This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
—1 Tim. 1:15
Repentance is the musical string of Great Lent. Like a violin, it can produce different notes. If you simply run the blow across it will make one sound, if you press it with your finger it will make another. And the sound changes depending upon the segment of the neck at which you press the string.
It is the same with repentance. On Forgiveness Sunday, one sound emits from the repentant soul, at confession another, and at home while reading evening prayers yet another. We all pour our souls out to God in different ways, but at nevertheless it is all the same. Any priest who hears confessions will tell you this. Repentance is the same because we are all of the same nature. The color red will be the same for me as it is for you. What tastes sour to me will also taste sour to you, I think. Nevertheless, we all experience a sour taste in different ways: one person likes it while another doesn’t. Ask me and my wife to draw red apples and each will turn out different not only in shape, but also in shade. In the same way, we all feel sin differently.
Why do we go to confession? In order to be free of the force of sin. I would seem to have freedom, but when I look at my behavior—alas, what kind of freedom are we talking about? O wretched man that I am! writes the Apostle, For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I (Rom. 7:24, 15). In connection with this, repentance awaits us as a most joyful event, because we come to church in bonds, and there the Lord releases us, so that we would commit acts truly according to our own will, and not at the will of sinful dependency. Why then is the color of repentance black, and Great Lent is the time of lamentation? Because it is one thing to be absolved of sin and another to be punished for sin. It is not difficult for God to save us from all sins and passions in a moment. Only, what benefit would this bring to us? On the one hand, we would instantly become super saints, which would be just beautiful. But on the other hand?
Just imagine: Your child took something precious to you without asking and broke it, although you had told him many times not to touch it. You say to him, “No problem. Good boy. Keep playing.” Of course the same thing will happen again. Therefore the correctional corner awaits the wrong-doer along with a sentence and its subsequent carrying out. “Stay in the corner and think about what you’ve done,” is what we say as we leave him in the expectation that in the corner his conscience will speak up, and in the future he will beware of doing something similar.
We are just the same kind of unreasonable children before the face of God as our little ones. If you give me right now complete deliverance from sinful passions, without me ever doing any work to uproot them—we don’t know to what hellish depths I will fall in my unearned “sainthood”. After all, when I am struggling against sin, fasting, praying, and trying to cut off my will and thoughts, I become not only the conqueror but also the conquered. And we don’t know who is more often in the lead. But from defeat is inevitably born humility; also anger… at myself, and hatred for the tyrannical sin. The soul is shattered from all of this like a clay pot, and we begin not just to ask but to beg the Lord for deliverance. But God does not always hasten to deliver us, because remaining for a little while in a state of broken shards is something extraordinarily beneficial to us. And only when a person has already approached the edge of total despondency does God reveal Himself in all His blinding fullness, and give us consolation beyond our highest expectations.
This state of feigned abandonment by God is that very time of increased fasting and prayer. And everyone has his own term of “punishment”, or it would be better to say, being brought to reason. And the Lord chooses the term of penance according to the physical and spiritual capabilities of each person. Those who are yet weak in their faith experience this more quickly, and the character of their temptations are not so universal as for those who are toughened and manly. Here it is appropriate to recall St. John the Much Suffering of the Kiev Caves. For thirty years (!) he was warred against by fleshly lust, regardless of the great ascetic labors that he performed in order to rid himself of it. Why didn’t the Lord free him from that passion? The Lord Himself answered this question: “This was sent to you according to the measure of your patience,” He said to the ascetic. “So that you would be tried by fire and become pure as gold; God does not allow a person to be tempted beyond his strength, so that he would not grow faint and be put to shame by the evil snake. But as a rational master delegates the greater and heavier work to the stronger and healthier slaves, but the gives the lesser and lighter work to the weak, so you also must understand concerning the struggle with bodily lust, which makes you pray.”
