This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things. -St. Isaac the Syrian
Orthodox Bishop, Kallistos Ware, points out that St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ both begin their preaching with exactly the same words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 3:2, 4:17) Bishop Kallistos affirms that “such is the starting point of the Good News—repentance. Without repentance there can be no new life, no salvation, no entry into the Kingdom of heaven.”
For many of us recovering from a guilt-ridden Protestantism or juridical Catholicism, the words “sin” and “repentance” can grate against our joyful liberal “progressive” Christian identity. Anglicans have virtually abandoned the rite of reconciliation (all may, none must, some should, most don’t). Some clergy just omit the corporate confession and absolution in the Rite for the Holy Eucharist. The language of sin and death doesn’t bode well for filling our pews with newcomers, it would seem. We tactfully tiptoe around these words, somehow afraid that we’re being perceived as exclusive, barn-burner preachers with tightly brill-creamed hair, our voices hoarse with gnashing of teeth and hell fire, waving the holy book above our heads.
Fair enough. I mean, who can blame us? For most of my Facebook friends, the Christian brand of judgement, accusation, elitism, intolerance, gun-toting, gay-converting conservatism are caricatures of another planet: a planet that does not seem to embrace the loving God made know in Jesus Christ.
But I think the allergic reaction to sin and repentance that has infiltrated our Christian and sacramental vision has sadly robbed us of a foundational key: we cannot participate in resurrection without the cross. To be become Christian is a lifelong journey of conversion, of change, of death to life. Metanoia, repentance, is always a return to the font, again, and again, and again. We are being restored, and we are continually called to reorder our thinking and our wills towards the one true source of life. This can be painful, counter-cultural, and even life-changing.
A good observation Ware points to is the connection between repentance and the glory of resurrection: “Until we have seen the light of Christ, we cannot really see our sins. So long as a room is in darkness, observes St Theophan the recluse, we do not notice the dirt; but when we bring a powerful light into the room—when, that is, we stand before the Lord in our heart—we can distinguish every speck of dust… The sequence is not to repent first, and then to become aware of Christ; for it is only when the light of Christ has already in some measure entered our life that we begin truly to understand our sinfulness.” He draws on E.I. Watkin, who says, “Sin…is the shadow cast by the light of God intercepted by any attachement of the will which prevents it illuminating the soul. Thus the knowledge of God gives rise to a sense of sin, not vice versa.” Ware affirms this is the beginning of repentance: “a vision of beauty, not of ugliness, an awareness of God’s glory, not of my own squalor. ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’ (Mt 5:4): repentance signifies not merely mourning for our sins, but the ‘comfort’ or ‘consolation’ that comes form the assurance of God’s forgiveness. The ‘great understanding; or ‘change of mind’ signified by repentance consists precisely in this: in recognizing that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness does not swallow it up (Jn 1:5)… The repentant person is the one who accepts the miracle that God does indeed have power to forgive sins. And, once we accept this miracle, for us the past is then no longer an intolerable burden, for we no longer see the past as irreversible. Divine forgiveness breaks the chain of cause and effect, and unties the knots in our hearts which by ourselves we are able to unloose.”
This return is often called the Way of Tears. “St. Isaac the Syrian says: “the newborn child weeps as it is born into the world; similarly the Christian weeps as it is reborn into the age to come.” Tears of our awareness of our own inability to fix ourselves, and tears of joy that come from our illumination to the overwhelming and awesome mercy of God who dissolves our brokenness in infinite love. Lent, and the journey of repentance is not one of empty dismal sorrow, but rather “…always carrying in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body,…dying, and behold we live…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. (2 Cor 4:10; 6:9-10)””
Bishop Kallistos concludes: “As a life of continual repentance, our Christian discipleship is a sharing at one and the same time in Gethsemane and the Transfiguration, in the Cross and the Resurrection. St. John Climacus sums the matter up by saying: “If you put on a blessed and grace-filled mourning as a wedding robe, you will know the spiritual laughter of the soul.””
This great journey that we are participants in is one that engages our whole selves: every atom in a return to the font, to the waters of regeneration, returning to our natural state of life—life in communion, and “participants of the divine nature” (1 Peter 2:4). As much as we proclaim resurrection and the love of God that transforms all things, we are like caterpillars who shun the cocoon if we avoid the life-giving cross. We cannot find the stairs that ascend without diving deep into the luminous darkness of faith.
Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven—for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend. -St. Isaac the Syrian
References drawn from Bishop Kallistos Ware. The Inner Kingdom: Volume 1 of the Collected Works. (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood NY:2000)