the voice of Jesus, we need help in experiencing the desire to see Jesus, we need help in climbing the tree of our personal conversion, and we are helpless if we attempt this with our own limited powers alone.  This is why the Church, in her wisdom, offers us the gift of the holy forty days of Great Lent each year before the celebration of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, as a divine aid in attaining personal conversion.

During Great Lent the Church presents us with a sure formula for achieving this goal: prayer, alms-giving and fasting.  During the time of Lent we are encouraged to be more devoted to our prayer life, through private meditation and by attending the beautiful and unique Lenten services celebrated in our parish churches.  We are also encouraged to pay special attention to our brothers and sisters around us, who may be suffering physical, emotional, or spiritual distress, and serve them in their needs.  And finally we are encouraged to fast, in order to attain humility through the taming of our physical appetites, our thoughts, our actions and especially our unruly tongue.

Standing on these three tall pillars of Great Lent, we will be able to rise above the crowd just like Zacchaeus climbing the tree.  Like Zacchaeus, nothing will be able to impede our vision, nothing will be able to block our hearing.  Zacchaeus shows us that, when we take the first, sometimes difficult step towards Jesus, He will always quickly hasten to us, always beckon us, always embrace us, always enter into our homes, always forgive us, always renew us.

Zacchaeus’ journey of conversion climbing up a tree towards a personal encounter with Jesus is a symbol of our own Lenten journey of conversion towards our own encounter with Our Lord during the time of Great Lent; a journey towards the moment when we recognize Jesus as Lord and Master of our lives.

For each of us the place of encounter is personal and unique.  For Zaccheus, the encounter took place in a very unlikely place, in the branches of a Sycamore tree.  For us it could be when we are immersed in prayer, or when we offer a helping hand to someone in need, or when we choose to speak good of someone rather than evil, or at some other time and place when we least expect it.

Our sincere prayer is that each of us, during this blessed time of Great Lent, may experience an encounter with Jesus and a personal conversion in Him so that we, along with Zacchaeus, would hear the voice of Jesus saying to us: “Today salvation has come to this house”.  (Lk. 19:9)
+Stefan Soroka
Archbishop of Philadelphia for Ukrainians
Metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the United States

+Paul Chomnycky, OSBM (author)
Eparch of Stamford

+ Bohdan Danylo
Eparch of St. Josaphat in Parma

+John Bura
Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia

Very Rev. Richard Janowicz, Apostolic Administrator
 St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy in Chicago