Friday, December 22, 2006

Fruit that Befits Repentance

Why am I writing about repentance at this late stage of Advent? For three reasons. One is that this time of year is still a penitential season in the Byzantine tradition, notwithstanding the several feasts and mitigations of the fast that make it “lighter” than the Great Fast of Lent. As far as I am aware, the penitential character of Advent in the Latin rite has been quietly suppressed since Vatican II, in favor of a spirit of prayerful waiting—which is important, but one approach need not (and should not) exclude the other.

The second reason is because the one who insisted that we bear fruit that befits repentance was St John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of Christ, who plays a prominent spiritual role in our Advent spiritual life as one who “prepares the way of the Lord.” If we are spiritually unprepared, our Christian Christmas will bring us no more benefit than the superficial good cheer of the secular one. The third reason, a more general one, is that there is virtually no time in which repentance is inappropriate. Repentance isn’t only about focusing on sin, confession, and penitential practices. It is fundamentally about making sure that the direction of our life—our thoughts, emotions, words, behavior—is toward Christ and in accord with his word. Repentance is a way of life, a constant turning away from what is not of God to what is.

Let’s get back to the Forerunner. No one could pull the wool over his eyes. He could easily see through the hypocrisy, ostentation, and sham righteousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had decided to come to him for baptism—lest they seem “out of the loop” of the great religious revival John had inaugurated. They were the religious “professionals” after all! But St John’s laser-like spiritual vision immediately assessed their interior condition, so he cried out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

“We have Abraham as our father,” is a kind of Jewish “once saved, always saved” mentality. They erroneously thought that simply being a blood-member of the chosen people was sufficient for righteousness, just as some Christians erroneously think that a single profession of faith is sufficient for salvation, regardless of the way one lives one’s life. But John makes two essential things perfectly clear: you must repent, and you must prove that your repentance is genuine by living accordingly.

John knew that the interest of the Pharisees in his baptism was merely formal and external. They had to publicly manifest their piety if they were to keep up appearances as the spiritual authorities of Israel. But John was aware that they had no intention to make any significant changes in their attitudes or behavior, and he clearly implied that their “repentance” was phony by saying: “Bear fruit that befits repentance… every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

What kind of fruit befits repentance? For starters, go to Galatians 5:22-23 for the fruit of the Spirit. This is essential for any Christian life. Fruit that befits repentance is any sort of virtuous behavior that manifests one’s change of heart, one’s change of direction toward God and the will of God. It proves that one’s Christianity is more than a veneer of Bible jargon or of holier-than-thou snobbery. It is faith working through love, practicing what you preach, living what you believe, manifesting your faith by your works (James 2:18), in short, proving that your repentance is genuine by not continuing in your former sin—let alone justifying it, as people tend to do when they’ve given up the struggle.

So as Christmas approaches, let us examine the extent to which our deeds reflect what we believe and profess. Let us realize that bearing good fruit is not an option if one wishes to “flee from the wrath to come,” to avoid being cut down like a dried-up tree, good for nothing but firewood. In bearing love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit, we will have gifts to bring to the newborn King, and He will bless us, seeing that we have done what is true and have come to the Light, that it may clearly be seen that our deeds have been done in God (see John 3:21).