All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God [Romans 3;23]. Here is one of the basic truths of the Christian Faith concerning the condition of man. Through sin, through disobedience, we turn away from God, we turn away from a right relationship with our Creator, a relationship which brings and sustains life. Through the act of repentance we return to God, turning back to receive God’s forgiveness. Just as we are brought into life in Christ through the Sacraments and fed and sustained in that life by those same Sacraments, when someone falls away from life in Christ, the sacrament of repentance provides the means to bring them back into that life, reconciling them to their Creator and to their fellow man.
Ever since our prideful disobedience led to the Fall, separating us from God and thus bringing death into the world, God has called us to return to the life and communion which we lost. The Hebrew word shub is used frequently in the Old Testament to speak of the demand that humanity turn from evil and return to God. The prophets continually called the people to repent in order to remove the barriers between them and the blessing of God which their own disobedience had created. Days of national repentance, rending one’s clothes, fasting, marking one’s self with sackcloth and ashes were not mere externals, but intended as signs of true interios conversion of the heart, sorrow for the pain of sin, and a desire to return to a right relationship with God. The archetypal penitent of the Old Testament is King David, who after being rebuked by Nathan the Prophet for his sins of adultery and murder, truly repented (possibly in the words of Psalm 51 “Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness; according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offenses.”). Having repented, David received God’s forgiveness, “The Lord also has put away your sin…” [2 Samuel 12:13]
The New Testament words epistrepho (I turn back on the road I have been traveling), metanoeo (I repent, I change my attitude, I change my decision) continue the emphasis on repentance as both conversion and complete reorientation. St. John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets, continued the call to repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” [Matthew 3:2]. When the people came to John, confessing their sins, they were baptized, receiving a symbolic washing away of their past transgressions in order to make a fresh start. Jesus began his public ministry with the same call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – as returning to God and his ways are the beginning of the christian life, and such an action is now possible by the gracious presence of Christ.
The teaching, preaching, healing, and feeding ministry of Jesus was a manifestation of the Son’s desire to reconcile man with God. Jesus taught that a true disposition of repentance is only possible when one adopts the attitude of a child [Matthew 18:3] and turns from self-righteousness to humility before God, such as that found in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican [Luke 18:10-14]. In the parable of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-31], we are shown the stages of repentance: the son “comes to himself”, this self-knowledge leads to a desire to turn and make things right; the son confesses his sins (“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”); the Father, who is overjoyed to have his son return, embraces his son in forgiveness; the return of the son is then celebrated with a banquet. These same stages are present as we approach the Sacrament ofRepentance, as by self-examination we know our sins, confess them, receive absolution, and celebrate our purified and renewed life in the Eucharistic Feast.
After his Resurrection, Jesus sent his followers to preach repentance and to baptize all nations for the forgiveness of sins [Matthew 28:19ff]. They went out, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins (John 20:21-22 is one passage which provides the scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Repentance).
In the early Church, the Sacrament of Baptism was the Sacrament of Repentance; one confessed, repented, and was baptized into life in Christ. Controversy arose, however, on the question of what the church should do with a member who committed a grievous sin. Many Christian writers of the second and early third centuries, such as Origen, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, refused reconciliation to those who had committed such sins as apostasy. After the persecutions of the Emperor Decius c. 250 AD), in which many Christians had wavered and fallen, the Church (under the leadership of St. Cyprian of Carthage) allowed the lapsed to return after a time of penance. As the church is a Body (the Body of Christ), the sin of one member is a sin against the body (against both God and neighbor), and so confession and repentance in the early Church were a public affair. Only later, in order to avoid public scandal, did the private form of confession between penitent and priest develop (with the priest representing the Church).
In the Orthodox Sacrament of Repentance, the priest stands with the penitent, not as judge but as witness. God is the judge; the priest is his minister. The penitent and priest face Divine Truth in the form of th eicon of christ or the book of gospels and after preparatory prayer, the penitent is led by the priest’s questions to honesty to self and before God. Then healing for the soul is offered in the forms of spiritual advice, possible penance, and absolution. It is appropriate to receive this Sacrament, not only as a corrective to grievous sin, but as preparation for receiving Holy Communion and as an aid in the spiritual life.
Repentance is not only a matter for the formal sacrament, but an attitude of the heart oriented toward God which is manifest throughout life. St. Antony of Egypt said that “a man should expect temptation until his last breath” so we must be constant in our examination andconfession in order to be strengthened for the battle. A rule of prayer rightly includes time for self-examination and repentance; numerous prayers for private use, including the “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), lead us in this way. When true repentance has found a place in our private prayers, we are beter prepared to enter into the sacramental form.
As our sense of pride threatens to keep us from honest confession and from returning to God, we must be ever diligent. We want to repent, however, andwe can repent because of God’s love, by God’s grace. Repentance in the Christian life is in and through the power of God. This synergy or cooperation between man and God wolrks itself out as God helps us to do what we need to do. Self-examination, by the power of Christ, helps us to truly know ourselves and hence to come to a greater knowledge of God. As we turn from our old way, changing our minds and actions (metanoia), we strip away the barriers which separate us from God, purifying ourselves by God’s help in order to draw nearer to God. In this way, repentance is a necessary step on the path to deification, acquiring the likeness of God, becoming more like God, as our sinfulness has led us away from that goal.
As we embrace God’s help and begin our return, we are told that there is great rejoicing in heaven [Luke 15:10]. The life and work of the church calls us to repent, to re-center our lives in Godk, to pick ourselves up and try again, to amend our lives. This call is always linked to the promise of God’s help, mercy, and forgiveness. St. Isaac of Syria said that “in comparison with God’s mercy, the sins of mankind are but a handful of sand in the sea.” In the common life of the Church we are all penitents, sinner who are offered healing by God. We uphold one another in this common life, in which we are strengthened by the Sacraments, so that we can truly return to our Father’s Banquet.