“Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life.” So we sing every Sunday after the Orthros gospel reading from the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee until the end of Lent. This fragment of a hymn, brief as it is, contains a couple of important elements about the season we are entering.
The first important element is that repentance is essential to our preparation for Pascha. Of course, as both Christ and St. John the Baptist call out to us, we are called to a continual repentance. However, Lent places particular emphasis on repentance. It does so through its austere character – the fast encourages us to focus more on the spiritual parts of our lives than the material. It also does it through the tone of its hymns, which remind us of our need for God’s forgiveness. In the noise of our lives, the constant messaging of self-acceptance, and the societal dismissal of sin in the Christian sense, this essential counterbalancing element of repentance is often lost.
I, for one, trust the “messaging” of St. John the Theologian more than the messaging of the media, politicians, or activists of various forms. Some things in St. John’s favor:
- he was not looking for power or his own glory,
- he was nut interested in winning popularity (or voting) contests
- he is the beloved disciple, who followed Christ at his trial farther than all the other disciples, and whom the Lord himself trusted by placing His Mother in his care.
And St. John says
“Brethren, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1 8-10).
At times St. John’s words express theology in poetic language, with layers of meaning that theologians through the ages have attempted to unpack. Then, there are times like this, when he speaks plainly and leaves no wiggle room for interpretation.
It is easier to attempt to escape reality and attempt to live in a fantasy created by our minds (albeit with much outside help). Much of today’s expenditures in time, effort, and money seem to be geared towards exactly that. But escaping reality only serves as a new kind of lie we tell ourselves. If we accept the lie(s), His word still can find no place with us.
It seems to me that, with the lies becoming ever more sophisticated and praying on our fallen desires, an important question to ask is: how do we not accept these lies? I think the answer begins by struggling to accept the word of Scripture, as we find in St. John above or St. Paul (e.g., Rom 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). It is important, at this time, to also look at how we accept these words. They are statements of fact, not of words of condemnation. Their acceptance is the equivalent of the first step in addiction recovery programs: admitting that we have a problem. This acceptance needs to be accompanied by the knowledge that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
It is in this spirit and with the realization that the ultimate triumph over sin belongs to Christ that the Church invites us into the Lenten journey. Approached in this way, with trust in God’s love and reliance on His grace, the shame and despondency of acknowledging our sins lose their power over us. Instead, we can taste the joyful sorrow of the healing of our souls, which then allows us to partake more fully of the joy of the Resurrection.
May our Lord guide us through the journey of repentance to salvation.
With love in Christ