Repent, For the Kingdom of Heaven Is Near. The Beginning of Great Lent.
Penitential Canon of St Andrew of Crete
By By Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
Feb 15, 2010, 10:00
Translated by Olga Lissenkova
Edited by Samantha Kessel
In the meantime, the Bible is not only the history of the Israeli people, but also a chronicle of a human soul, the soul that fell and rose before God’s face, that sinned and repented. If we look at the life of the people mentioned in the Bible we can see that each of them is shown not as much as a historical personage, not as much as a personality who performed some deed, but more as a person standing in the face of the living God. The person’s historical services, as well as other achievements, get secondary importance; what remains is a more important issue, that is whether the person stayed faithful to God or not. If we read the Bible from this viewpoint, we can see that much of what is being said about ancient just people and sinners is nothing but a chronicle of our own soul, our falls and risings, our sins and repentance.
Let us recall Jonah. Many of us have read the book about this prophet from the Old Testament, and many of us are likely to have perceived it as a beautiful old tale, a legend about someone God has saved ‘from inside the fish’. And, probably, few have ever thought that the story of Jonah is the story of many thousands and millions of people who have been commissioned by God to do something and who have tried to flee from God’s face when they failed it. Has it never happened to us that we’ve refused to perform God’s will and tried to hide from Him? Have we never found ourselves in the abyss of Godlessness and abandonment, like Jonah in the ‘belly of the fish’? Haven’t we tried to call to God from this abyss when we finally realized there was nowhere to run away from Him?
In the psalms by David, another hero from the Old Testament mentioned in the Great canon, we read, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139, 7-10). It is true that God is everywhere, and there is nowhere one can hide from His face.
God is present even in places where we do not think him to be. He is always facing us, even if we think that He has turned His face away. God never turns away from a man, but men turn away from God, this is the essence of human tragedy. As a Western medieval theologian said, God never abandons us, but we abandon Him; God always hears us, but we often fail to hear Him; God is always within, but we find ourselves without; God is always near us, but we are often away from Him. It is not God who sends a man into ‘the belly of the fish,’ but the man himself tries to flee, boards a ship, gets caught in a storm, and then finds himself in the deep of Godlessness. And then from this profoundness, from this abyss they would call to God, and God would come to their rescue.
This is what we repent of, what we cry about during the Great Lent. That we have spent without God and away from Him the numerous days given to us for repentance, for fulfilling God’s commandments, the days that we could have spent with God, in His face. That we have lost, have killed the precious days of our lives, forethought for us to get closer to God. Life has been given to each of us to come to God and see Him face to face, but we have not seen Him. And who knows how many Lents we still have in store ahead of us, how many opportunities to repent. For some of the people standing here now this Great Lent can be the last chance to reconsider their lives and turn to God.
Listening carefully to the Great Canon’s words, looking attentively at the lives of people who tried to run from God but have been caught by Him, people who found themselves in profoundness and have been led out of it by God, - let us analyze how God is leading each of us out of the profoundness of sin and despair, for us to bring to Him the fruit of our repentance. It is a mistake to think that the essence of repentance is to investigate our sins, giving ourselves to self-reproach and trying to find as much evil and darkness in our souls as possible. True repentance is when we turn from darkness to light, from sin to righteousness. It is when we realize that the life we’ve led is not worthy of the high calling, when in God’s face we realize how worthless is everything we are doing, how worthless we are, when we realize that our only hope is God Himself. True repentance is when in the face of God, “called out of darkness into His wonderful light”, we realize that we have been granted life in order to become God’s children, to join to Divine Light.
True repentance shows itself not only in words but in deeds, in the readiness to help people, in the openness to our neighbour, not in turning onto ourselves. True repentance is when we turn to God with hope that, even if we cannot become real Christians, He can make us such. As the Great Canon runs, “Where God wills, the order of nature is overruled”. It means that when God wills it, supernatural events take place: Saul becomes Paul, Jonah gets out of the belly of the fish, Mosesgoes through the sea on dry ground; Lazarus comes back from the dead; Mary of Egypt turns from a prostitute into a righteous person. Because, as Our Saviour said, “ With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”, God says (Matthew 3:2). And today when we make our first steps along the way to the bright holiday of Christ’s Resurrection, we must repent of our past sins, our tergiversation, we must repent that we have been running away from God when He wanted us to serve Him. Each of us still has a chance, has the time – be it long or short – and we must spend this time to make the fruit of our repentance worthy.
Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev. The Human Face of God. Sermons. M., 2000.y.
Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev. The Human Face of God. Sermons. M., 2000.