[Dallas Morning News, February 1, 2003]
My husband came into my office one day to find me frowning at the computer screen. “I’m stuck,” I said. “I can’t figure out how to make repentance sound appealing.”
In the ten years since I became a member of the Orthodox Church, that’s been the biggest surprise to me: the unfolding joy of repentance. Every year about this time we get onto the long on-ramp to Lent, which will begin March 10 and last for seven long weeks till Easter (we call it Pascha). It’s an intensely penitential time, marked by many extra church services and intensified fasting. I can’t wait.
That doesn’t make immediate sense, I know. It’s hard to explain. When I first became Orthodox, Lent was simply baffling to me. I went out and bought a case of tuna, not knowing that we try to abstain from fish along with meat, cheese, and other dairy products. The extra services were poetically beautiful but weren’t they, well, a little redundant? If we say “Lord, have mercy” once, isn’t that enough? Why do we keep begging?
Gradually it began to make sense. As someone said to me, “We say ‘Lord, have mercy’ forty times in a row because we don’t mean it till the 37th time.” All these spiritual disciplines are for our own benefit, not God’s. God doesn’t need us to grovel. But we need our view of reality corrected, because it tends to be self-flattering and askew. When we see things clearly, repentance comes naturally, and strangely enough, it feels like a relief.
Most of our lives we are spent in self-defense mode. We’re comparing ourselves with others and trying to decide where we stand on the scale of righteousness. We think that God will overlook our failings because there are so many wicked people in the newspaper, or because he sees what (or who) we have to put up with.
Furthermore, if we’re Christian we’re always hearing that God loves us just the way we are, and that Jesus has paid for all our sins, so it looks like there’s nothing left to do. We can spend this life watching TV. Yet we have to ask: why are our lives so tedious and uninspired? Why do we who claim to be Christian behave no better (kinder, more justly, more honestly) than those who don’t? Is this whole life just waiting around to go to heaven, killing time at the mall?
When we read the New Testament it’s clear that early Christians experienced something a lot more exciting than we do-something transforming, in fact. In the Bible and other early writings they describe “life in Christ” in terms that are vigorous rather than stagnant; they were being changed day by day into the likeness of his glory. The most distinctive thing about the way early Christians describe their lives is *energy*. God is at work! Look out! Amazing things are happening!
Some of those amazing things, of course, were miracles, healings, and acts of great heroism. But these weren’t external occurrences; they grew from lives that had been profoundly transformed. Miracles and martyrdoms were signs of change deep in the heart, so that people weren’t what they had been before Christ. They were like trees that had been pruned and trimmed to bear good fruit.
And that brings us full circle. If you want to be transformed, you’ll have to change. If you’re going to change, you have to admit you need to change. You have to look inside, where it’s dusty and cobwebbed, and let the light start to shine in.
This is why repentance feels like a relief. It’s admitting the truth about ourselves-stuff God already knows, but which we go to exhausting lengths to deny. Once it’s in the open, we can deal with it, and start to see things change. We may even see miracles, even if they’re just in our own behavior: more hopeful, more compassionate, less cranky.
So we Orthodox begin Lent with the service of Forgiveness Vespers, in which every member of the congregation asks forgiveness from every other member. We undertake a strenuous fast, not because those foods are “unclean” or we’re trying to pay for our sins, but because we want to strengthen self-control. Say no to an =E9clair today, and you can say no to an angry outburst tomorrow. All these things we do in the company of a family of worshippers, mutually supporting each other, praying together, and trading recipes for dairy-free pizza.
In the first years, Lent was bewildering to me. Later, it just seemed hard. Last year, it was a spiritual mountaintop. I don’t know how to explain why repentance is a path to joy, or how to make it appealing. I think you have to come find out for yourself.