In the Byzantine Offices there are a lot of penitential prayers, and one could perhaps feel the weight of the constant expressions of our sinfulness and need for mercy as just a bit too heavy. But the balance is usually maintained by many expressions of the Lord’s compassion and love and mercy. Indeed, if all we had to look at was our own track record of failures, sins, and selfishness, we might think that despair is the only route left to us. But the liturgy insists that even if we have fallen into the murky depths of the abyss of sin and separation from God, we can call out for salvation and receive it.
On what do we base this extraordinary trust? The love of God, of course. I thought of that as I prayed this text: “In sin my mother conceived me, and like the publican I dare not look up toward heaven. But your love gives me confidence and I cry aloud to You: “O God, be merciful to me and save me!” His love gives us confidence—that is the bottom line of the hope of sinners. One of the most common titles for Christ in our liturgy is “The Lover of Mankind.” That’s how He is known and addressed. That’s what gives us confidence. Often in the texts as we lament our incorrigibility in sin, our plea to Him begins: “but since You are the Lover of Mankind…”
I don’t think this is presumption, because there is real agony expressed in the penitential laments, and real fear of just judgment. But God’s love gives us confidence that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). I’ll share a couple more texts here: “If the just are scarcely saved, what is to become of me, sinner that I am? I have endured neither the burden nor the heat of the day. But number me among those who came at the eleventh hour, O my God, and save me!” “I have foolishly wandered far from You, O Lord, and like the prodigal I have wasted my whole life. Day after day, like a slave, I have served my senseless passions. But I pray to You, O compassionate Father, through the intercession of the angels: receive me back like the prodigal son and save me!”
Notice the “but” in all the above texts. We state the case of our sinfulness, often in very strong terms (“Dragging around a multitude of sins, weeping under the weight of my offenses and filled with confusion, I cry out to You in fear…”), yet there’s always the “but”—we are full of sins, but God is full of mercy. “In the excess of my misconduct, I have gravely stained my soul; but in the excess of your love, O Lord Jesus Christ, receive me as the prodigal son…” God does not grant us his grace because we are good, but because He is good.
Sometimes the Byzantine Offices are criticized because of their heavy penitential character and meditations on death and judgment, but nowhere else have I seen such radical trust in God’s mercy and power to save. I guess we’re a Church of extremes, but I prefer that to a bland, “I’m OK, you’re OK” kind of religion, which never reaches the depths or the heights of the human condition in its agony and ecstasy.
So let us not fear to make an honest self-assessment, recognizing how far we often fall from grace, and crying out for mercy. Be not afraid, for the love of the Lord gives us confidence that we will indeed be received by Him. To recognize sin for what it is is also to recognize mercy for what it is. Nothing is greater than the power of God’s love. Archimandrite Sophrony, a monk who knew both the depths of darkness and brilliance of God’s light wrote this on repentance: “Sometimes the upsurge of repentance is overpowering. To the exclusion of aught else, mind and heart are filled with the agonizing sensation of being held fast in evil darkness. And then, unforeseen, the Light of the uncreated Sun penetrates the dungeon of the soul: the Light which fills the whole cosmic expanse. It lovingly embraces us. We see Him and dwell in Him.” We are only a sincere cry away from the embrace of the divine love that gives us confidence to run towards Him in joy and gratitude.