Published in the Post and Courier on 2/25/07, there entitled: Repentance a renewal, not doom and gloom
By Fr. John Parker
The vast majority of Christians on our planet began, this past week, to celebrate Lent, also known as the Great Fast in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The Fast owes its existence, in part, to the 40 days in which Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by the devil following His baptism by St. John the Forerunner. The Great Fast is, for us in the world, our annual pilgrimage to the inner desert, wherein we seek to join ourselves most fully to God by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in anticipation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we struggle to learn and to live: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” And, “you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”
This voluntary sojourn in the inner-desert is book-ended in Matthew’s Gospel by a command given on the one end by St. John the Baptist (3:2), and on the other, echoed by our Lord Jesus Christ (4:17), “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” By “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Jesus indicates that He himself is inaugurating the re-creation of the world. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension are as God incarnate who has come to save the world. And by ‘world’, He does not mean just “people”. The Holy Scriptures teach that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…”. He so loved the ‘cosmos’, as it says in Greek. God’s renewal of the fallen cosmos is now underway, and will be completed, we believe, with Jesus’ second coming to judge the world.
But what does it mean, “Repent?” The word itself strikes fear in the hearts of some, occasionally brow-beaten by self-appointed prophets of doom who announce, “Turn or burn!” by their placards and angry voices. For many others, “repent” is some old-fashioned concept rooted in a time from which we have now been liberated—a time when somebody besides myself had the authority to tell me what is right and wrong—mostly what is wrong. In this view, repentance is what fools do who don’t yet understand that what’s right in my eyes is right for me, and what is right for you is right for you.
Neither of these is Christian, so what does a Christian understand when he reads “Repent!”? Repent means this: change your mind. Change your heart. Change your direction. But this change presumes that there is a revealed standard. There is a ‘right mind’; there is a ‘right heart’; there is a ‘right direction’. We are not turning around for the sake of going in another, random direction. We do not change our hearts to match that of some Hollywood star. We do not change our mind in order simply to have a new perspective—in order to get out of a rut.
When a Christian observes what we call daily life, we don’t see life—we see remnants of life, and a lot of death. We know what life is because God has revealed what life is—or more precisely, because in Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself as life. Through the lens of Jesus, we see ourselves as seriously lacking, and only remotely human. We recognize our need to turn back to Him.
The beauty of it all, though, is that because of God’s love and mercy for the whole cosmos, death does not reign permanently. Jesus has conquered sin and death, and we can make this return to Him. In fact, it is He Himself who calls us home—to change our minds, hearts, and directions. To return to the narrow, straight path. To return to chastity, humility, patience, and love, not as defined by the world, but as revealed in Christ. To return to God.
Repentance is not a threat (or else!), it is a gift. It is the return flight of what we thought was a one-way ticket to destruction and death. Repentance is not out-moded and old-fashioned. Rather, it is a moment-by-moment renewal, and in fact, it is evidence of the truly open mind, especially when one recognizes that his own is not right.
Orthodox Christians exhort one another to “enter the Fast with joy”. Repent with joy? Yes! And we can do so precisely because we understand that repentance brings healing and union with God, and not a judicial acquittal from an angry judge on the last day. Repentance is God’s grace returning life to a dying world. Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church on the Square in I’On. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 843-881-5010.