The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:12-17)
Last week we celebrated the Feast of Theophany and it was indeed a glorious celebration as we welcomed 8 new members into the family of God, the holy Church.
The feast of Theophany is special in it’s own right and it also has the special distinction of being the event which happened at the start of the preaching ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was an indication that something new was about to happen. Something for which the world had groaned and hoped and desired. St. Matthew tells us that the Lord came to dwell in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali and that this would fulfill what was spoken of hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Isaiah who wrote “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
The Word of God began to teach mankind directly through His word, through His preaching and teaching. He began His process of recreating the universe which He had created by His own word by recreating humanity with His life giving teachings. And we are told that the very first precious word of the Lord’s preaching ministry is this one powerful word “REPENT”.
The word “repent” means to have a change of heart or a change of mind. It means that we who have turned our back to God will turn around and face Him and walk towards Him with our whole person, in our actions and purpose, in our bodies and minds and hearts.
Step one of the Orthodox Christian life is to understand that all of life is a life of repentance. It is one of the subjects that the saints and fathers and mothers of the Church do no cease to discuss and teach.
One of the modern saints, St. Nikolai Velimirovic said
“Repentance is the abandoning of all false paths that have been trodden by men’s feet, and men’s thoughts and desires, and a return to the new path: Christ’s path. But how can a sinful man repent unless he, in his heart, meets with the Lord and knows his own shame? Before little Zacchaeus saw the Lord with his eyes, he met Him in his heart and was ashamed of all his ways.”
Repentance is not about shame, but it involves shame. Shame is not desirable as a stopping place, but as a starting point to turning back to Christ. When we have a healthy sense of shame, it turns our attention from actions and thoughts that bring us separation from God, death and destruction and it turns us towards what St. Nikolai calls a new path, Christ’s path. If he doesn’t think about his life and his actions, if he doesn’t reflect and acknowledge his wrongdoing he deceives himself. It means that he or she is on a false path because the path does not lead back to Christ. Only the path of painful, genuine, heartfelt shame brings us to fall on our knees and cry out to God from the depths of the heart. This is the prayer that is precious in the sight of God.
King David understood this well and we see it reflected in Psalm 50, which in common usage is actually Psalm 51 and begins “Have mercy on me. O God.” In this psalm we hear these words,
“For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.”
God doesn’t ask for much, He certainly doesn’t require animal or blood sacrifices from us as He once did of the people of Israel. But He does desire a sacrifice, the sacrifice of our spirit, the sacrifice of our heart. He doesn’t need it. But He knows that we need it. Unless we tear down the old way of our life through repentance, we are doomed to continue going down that path again and again. Repentance is quite painful but it is the only way forward. Why is it painful? Because we have made sin a part of who we are and it clings to and infects every aspect of us from our thoughts to our activities to our appearance to our speech. It even affects our sleep. When one actually repents he is declaring war on his desires and passions and this is a type of death. We start that process in baptism as we put to death the old man, and come to newness of life with the resurrected Lord Jesus. Repentance is indeed tough.It destroys the old, crooked ways that feellike they area part of usand itlays the groundwork and foundation for anew road to Christ our King.
St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote this about repentance“Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged. For this reason it is good to repent each day as the act of repentance is unending.”
How do we do this? We repent daily. We pray the prayers of repentance such as Psalm 50/51. We study the Gospels and learn just how far we are from the ideals that the Lord is teaching. We use Him as our canon and measuring stick. We also come to confession. There is no doubt in my mind that confession is one of the most difficult spiritual practices and that is why it is also one of the most beneficial. It causes pain to bring out one’s inner sins and shame and declare them to the Lord in the presence of the priest. But this pain is actually life-giving surgery. Through this momentary pain, pride is uprooted and humility is laid down as the foundation of the journey to Christ.
The Orthodox Church teaches that as we begin the difficult work of repentance we will not be alone. God will do most of the work. He is merciful to help us and save us. He feels for us and desires to transform us into new creatures. He alone does the work of redemption by His grace. Repentance is the key by which we enter into His grace and presence.
May Christ our God give us the courage to repent genuinely and thoroughly, that we might allow Him to refashion us properly, in His blessed image and likeness. That He alone might bind our wounds and turn our shame into eternal joy. Glory be to God Forever AMEN.