The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (1:1-8)
Today we are blessed to contemplate new beginnings. It is, after all, New Year’s eve. The very last day of the year and we are blessed to spend it together here, in worship of the living God. Now, it is quite common as we wrap up one unit of time or one phase of life to begin to look back at what has happened over the course of the last year or the last phase of life and to examine it. We might look at places where we have “done well” and others where we have “fallen short.” We might examine our failings. We might begin to formulate a plan of action for the coming phase, the coming year, the next semester, the next project at work and so forth and so on. So this is quite natural and quite normal as we wrap up the year 2023. And just as we look back we are also quite inclined to look forward to the coming phase of life, to something new.
These are important aspects of growth as a human being, but they are much more important in our spiritual lives. This is a place where we are least likely to be honest about our situation and most likely to live in a state of denial or worse, delusion. It is hard for us to see our condition, basically impossible. Nevertheless, this is the aspect of human growth that is most integral to becoming a mature and well-rounded human being. By this I mean, a human being that is a reflection of Christ and His saints, who live the divine life.
Another reason why we are so unlikely to be honest about our spiritual situation is that to address our failings in this area would be quite painful. A man who examines the depths of his heart in prayer will quickly find himself being nearly overwhelmed by the depths of the darkness of his heart. He can suddenly fall into a place that is near to despair when he realizes or begins the effort to realize just how he has disfigured the image of Christ that is within him. Very few things are as painful to us as seeing our own sins on a personal level. The equivalent to this in the physical realm might be the diagnosis of cancer. A man or woman goes on from one day to the next with relatively little that interrupts their life and then one day the doctor may call you or bring you in for a meeting and at that moment your life is invaded by a new and harsh reality. While you look completely healthy on the outside, in fact, your are not well at all. Your body is at war. Your healthy cells are in what appears to be a losing battle to a tumor or cancerous growth that desires to spread and to take over every last inch territory. One can approach this moment of their life as either a death sentence or as a chance at a new beginning.
Likewise, the beginning of the gospel according to St. Mark which we have read today is a similar moment. A moment to try to the best of our abilities to do an honest self-assessment of our lives. A moment to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make His paths straight.” But what if our self-assessment is not very good and not very honest (which it likely won’t be at least at the beginning of our spiritual journey)? In that case we still have hope, but our hope can’t be ourselves. Our hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we read and study the gospels for ourselves, we encounter the light of truth. This light can be almost ruthless in its ability to expose us and our weaknesses and help us to start the process of healing. But as we see today, the beginning of the gospel is the beginning of the spiritual life for each person who desires to be transformed, it is the process of dying and rebirth that begins with heartfelt repentance. A process filled with pain and yet overflowing with potential through the work of God’s grace and our cooperation with that grace.
My desire for each of you, and for myself, is that you view the act of repentance as the most fundamental act of the coming year. This is the most painful and the hardest work and yet equally the most important and life-changing of all. It starts by being honest with yourself and measuring yourself according to the teachings of Christ. It starts with seeing a glimpse of your inner condition and being disgusted with it. I want you to know that the state of our world and its value system make this very difficult. The world tells us to take pride in our fallen and improper thoughts, words, feelings and actions. The world tells us to wear our passions like a badge of courage. But that is not courage, my brothers and sisters. Courage is not boldly accepting and proclaiming your sinful state. That is not courage. Courage is struggling against the passions and sinful desires and trusting that God will help you to wear the garment of righteousness and holiness because He loves you. Courage is boldly proclaiming that Christ is bigger than you and the things that you struggle with. Courage is proclaiming with hope and faith that the God who defeated sin and death itself, is quite capable of putting our sinful nature to death and pouring out new life on us. That is courage.
What should we do if we are unsure how to repent or how to begin to repent? Start by praying a prayer like this one by St. Isaac the Syrian,
“At the door of Your compassion do I knock, Lord; send aid to my scattered impulses which are intoxicated with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness. You can see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition—though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them. Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find alleviation from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Your gift, for without the power of Your grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them be able to be still from great distraction.” + St. Isaac the Syrian, from The Prayers of St. Isaac the Syrian
Everything is possible for the one who boldly draws near to God in a humble state of repentance. The Lord opens the doors to the kingdom through repentance. Listen to the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian. He 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, Philiokalia Volume 2
May this be our life and our road during the coming new year and beyond. AMEN.