This is an especially beautiful and compunctionate hymn, which the Church places before us in the first three weeks of the period of the Triodion, in preparation for Great Lent, the season of repentance and spiritual renewal, up through the fifth week of the Great Fast itself.
Here are the words of the hymn:
[Glory to the Father…]
Open to me the doors of repentance, O Lifegiver;
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Thy holy Temple,
bearing the temple of my body all defiled
But in Thy compassion, deliver me, purify me by the lovingkindness of Thy mercy.
[Now and ever...]
Lead me on the paths of salvation, o Mother of God,
for I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But, by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.
Have mercy on me, o God, according to Thy great goodness, and according to the multitude of Thy compassions, blot out my transgressions.
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment. But trusting in thy lovingkindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
As is clear from the tone of the hymn, repentance is a much deeper matter than simply acknowledging and confessing our sins with our mouths. It is not simply a matter of being sorry or feeling guilty. Here we are presented with a deep sense of our unworthiness, of our uncleanliness which causes us to “tremble at the fearful day of judgment.” The ascetic tradition of the Church refers to this as the remembrance of death. Scripture teaches us that he who has truly attained to this remembrance of death—ever-mindfulness of the fact that we are mortal and destined for the grave and of standing before God at His Dread Judgment—will never sin again (Sirach 7:36).
“But in Thy compassion, deliver me, purify me by the lovingkindness of Thy mercy,” we sing. This is an acknowledgement that we cannot make headway in the spiritual life on our own, and here, the imagery of the door reminds us of similar imagery used by Christ Himself in Holy Scripture.
The Lord says: Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me (Rev. 3:20). We entreat the Lord to open the doors of repentance for us, and at the same time, He entreats us to open the doors of our hearts to Him. Christ is always knocking at our hearts, only awaiting our response—only awaiting us to ask Him to likewise open the doors.
In fact, these are the same “action.” How do we open the doors of our hearts to Christ? By asking Him to open the doors of repentance to us. How do we step through the doors of repentance? By opening the door of our hearts to Christ.
Again, true Orthodox repentance is not simply repenting of specific sins we have committed, but it is a turning away from everything within us that is less than Divine. We have attained to true repentance when we, like the saints, would prefer to die than to grieve God, than to lose even the smallest measure of grace through sinning.
But, as the Church teaches us in this present hymn (and everywhere), this is simply beyond our human powers. It is within our powers to desire this, but to remain steadfast in purity is not something we can accomplish on our own. We cannot stabilize our own will. It was self-will, after all, that caused the fall of Adam and Eve.
We must invite Christ into our hearts to sup with us, chiefly through the Holy Eucharist, but also through all the spiritual disciplines of the Church that feed and nourish us.
He must increase, but I must decrease, says St. John the Baptist (Jn. 3:30). It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, says the holy apostle Paul (Gal. 2:20). That is, true repentance is the continual act of humbling ourselves that Christ might reign ever more in our lives and in our hearts. In descending upon the path of humility, we find Christ, Who humbled Himself even unto death on the Cross. I have been crucified with Christ, St. Paul also says (Gal. 2:20).
Repentance—crucifixion with Christ—is painful, because we love the pleasures of the world and the sins and passions that ensnare us. But without the Cross, there is no Resurrection.
But as we have said, we cannot turn from everything within us that is less than Divine. Christ Himself made this possible by His Incarnation, which bridged the unbridgeable gap between the created and the Uncreated. Through His Incarnation He perfected human nature and made it possible to live the Divine life, to receive by grace everything that Christ possesses by nature.
And here we can recall another use of the imagery of a door. I am the door: by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture, the Lord says of Himself (Jn. 10:9). And as we have just said, it is by the Incarnation that Christ becomes the door for mankind to enter into salvation, to take on the Divine life, for in His Incarnation He united Divine and human nature in His one Person.
By His death on the Cross and His Resurrection on the third day, death itself has become a door to life. This is why, although the power of death has been defeated in the perfected saints, they nevertheless consent to follow Christ into the grave, to experience the fullness of the mystery of Christ, and to enter into eternal life in the Heavenly Kingdom on the other side of the doors.
Whether we ask the Lord to open to us the doors of repentance, or we open the doors for Him to enter in, or we pass through the door that is Christ Himself, we commit the same “act,” we enter into the same mystery of humble repentance, which is to take on the Divine life through the presence of Christ Himself in our hearts.
This is the life of the Orthodox Christian, which the Church wisely calls us back to in this pre-Lenten and Lenten period, leading us to Christ’s, and our, triumphant Resurrection.