It is easy for us to imagine that this kind of life of prayer and returning to God in penitence is for experts and professional Christians, like monks, nuns and priests. But Jesus’ remarks on how, when and where to pray were for all of us. All of us need to find these opportunities, these moments, these words and silences, these places and spaces, where we can stand alone before God, just as He stands facing towards us with a heart and eyes only for us, each one of us, child to Father, Father to child. This is what we are concentrating on today, the last of the Sundays that herald the coming of Great Lent, the Sunday for repentance, for seeking God’s face, for coming back to him, for asking forgiveness.
Now, one of the criticisms that the Eastern Churches have about the Catholic Church - especially the Latin Roman Catholic Church - is its view of sin and repentance, forgiveness and virtue, in terms of law and duty, transgression and guilt, the mechanism of humanity’s Fall from grace and systems to repair it. Where is the Holy Spirit, and the compassion of the love of God when the talk is of breaking the law and observing the rules? Of course they are there in abundance in the western Catholic tradition; Pope Francis’s proclamation of the mercy of God, and St Margaret Mary Alacoque’s ardent devotion to the merciful and sanctifying Sacred Heart of Jesus both attest to this. But let us for a moment follow some thoughts on how the West’s approach looks to the East.
Saint Augustine, a Father to the Churches of both East and West, teaches about our standing in total need of God's grace, for no effort of our own takes us forward without His own. From Augustine's teaching, the Catholic Church takes the view that humanity as a whole fell from God’s grace, that this is part of humanity’s condition and experience, and that thus only by Baptism in Christ and His sacraments can the stain that in our nature that we have inherited be removed. The western Protestant Reformers exaggerated this. While rightly stressing our reliance on God’s grace and redemption for everything, John Calvin in particular went further than St Augustine and spoke of our "total depravity" – the complete corruption of our nature by sin, obscuring the image of God within each person. In response, the Catholic Church stressed how the image of God within every one of us bears the Light that the darkness cannot overwhelm (John 1.5) and remains sovereign beyond the power of sin, to urge our free will to turn to Him and seek His face. So we are not by nature completely wicked at all, but always open to God’s gift of faith and the workings of His grace. The great Catholic celebration of this insight is belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first of the redeemed. It sees the guilt of Adam’s Original Sin as broken by the power of Christ’s redemption to be worked on the Cross. By God’s choice, Mary is the first to receive this grace that makes her entirely free from the ancestral corruption of sin. So her life is entirely open to God’s gift of faith, and thus to the Incarnation of God the Son in her womb.
The Christian East puts it slightly differently. Yes, Adam fell from grace but, then, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). His disobedience leaves its mark on us, and we have inherited his tendency to sin, and our sins are our own. Yes, Our Lady, the Mother of God, is Immaculate, without sin, and “all-glorious within” (Psalm 44.13), and this is entirely the gift of God. But just as much a part of human individuals’ situation of being mired in our ancestors’ tendency to sin is the inclination toward a new life in the Kingdom of God, to our true existence now, in the heights of Christ’s resurrection.
Think of what we have sung in today’s Troparion (of Sunday, Tone 8):
You came down from on high, O Merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings. O Lord, You are our life and our resurrection.In other words, while the Western Christian tradition appears at first sight to stress law and obedience, the Fall, transgression and how amendment is made by redemption, the East, including the Eastern Catholic Churches, stresses the dimension of the liberation that is achieved by living Christ’s own risen life, by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Kingdom of God. What is on high comes down and is buried in the earth, so that what is earthbound rises and becomes lodged in heaven. This is what Our Lord meant when He said in today’s Gospel, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21). Of course, the Western Latin Catholic Church believes this too – both East and West recall the apostle’s description of “Our true homeland in heaven” (Philippians 3, Hebrews 11). And the East believes that we are sinners constantly in need of making repentance, and seeking forgiveness.
As we begin Great Lent this Monday, today is the Sunday on which we think of this repentance and forgiveness. But it would be wrong to approach it all in terms of humanity’s total failure, and the futility of trying to follow Christ only to see that our footsteps will surely falter. No wonder the Protestant Reformers felt confronted by the idea of our total wickedness and powerlessness to do anything about it. It would be even worse to think of repentance as an exercise in de-humanising ourselves, making ourselves abject, guilt-ridden and fearful beings before God Who has already looked upon what He has made and pronounced it good. He took flesh from this, and we know Him as Mercy itself. Of course we have no merits of our own and we rely on God’s power alone: our sins, our characters, our behaviour and our attitudes are an affliction that make us weep for shame. We have all experienced those moments when we have turned back to God with tears of both compunction and relief. But this is not because God has brought us to rock bottom – it is because He is raising us up.
If you look at the Desert Father kneeling outside his room where he fasts and prays in secret, storing up treasures in heaven where his heart is, you will see not someone who is dismal and destroyed. Nor will you see someone going through the duties of religion, because otherwise he is lost and hopeless. Instead, you will see a person with arms uplifted, someone whose eyes are set upon the Cross of Christ with hope-filled vision, an open face, a single-minded heart, and not a craven, downcast spirit. What you see is adoration; it is love. It is joy at being forgiven; it is the sheer sense of unworthiness at finding oneself lifted up into the presence of God’s Kingdom and being there and nowhere else - not because of my own efforts, but by the mercy and love of God for the sinner. He is the Judge Who has no use for blame; he is the Justice Who wishes everything to be put back into its true balance, restored to what He deems to be right for each one of us, and in each one of us. Here, then, we who bear His image within us find ourselves - called back to Him, owning our sins and wickedness, pouring out our hearts to Him, finding His forgiveness, freed from the tribulation of this world as a life in the next tis poured into us, to lead already now.In the Gospels, the word for repentance is not confession or penance, but metanoia. It means “thinking again”, or “changing your mind”. It means not only reviewing our sinful past thoughts, words and deeds, but embracing a completely new perspective on reality, a new outlook on life. Metanoia is also the word we use for the profound bows we make in our Liturgy, such as when we sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn and make the sign of the Cross, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. In other words, repentance is not about our actions out of guilt and transgression, but the power of God in His holiness and on His Cross to forgive the past and make all things new. During our Liturgy we constantly sing, “Lord, have mercy”. This is not about our abasement in shame, unworthy as we are to stand where we do in God’s presence. It is about our constant, repeated, never to be forgotten and always being recalled “thinking again” - our taking on a new perspective on reality, a fresh outlook on life. It means a life lived in the joy of the mercy of God. It means the adoration of the sinner who places every hope in the Cross. It means never the burden of law and duty, nor the misery of our fall from grace, but always the treasure stored up in heaven where our hearts truly lie.
Thus the repentance in Great Lent upon which we now embark is the life of the Mother of God without any stain: freedom from sin, and the liberation to enter the Kingdom as she is filled in every part with the Holy Spirit (Proverbs 24.4 and Ephesians 3.9). It is the complete pouring out of the heart and soul to God in love, as He pours Himself into us in the entirety of His mercy, the entirety of “His Presence and His very Self” (Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, Praise to the Holiest in the Height).
My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love Thee not
are lost eternally.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love Thee well,
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor of escaping hell;
not with the hope of gaining aught,
nor seeking a reward;
but as Thyself hast loved me,
O ever loving Lord!
So would I love Thee, dearest Lord,
and in Thy praise will sing,
solely because Thou art my God
and my most loving King.
No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte, St John of Avila, O.C.D., 1500-1569
Translated to Latin, O Deus, ego amo te, by St Francis Xavier, S.J., 1506-1552
Translated to English, in the Lyra Catholica (1849) by Edward Caswall, Cong. Orat., 1814-1878