Monday, February 19, 2007

Lenten Repentance

As I mentioned in the last post, Lent has already started for us in the Byzantine tradition. There’s no self-indulgent “Mardi Gras” for us; the day before Lent is a day of sober reflection upon our fall from Paradise and upon the mystery of forgiveness. It may seem, because of the fasting (not merely nominal as in current Catholic practice, but quite rigorous) and the longer services with their penitential character, that we’ve entered a time of gloom and oppressive burdens, with much woebegone breast-beating and long faces. One might get that impression from some of the liturgical texts: “Storm-tossed by the tempest of sin, I am dragged down to the depths of despair… I have fallen in my thoughts and sinned in the flesh, and groaning I lament and cry aloud: Save me, O Lord, for You alone are long-suffering; save me and, deserving though I be of condemnation, send me not to the fire of Gehenna” (all texts quoted here are from Matins of the first day of Lent).

But there’s a paradoxical joy that is encouraged in the same services in which we are exhorted to weep for our sins, and this is the characteristic spirit of Lenten life. “Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence, and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage…”

Some people (like me) might not feel too joyful about being forbidden to eat meat, eggs, dairy products, and even fish—except shellfish; vertebrates are considered “animals”—for almost two months, but the focus of our joy is elsewhere. “Come, O people, and today let us accept the grace of the Fast as a gift from God and as a time for repentance, in which we may find mercy with the Savior.” Lent is here called grace and gift, but why? Because it is a time for repentance unto mercy from the Savior.

Lent is a season for recovering our spiritual fervor, shearing off the flab (both physical and spiritual) of our holiday over-indulgences, and redirecting our energies toward the “one thing necessary.” But it’s not just a matter of addressing our laxity or our falling away from previous resolutions (though all that is good). Lent is essentially about rediscovering the mystery of repentance and making it again—or for the first time—our way of life.

As I get older, I become more and more convinced that repentance is a key, if not the key, to a fruitful and genuine Christian life. It is essential, not only because it is necessary for salvation, but because it is necessary for walking the entire path that leads to salvation, day by day. I have said before that when I speak of repentance like this, I’m talking about much more than sorrow or regret for sins, and more than confession of sins (though these are all important aspects of it). Repentance can be called a way of life because it is all about turning away from what is evil and toward what is good. It is about renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil (and oneself insofar as one is attached to these things), and embracing the life of the Gospel and the Lord Himself. There is no end to repentance, even if someday we attain mastery over the worst of our sins. For there is no limit to how fully, deeply, faithfully and consistently we can turn to God and fulfill his will.

So we pray in the Divine Liturgy and the major Offices every day: “that we may spend the rest of our lives in peace and repentance.” We’re not asking here for a lifetime supply of sins so that we’ll always have something to repent of—or that we may focus forever on the failures of our past. We’re asking that we may daily and always turn from the darkness and toward the Light, that we may have strength to deny our stubborn impulses and disordered passions so as to be free to run to God with a light and pure heart. Thus the Great Fast, with its constant emphasis on repentance, will truly be grace and gift from the Lord—and in this we may find ourselves surprised by the secret joy that He places in the hearts of those who choose to follow Him with love and devotion.

Therefore, “May this the first day of the Fast be for you...a time of abstinence from sin, of turning towards God and drawing near to Him. Flee from all the pits of evil and seek only the paths that lead to the eternal rest of the Age to come.” Let us go forth in peace and joy and courage, in the name of the Lord.