Saturday, February 04, 2006

Open the Gates of Repentance

The Lent-Paschal cycle is the most important liturgical cycle of the year, taking up about a third of it. Lent, as a time of preparation for Easter, is so important in the eyes of the Byzantine Church that we have a time of preparation for the time of preparation! Five Sundays prepare for Lent, and this weekend we’re already into the second one. But I start writing about it only now because this weekend is the time we begin to use our Lenten liturgical books.

Here’s what we sing after Psalm 50(51) at Sunday Matins: “Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks your holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in your compassion cleanse it by your loving-kindness and your mercy.”

Then: “Guide me in the paths of salvation, O Mother of God, for I have befouled my soul with shameful sins and have wasted all my life in slothfulness. By your intercessions deliver me from all uncleanness.”

Then: “As I ponder in my wretchedness the many evil things that I have done, I tremble for the fearful day of judgment. But trusting in your mercy, like David I cry to You: Have mercy on me, O God, in your great mercy.”

Thus we are set upon the path of repentance. Even though Lent can be a kind of dreaded season (if you bear its burdens fully, that is), one that I’m usually glad to be rid of come Pascha, that call to repentance is always welcome and necessary. Somehow we tend to lose our vigilance and fervor, perhaps as a result of holiday excesses or just a general drifting from the straight and narrow. We’re not aware of the gradual befouling of our souls; we don’t think much about the day of judgment; we don’t cry out from the heart for mercy. So this is a timely reminder.

This Sunday is that of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Sundays of preparation for Lent are designed to place us in the proper disposition for the time of fasting and repentance, and one of the first things we have to do is abandon the pride of the Pharisee and embrace the humble penitence of the publican. Other Sundays include the Prodigal Son and the Last Judgment, but I won’t go into all that now. I plan to write in greater detail about these in another place, to which I’ll eventually refer you.

If we are to be guided in the paths of salvation, as the text above says, then we first have to pass through the gates of repentance. We cannot even begin our journey back to paradise without an honest self-examination and the repentance that must inevitably follow. Even if we have wasted much time in slothfulness, the Church continues to remind us that the gates of repentance are open, and the Lord is inviting us to a better, more fruitful and rewarding life.

So let us brace ourselves for the 40 days in the desert, fasting and tempted by the devil like Jesus was. But let us also prepare well spiritually and be of good courage and hope, for the grace of the Lord is always with us. And as the liturgical text reminds us, it is the Giver of Life who is opening the gates of repentance. Repent, then, and live!