Our church observed the Liturgy of St. Andrew of Crete and the story of St. Mary of Egypt. We began service about 6:30 pm. By the time we were finished, it was a quarter to nine. I had been in lengthy services at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference. But, there I was seated and there were breaks between lecturers and preachers. Standing, making tons of metany (bows touching the floor) through a lengthy series of odes, and prostrations with the prayer of St. Ephrem of Syria and at the icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent is something I would not have dreamed of doing years ago. I went home last night thinking that it is a shame that all Christians do not do the same and gather the humble meaning of this service. In fact, Orthodoxy offers something that modern Christianity often ignores at its own risk.
The cannon of St. Andrew and the story of St. Mary reinforces our need to lead a life of repentance. In a couple of weeks, we are going to celebrate Great and Holy Pascha (Easter) with enthusiastic shouts of praise in different languages and have plenty of food and drink at the end of service. In my Antiochian Patriarchate, we will not resume the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. We will observe several feast and fast in our yearly cycle and even during our fast, we are to reject gloominess and carry on as normal as to hide our struggle. No, we Orthodox Christians are not a morbid bunch of ancient religious fanatics that constantly burden ourselves with the knowledge that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (I have one dear brother who is an incurable practical joker).
Yet, our worship services, especially those leading toward (the Lenten Triodion) and during Great Lent, are designed to lead us to repentance and live a life of repentance. We are to acknowledge that we have separated ourselves from God, the only and true source of life. This is what Adam and Eve did in the Garden, not so much that they broke a command defying God’s authority. But, they chose to seek an immortal existence based on the fulfillment of their desires rather than live according to the only life giving Word that is truly immortal. By separating from that source of life, death came to rule over us. Corruption, striving to act and hide away from God, infects our being.
Praise be to God that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ died as a man. But, death and the grave could not contain the Immortal One as He was (is and always will be) incorruptible. He taught us that if we are to follow Him we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses. Jesus came teaching not only love and morality, which are good things that we strive to practice. Jesus taught us to repent for the eternal kingdom is at hand. We are to turn and strive to keep our lives turned away from our corruptible desires that lead to death as He has come from heaven, taken on flesh, and conquered death by His death. We are to be one with our Lord as His body, the Church.
This is why we offer the prayer, “Lord have mercy,” from the beginning to end of the weekly Divine Liturgy. During the week, we follow our personal rules of prayer that include the words of ancient saints of the Church. Our rules may be as simple as morning and evening to keeping the Hours during the whole day. This is why confession is not merely something done in the privacy of our own homes. We come before God with our father or mother confessor in a corner of the Church as others pray for us as well. All that we practice is a part of living in repentance. During Great Lent, we add prayers, services, almsgiving as well as fasting and marital sexual abstinence to focus more on the call from Christ to repent.
Is a life of repentance necessary? Can’t we simply resolve to love more? Perhaps. But, love without repentance blurs the standards of holy living to a point where good and evil are conditional and defined by individuals and not by God. Can’t we simply resolve to be more moral? Probably. But, morality without repentance becomes arrogant and self-righteous which erodes compassion and mercy. Can’t we just praise the Lord? Yes. But, praise without repentance is far too easy of a trap for people to fall into. Repentance keeps us humble as we see our own faults before we see those of others. This allows love to grow deeper in the individual towards God and others. The humble soul knows there is a standard to live by and constantly seeks to live by it. By humility, a believer can praise wholeheartedly yet not do so any higher than he lives.
So, let us be cautious to live in repentance. God blesses those of a broken heart and contrite spirit.