“… the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘” (Matthew 4:16-17)
The first sermon that Jesus preached according to St. Matthew was a one line, straight forward message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘ That message, a call to repentance has been central to the Christian message ever since. At every Orthodox liturgy we pray that “we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and in repentance.”
All of us who are members of the Orthodox Church have personally embraced that message and have agreed that repentance is essential to cure what ails us as human beings. Every year we attend the “School of Repentance” – Great Lent – in order to respond to the call of Jesus Christ. We are the ones who have said “I need to repent” – Christ’s Gospel message have resonated with us. In the first week of Great Lent we pray the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.” We each acknowledge our personal need for God’s mercy and the forgiveness that Christ offers to repentant sinners. St. Andrew’s Canon is not a dreary dirge but rather brings us face to face with Christ’s call to repentance. It is meant to change our heart of stone into one of flesh, which feels the pain of sin and it’s result – our separation from God. The Canon is meant to awaken in us that pain of separation so that we seek God with all our heart.
Repentance in Orthodox spirituality is normative to our daily spiritual life – instead of blaming everyone else for the world’s sorrows and problems, we acknowledge our own personal contribution to the problems and sorrows of the world. We come to church not to blame violent shooters and sexual predators, but to repent not only of our personal sins but also of anything we do which enables such sin to continue in the world.
We can consider the words from one of the Lenten hymns for the first week of Lent:
Let us keep the fast not only by refraining from food,
But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions;
That we how are enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh
May become worthy to partake of the Lamb, the Son of God.
Strangers to bodily passions . . . enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh – sounds like monastic exaggeration or extremism. Yet, for all of us “living in the world” we can readily understand these words in our daily experience. How often do we make choices purely because it is easy, comfortable, convenient or pleasurable? When choices made based on any of those become our pattern of behavior, we have become slaves to them. We avoid choosing what is good or right or godly preferring to follow that path of least resistance – what is pleasurable, convenient, comfortable or easy. We don’t want to have to fast, or practice self denial, or attend a weekday service, or give more to charity or to have to apologize to others or forgive them. Thus ease and convenience and comfort tyrannize us – as we don’t want to have to deal with what is difficult or important and so allow our lives to be controlled by the tyranny of the flesh = that which is easy, convenient, pleasurable and comfortable. Instead of doing the next right, good or godly thing, we opt for ease and convenience and let that govern our daily lives.
Lent is the chance to regain control of our choices. To recognize how ease and convenience are really tyranny of the flesh. Repentance means changing one’s mind and heart, allowing it to be healed of the tyranny of the flesh and the passions, so that we in fact strive for what is godly.