March - April 2017
Post date: Jun 19, 2017 9:27:36 PM
Every year in Great Lent, the Church reads a great part of the book of Isaiah. There are many reasons for this practice. The most important are the beautiful messianic prophecies and the promises that all nations will know the true God, both of which are found throughout the book. The Great Compline hymn, “God is with us,” is taken from various parts of Isaiah, as well. Those themes are hard to miss in the Lenten services. Here, however, I would like to focus on one more, small connection between Isaiah and Great Lent:
I, even I, am he that blots out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and thy sins; and I will not remember them. But do thou remember, and let us plead together: do thou first confess thy transgressions, that thou mayest be justified (Isaiah 43:25-26).
This passage is closely echoed in the New Testament: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8).
In commenting on the Isaiah passage, the Fathers of the Church tell us to “Groan bitterly, sacrifice confession (for, he says, “Declare first your transgressions that you may be justified”), sacrifice contrition of heart” (St. John Chrysostom). They remind us that “prayer and confession with humility are voluntary acts. Therefore it is enjoined, ‘First tell your sins, that you may be justified’ ” (St. Clement of Alexandria). St. Jerome tells us that “we are just when we acknowledge that we are sinners, and our justice depends not on our personal merit but rather on the mercy of God.” Finally, returning to St. John Chrysostom, he encourages us by saying that “Time does not excuse; rather, the manner of the repentant individual erases the sin. One individual may wait a long time and not gain salvation, and another, who confesses genuinely, is stripped of the sin inside a short time.”
The passage is just two verses long, but the quotes above are only a small selection from the various commentaries on them. Such is the importance of repentance and confession in the life of the Orthodox. Indeed they are so important that St. Theophan the Recluse said that “it is impossible to live at peace with God without continual repentance” (in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p. 227). As radical as St. Theophan’s statement may seem, it is little more than a restatement of the petition we pray at each Divine Liturgy: “That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask the Lord.” And, while repentance should be continual, we need our annual reminder to refocus on it.
We are now in that time when repentance is brought into clearer focus. Beginning with the first Sunday of the Triodion and continuing through Holy Week, many hymns are written and are meant to be prayed in the first person singular.
At Orthros on Sundays, we sing:
When I ponder in my wretchedness on the many terrible things that I have done, I tremble for that fearful day, the Day of Judgment. But trusting in the mercy of Your compassion, like David I cry to You, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy" (Troparion following the Orthros Gospel).
And in the canon of St. Andrew:
I confess to You, O Christ my King: I have sinned; I have sinned like the brethren of Joseph, who once sold the fruit of purity and chastity (Compline, Clean Monday, ode 5).
These are but two examples of the hymns that call us to repentance and confession. Let us listen to them with our ears, minds, and hearts. Let us hear the many other hymns and prayers that the Church places before us in order to help us draw near to God. Let us read them and pray them, not merely as hymns someone wrote a long time ago, but as coming from the depths of our hearts at the very moment we encounter them, for this is the way of salvation.
Archimandrite Zacharias, expounding on the spiritual inheritance of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, explains it thus:
By putting ourselves voluntarily before the judgment of God, that is to say, by examining ourselves strictly in the light of His commandments (that is our judgment) He gives us ‘a mouth and wisdom’. He puts in our mouth, rather in our heart, the prayer of repentance, which justifies us. St. John the Divine says that there is a way for man to become infallible—the only way upon earth that man can be infallible—is when he acknowledges his sinfulness (Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart).
Archimandrite Zacharias refers to the text in 1 John quoted above, which parallels the text of Isaiah. And so we see, some two thousand seven hundred years after Isaiah the prophet lived, the truth he taught regarding the necessity of repentance, preserved fully in the life of the Church.
May our Lord give us the grace to bring this truth into our lives so that we may arrive at the Feast of Feasts with bright hearts, filled with the grace that God bestows upon those who repent with fervor.
With love in Christ,