Welcome to Great Lent! Thanks be to God for this holy opportunity to renew our lives to the Lord through the Holy Fast! Truly this liturgical season is a time in which the Church is cleansed and renewed in Christ through the grace of repentance. Indeed, Great Lent is meaningless if we are just going through the ‘motions’ of prostrations, fasting, saying prayers, etc. if our external efforts are not coupled with sincere heartfelt repentance. But just what is repentance?
According to St. Nektarios from his book “Repentance and Confession,” quoting St. John of Damaskos “repentance is a return from the unnatural to the natural state and from the devil to God through ascesis and toil; moreover, it is a voluntary return from transgressions toward the opposite virtues. The signs of repentance are remorse and a change of mind, while characteristics of repentance include contrition of the heart, tears, the rejection of sin, and the love for virtue. Repentance must, of necessity, be sincere. It is sincere when accompanied by the disposition to compensate Divine Righteousness, and to confess one’s sins.
True repentance is a change of mind for one’s actions, an alteration of one’s ethical life, a change toward the better, complete rejection of one’s previous life and sin, steadfast willingness to exercise virtue, and complete unification of one’s own will with the Divine Will (i.e. the Divine Law). Therefore, repentance is an ethical rebirth of man and the starting point of a new, virtuous life.”
The Scriptures exhort us to this earnest repentance in many places. Hear the words of the Prophet Joel “Turn ye even to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:12-13). The Prophet Joel also notes how our repentance must be done corporately, in the assembly (ecclesia—the Church): “Blow the trumpet Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, and say, ‘Spare, O Lord, Your people…” (Joel 2:15-17).
The same words are heard from St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:3; 4:17). St. Paul tells us that it is God’s goodness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). The Psalms, the hymnbook/prayerbook of the Church, constantly cries out to God in repentance, “Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in Thee” (Psalm 57(58):2).
St. Andrew of Crete, whose Great Canon we prayed during this first week of Great Lent, tells us how our repentance must be swift when he writes, “Run, my soul, like Lot from the fire of sin; run from Sodom and Gomorrah; run from the flame of every irrational desire.” And again, “The desert-loving dove, the lamp of Christ, the Voice crying in the wilderness sounded, preaching repentance; while Herod sinned with Herodias. See, my soul, that you are not caught in the toils of sin, but embrace repentance.” Also, “It is time for repentance. I draw near to Thee, my Creator. Take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion, grant me tears of compunction.” And here he says to his soul, “Return, repent, uncover what is hidden. Say to God Who knows everything: Thou knowest my secrets, O only Saviour; but have mercy on me, as David sings, according to Thy mercy!”
It goes without saying, but perhaps it is good to remind ourselves that there must be an urgency of our repentance unto the Lord God. Great Lent is a preparation to celebrate the Holy Pascha, but this cannot be done without a clean heart and a renewed mind—in other words, without repentance. Let us all heed this command to really examine ourselves and repent of our evil ways, both voluntary and involuntary, external and internal, in thought, word, and deed. “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith” (Hebrews 13:1-2).
Wishing you all “good strength!” to the start of Great Lent, and praying that our merciful God gives us all the grace of thorough genuine repentance and firm purpose of amendment of life; that our fasting, prayer, giving of alms, repentance, etc. may be profitable, unto God’s glory and our salvation.
For further reading:
“Repentance and Confession” by St. Nektarios – http://www.amazon.com/Repentance-Confession-Saint-Nektarios/dp/0972550402/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1458362751&sr=8-2&keywords=repentance+and+confession
“The Great Canon: The Work of St. Andrew of Crete” by St. Andrew of Crete – http://www.amazon.com/Great-Canon-Work-Andrew-Crete/dp/0884651193/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458362831&sr=8-1&keywords=canon+of+st+andrew+of+crete