Fifth week of Great Lent: the Sacrament of Penitence

It is easy to go to confession. When we stand before the priest, there is usually a list of sins available. We can look at it and be reminded of our sins. An experienced priest will be able to help us by suggesting possible sins that we may have committed. At the end of confession the priest asks us: do we repent of our sins? Note the question, dear brethren! We are not asked: have you confessed your sins? But - do you repent of your sins?
Fr Rostislav Sheniloff | 03 April 2009

Source: The Transfiguration of our Lord Russian Orthodox Church

 

And so, dear brethren, we have reached the fifth Sunday of the Great Lent. Today the Holy Church offers us St. Mary of Egypt as a supreme example of repentance. Not everyone is able to understand why, precisely, the Church has chosen her. “She led a most sinful life,” – they say, – “she was a terrible sinner.” But such words can be said only by those who have not yet come to understand the sacrament of penitence.

Let us carefully consider this extraordinary sacrament. Let us first look at how it is revealed to us in the example of the venerable Mary. St. Mary of Egypt led a dissolute way of life. Arriving in Jerusalem, even there she continued to engage in debauchery. But when she wanted to go into the church and venerate the Lord’s precious Cross, she was barred from entering. Gradually she understood why that was happening and began weeping bitterly. Catching sight of an icon of the Mother of God, she prayed to it, repented her way of life and vowed, under the guidance of the Holy Virgin, to reform her life.

At first glance it may seem an easy thing to do. However, let us think, dear brethren: how many of us have truly repented our sins? The Church calls us to penitence and communion. And so we go, and we confess our sins, and we partake of the Holy Mysteries. But… during confession, do we truly repent? or do we only list our sins?

It is easy to go to confession. When we stand before the priest, there is usually a list of sins available. We can look at it and be reminded of our sins. An experienced priest will be able to help us by suggesting possible sins that we may have committed. At the end of confession the priest asks us: do we repent of our sins? Note the question, dear brethren! We are not asked: have you confessed your sins? But – do you repent of your sins? And when we answer: yes, I repent, – we must feel complete remorse in our hearts and truly repent, repent in the same way that Mary of Egypt repented her sinful life.

At least once in our lifetime we receive encouragement towards penitence. Mary of Egypt was barred from entering the church. She understood the reason and spent the following 47 years in penitence. For us the doors of the church are not closed; however, we close them ourselves. “How is that?” – you may well ask. – “I go to church, I confess, I take communion.” Dear brethren! If we, knowing that a service is going on in church, go out to amuse ourselves instead, or sit around the house in idleness, or if we, having taken communion, immediately begin to pass judgment on others and commit anew the sins that we have just confessed, – we close the doors of the church upon ourselves. Even if we enter the church physically, our constant and unrepented sins bar from our souls the grace, the purity, the comfort which we expect to receive in church.

We must understand the sacrament of penitence and immerse our-selves fully in it. After St. Mary of Egypt realized her sins and her guilt, the Holy Virgin led her out of society into the desert, where she became completely immersed in repentance and spent many years in this spiritual labor. For her absolute repentance, her soul was totally healed and she ascended to a level of absolute sanctity. When the venerable Zosimas found her in the desert, she was waiting for him. She had become like the angels.

St. Mary actually confessed only three times in her life: the first time – before the icon of the Mother of God, when she became aware of her sins; the second time – in church before her departure for the desert; and the last time – to the elder Zosimas, when she recounted her life to him. But she repented for 47 years. Through her penitence she so purified her soul, returned both her soul and her body to such a paradisal state, that she lay dead in the desert for a whole year, untouched by corruption, or beasts, or the burning sun, or the windswept sands, and when the elder Zosimas found her, a lion came out of the desert and helped bury her. Thus the Lord Himself glorified her and gave her to us as an example of supreme repentance.

Five weeks of the Great Lent have passed already, dear brethren. Let us ask ourselves: have I begun to repent as Mary of Egypt once repented? Have I become aware of my sins? Have I truly understood them and have I repented of them with a sincere intention of reforming myself? Let us not come to confession simply to list our sins, dear brethren, but let us come and repent of them in all earnestness, let us purify our hearts, so that we could truly sing: “The angels sing in the heavens of Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Saviour, and may we on earth glorify Thee with a pure heart.” Amen.

 

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