I've written before about the penitential dimension of the Advent season, and so I was interested to see that Joe had posted some thoughts on repentance (borrowed from Fr. Michael Marsh's blog Interrupting the Silence) over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic. As Joe rightly notes:
Advent was originally a penitential season, not a period of pre-Christmas frenzied shopping. Penitence still predominates in the eastern churches.
It's also true that many of us in the West tend to associate penitence and repentance with shame and guilt trips. So the Fr. Marsh's thoughts on repentance provide a helpful and healthy corrective:
- is as much or more about our heart as it is about our actions.
- is returning our gaze to God.
- is changing the direction of our life in order to face, see, and receive our coming salvation.
- is turning our life around.
- is to choose a new life.
- is not just about changing behavior--it is a change of mind, a change in direction, a change in attitude, a change in our way of being.
- is the recognition that our self-sufficiency is inadequate.
- is a search for life which is realized in personal communication with God.
- is not simply about improvement in behavior or even being perfect, a psychological feeling, or strengthening our will. It is, rather, a change in our mode of existence by which we cease to trust in our own individuality.
- is not individual feats or works of merit but a cry of trust and love from the depths of our abyss.
- is our true Christmas preparation.
- is how we cooperate with God in our own salvation.
- is refusing to continue to settle for less than what God is offering.
- manifests our desire for God.
- is our response to God's desire for us.
Here are more thoughts on repentance from Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green's book The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation:
Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus isn't really like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.
This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, what do we need to be healed of? Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren't enough.
We don't feel like we're rotten; if anything, we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you're automatically sinless.
A second popular myth is this: We're nice. Being nice is all that counts in life, right? Isn't it the highest virtue? Even granting that doubtful assertion, a more honest self-assessment would reveal that we're nice when we're comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.
Finally, there's the ever-popular conviction that we're still better than a lot of other people. Christians should know better than this; God doesn't judge one person against another, he doesn't grade on a curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we're really, truly sinners, because we see people so much than us every day in the newspaper. In comparison with them we're just so gosh-darn nice.
The problem in all these cases is that we're comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God. Once we get that perspective adjusted, repentance can come very swiftly. And once we really decide that it is God himself we want to approach, repentance comes to feel like a clarifying, tough-minded friend.
Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home.
Repentance as both the only way to begin and to continue the spiritual life makes it an especially appropriate theme for Advent, the beginning of the liturgical calendar year. And thus it is fitting that on this, the third Sunday of Advent, we pray:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.