This is the extract from Bishop Alexeander’s homily for Holy and Great Lent, 2005.
“Lord, grant me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.” (from the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian)
Reverend fathers, and dear brothers and sisters in Christ!
We have again survived, by the mercy of God, to those days in which the Church turns our thoughts and feelings to that which is most important in life: the salvation of our souls! On what, then, does it follow that we should concentrate our efforts? On repentance! The preaching of the Gospels begins with the words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). To repent means to change the form of our thoughts, to reconsider the scale of our values, to throw out of our souls all that is foreign to God, to destroy that barrier which has grown between us and the Heavenly Kingdom. In principle this is self-evident and sounds attractive, but in practice it is very difficult to accomplish!
“Open to me the door of repentance, O Giver of Life!” we ask the Savior. In other words, we ask for grace-giving help to truly feel disgust at our sins, to hate that which we formerly loved, and to love that which we earlier scorned. To fly, wings are necessary; to draw near to God, grace-giving strength is indispensable. Without it, as if pitiable snails, we can only crawl along the ground. God is ready to give us spiritual strength, but it is necessary for us also to add our own efforts.
A few people are burdened by the Great Fast. This period seems to them to be too gloomy and strict. These are those who do not know the sweetness of a clean conscience, of the lightness of the soul, freed from the oppression of sin. The Fast is a spiritual spring. Just as under the life-giving rays of the spring sun, nature revives, so the warmth of repentance warms and revives our souls.
Once, in answer to the question of a woman, a believer, about how much time was necessary in order to bring repentance to God, Fr. Ambrose of Optina told her: “For true repentance are nec-essary neither years nor months, but moments are sufficient!” Moments of a decisive turning from sin, from a lackadaisical, light-minded existence — to a life in Christ, to a truly Christian life.
The misfortune of many of us is that it seems to us that we are not such sinners as others are who are much worse than we are, and therefore the call to repent refers namely to them. Such modern Pharisees coming to confession begin with the pronouncement “I don’t have any special sins…”
It’s useful to remember here the story of how two women came to confession to a famous ascetic elder. The first of them was burdened by one terrible sin, for which her conscience troubled her continuously, and the other had no grave sin but only the “usual,” human ones.
The elder, having listened to them, ordered that they go to the orchard and bring stones from it. To her who had the one severe sin, he said: “You take the heaviest stone that you can lift and bring it to me.” And to the other he said: “Here’s a bag for you. Gather small stones and bring them here.” When they both had fulfilled their tasks, the elder thanked them for their obedience and said: “And now, take back that which you have brought to me and put it in its previous place.” The first sinner did this without difficulty, but the other lost her head and returned with virtually a full bag because she couldn’t remember which stone she took from where and she was afraid to deceive the elder.
So then the elder said to her: “Look, your acquaintance has a heavy sin, but she remembers it constantly and mourns over it all the time, but the tears of repentance wash away any sin. You are unable to mourn over your sins because you don’t even remember them, but the weight of your bag is no less than the weight of a big stone.”
Therefore, we must learn that all our “small” sins, the majority of which are forgotten, in their aggregate form a terrible weight, which pulls us toward the underworld if we do not free our soul from them by the path of true repentance.
When, by the help of God, we recognize the true weight of our sins, then we are able to make that salvific turn from a sinful life to a virtuous one. Every sight of sin will become repugnant, and within us, a thirst for contact with God, a thirst to live according to His Divine teachings, will arise. To arouse in us these bright feelings is the goal of the ascetic act of the Great Fast.
And so, calling us to repentance, the Church reminds us that without the grace-giving help of God, we are not able to repent as is necessary, because the voice of our conscience has become weak and our spiritual sight has become darkened.
Let us pray to God that He, the merciful one, opens before us the doors of repentance and lets us feel the joy that we are His children and He is our loving Father. Amen.