The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:12-17)
Today we find ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, right at the beginning of His earthly ministry, His preaching of the good news. We are told by St. Matthew that a prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled during that time as the Lord entered Galilee in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. Isaiah prophesied about this event saying “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
So as we prepare to hear the words of the Our Lord Jesus Christ, the great light who shines His light into the whole world. The light who enlightens us with His teachings which are light. We are astounded that the very first word of His ministry is this: Repent. Very often people will say that if you speak about repentance you are being negative or not focusing on the love of God, but this is not so according to the Lord. Repentance is the solid foundation upon which all of our spiritual lives must be built. And what does repentance mean? It means to turn around. To change your heart and mind. To look away from the direction you were headed, away from sin and rebelliousness and destruction and to reorient yourselves toward God and His ways and His life. The beginning of the good news is that you have a choice in the matter. You don’t have to stay on the path you have currently chosen. You can renounce your past ways and begin the process of rebuilding and reclaiming what is offered to you by the Lord.
St. Nikolai of Zicha writes that “Repentance is the abandoning of all false paths that have been trodden by men’s feet, and men’s thoughts and desires, and a return to the new path: Christ’s path. But how can a sinful man repent unless he, in his heart, meets with the Lord and knows his own shame? Before little Zacchaeus saw the Lord with his eyes, he met Him in his heart and was ashamed of all his ways.”
+ St. Nikolai Velimirovic, “The Thirty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: The Gospel on Repentant Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1
We go through a difficult process when we commit to repentance. We have to face up to our shame. We have to face up to whatever is not good within us. Sometimes it’s our thoughts. Other times it is our words. Yet other times it is our actions. Some of the saints speak of this time of repentance as one where we hate ourselves, or rather, we hate the sins that have become a part of us. They are the part of us that is not worthy of loving. Although it is often painful, we face up to our shame and leave our sins behind and purify ourselves so that we can face up to Christ and cling to Him and His goodness rather than clinging to what is false and destructive. And just as our sins are washed away in baptism. We receive a spiritual washing when we repent fervently. St. Symeon the New Theologian writes,
“Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged. For this reason it is good to repent each day as the act of repentance is unending.”
— St. Symeon the New Theologian, Philokalia Volume 2
St. Symeon tells us that the act of repentance should happen not once or twice, but every single day! That is part of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Don’t pretend to have it all figured out. Always assume that there is more work to be done within your own soul. When we believe this, we are inviting the Lord Jesus to participate in this mysterious work. And my brothers and sisters, He deeply desires to participate in this work. He loves us and desires our healing.
Through our life in the Church we also come to understand that part of the act of repentance is to come to the Church and the receive the medicine of confession. I want you to know that you should never be afraid to come to confession. Don’t be ashamed. Expose your shame so that you will be able to live faithfully and courageously. Know that as a priest I have no interest in judging you. A priest will actually think more of you because you came with courage and poured out your sins. And this act offers such a tremendous blessing to us. It renews our baptismal oath and the grace of the sacrament. It helps us to heal from our self-inflicted wounds.
Repentance is a difficult exercise yet it becomes a powerful gift. This is why it is the beginning of the gospel message, the foundation of everything that we do as children of God. Finally, St. Silouan encourages us with a beautiful word when he writes, “Glory be to the Lord that he gave us repentance. Through repentance we shall all, every one of us, be saved. Only those who refuse to repent will not find salvation, and therein I see their despair, and shed abundant tears of pity for them. They have not known through the Holy Spirit how great is God’s mercy. But if every soul knew the Lord, knew how deeply he loves us, no one would ever despair, or murmur against his lot.”
May we all come to know God’s great mercy as we strive to repent and become saints. AMEN.