During Great Lent such oppressive states often come to a person to test and try his faith. Sorrows can come from various quarters: sickness, problems at work, discord in the family, or material hardships. It is important that behind this stands the one and only goal: purification of our Lenten prayer through a crushed heart.
It is not in vain that on Forgiveness Sunday we remember Adam’s expulsion from paradise. The expulsion was an appropriate penance for his fall into sin. We also during Great Lent become partakers of Adam’s expulsion so that on Great Saturday the Savior would take our hands along with Adam’s and lead us out of the hell of sin. Therefore during Great Lent we should also do what Adam did when he found himself outside the gates of Eden—weep bitterly (“Adam was cast out of paradise by eating, and therefore sat before it lamenting” says the sticheron at the Vigil for Cheese Fare Week.
Just the same, a reasonable measure is needed in repentance as it is in everything. On the one hand (this is what happens more often), you can find a very easy relationship to sins. This guarantees that new sins will be committed just as easily. On the other hand (this happens less often), certain people do not at all want, let’s say, to receive forgiveness of their sin. It sometimes happens that a person eats away at himself: he reproaches and reproaches himself for sins, and this self-reproach squeezes out even prayer for forgiveness. Such a person comes to confession and you look at him—he’s worn out by his inner disorder and sunk in despondency. This behavior—when a person just can’t forgive himself for some deed—is also the fruit of pride. “How could I have done such a thing!” he says to himself, and cannot humbly accept his own sinfulness. Yes, it seems we must humbly accept our own sinfulness. Humbly not in the sense of waving our hand at our sins, but in the sense of understanding that human nature is fallen, and no one is guaranteed against falling into sin in the world where the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8). You fell, but this is no excuse for lying down and moaning, “Why did I fall? How could I fall? After all, I never fell.” If you have fallen, get up, ask the Lord for forgiveness, remember where and how you stumbled, and go on.
Repentance is not perfectionism, but conquering oneself. This is a change of mind, which makes us change our whole lives. Of course, when we had just stepped inside the church gates, during our neophyte period, this was easy. Firstly because grace was pouring over, and the Lord carried us in His arms through every puddle. Secondly because we may have lived like pagans before baptism, and a change in our external life was a necessary measure. Now we are already inside the churchyard, but change is as just as needed. Only now the changes should be happening mainly with the “inner man”, they should move into the depths of the heart—and that is the hardest thing.
Of course, for some it may be easier to do it like this: There is an appearance of Orthodoxy, I’ve stood through the morning and evening services, drummed the prayer rule out in front of the icons, gulped down a Lenten dinner, and off to bed. (Well, naturally I sat before the computer before sleeping. What can be done? The times require it.) Only I am afraid that for these people Pascha will not be “beautiful”.
But the Lord did not descend to earth for that sort of Christianity. It is pleasing to God that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire (1 Pet. 1:7). And for this the Lord applies His medicine, which seems to us bitter and hard to digest, but it does its saving work nonetheless.
So, brothers and sisters, be assured: If you have sorrows every year during Great Lent, it means that God does not want you to fall asleep in sin. Every new sorrow opens our eyes to yet another unpleasant facet of our personalities, be it faithlessness, hope in people, man-pleasing, love of money, or something else. Sometimes only extreme circumstances allow us to see in ourselves such a sin that we never even supposed was there. And St. John the Much Suffering, after thirty years of struggle said, “We ourselves think with our minds about the fleshly, and for this God allows suffering by His righteous judgment, because we do not bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.” That is, every new attack hits us only in our weak spot. (And unfortunately we have weak spots all over.) Every new attack is help to us from the Lord to find spiritual faults in ourselves and to struggle against them. Therefore, dear ones, in the oppressive hour of the fast let us remember the words of the Apostle Peter: Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy (1 Pet. 4:12-13); and of the Apostle Paul: For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ (2 Cor. 1:5). Let us learn to see what is good for us in the humility lessons sent down to us, and pray to God that He would give us strength and patience to carry our Great Lenten Cross.