On Holy and Great Wednesday the divine Fathers ordained a commemoration to be kept of the woman who was a harlot and who anointed the Lord with myrrh before His Passion. In honour of this great and beautiful display of repentance I am posting a wonderful article my sister-in-law wrote for a Lenten e-mail group a few years ago.
May we be granted such bold repentance as that of the sinful woman!
Repentance. I must admit, when I hear this word there’s something in me that almost shudders – or even better – freezes. There’s a ‘heaviness’ to it that is almost unbearable. I guess you could say, ‘repentance is heavy; it’s serious and there’s nothing light about it.’ That would be true, but I would have to explain myself a bit more for you to see where my error lies, since – as far as I can see – this ‘heaviness’ that I feel has nothing to do with real repentance at all; even worse, it’s just an imposter, a false repentance – mixing me up. I’ll explain a bit, and hopefully you’ll see through my ridiculousness.For example, hearing that ten-letter-word my mind rushes to images of the harsh ascetic labours that such Repentant Ones did, and still do: the deprivations, the sighs, the exile and loneliness, the severe fasting, never ending prostrations, the flight from this world, and finally the terrible tortures, and horrific deaths – all due to their great repentance. Unable to identify in the least bit with such actions, such feats, I feel a crushing weight set into my bones. That’s when I’d sigh. And that’s when my mind despairs of my weakness – of my lack of love. And then the distance sets in – the utter separation. I am not good enough. With Christ having such good friends, I have no chance.
My thinking this way, it seems to me, is utter poison. I am wrong to identify these deeds – these actions – with the state of repentance. In themselves they are nothing, since even these can be done out of pride. Didn’t I learn from the Publican and the Pharisee? Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! And learn humility from the Publican’s tears! Certainly these great acts done by Christ’s Saints truly spring from repentant hearts, but even these God-pleasing, pure, deeds are not the repentance – an expression of it, yes, but not the repentance itself. It’s not the knees pounding into the floor that pleases Christ, but the repentant heart inspiring such a bodily response. I don’t measure up – this is undeniable – but why should I let this bring hopeless despair or utter coldness of heart? Why do I think I should earn Christ’s love? Don’t I realize that this is impossible? In this moment of realizing how very far away I am from Christ – right before the despair (in myself) and cool feelings of helplessness – lies the possibility for repentance, but only if I take it.
Through their recorded lives, we see that all these saints known especially for their repentance had these moments – and usually in extreme degrees. Feeling the utter weight of the truth (that they were very far from God) they acknowledged this fact and fell down beneath the weight of it. But at the very same moment, God permeates them (and us if we want it) with Himself, and overcomes this impossible divide. The harlot, so far away just moments before, accepts this reality and because of it leaps towards Christ: “ A harlot knowing you, the Son of the Virgin, to be God, imploring you with weeping, for she had done things worthy of tears, said, ‘Loose my debt, as I unloose my hair; love one who loves, though justly hated, and along with tax-collectors I shall proclaim you, O Benefactor, who loves mankind’”(Holy Wednesday). To feel the weight of our nothingness before God, but then to cry out to Him – with hope and belief – because that’s what He’s told us to do! That’s what we see his Holy Ones do! And from this the distance is overcome, and we are raised high, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (Luke 14, 10).
It seems to me that the true weight of this word ‘repentance’ comes not from anything crushing, or overwhelming. St. Mary of Egypt tells us: “Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Thus, repentance for her (and for us) was a key – an entrance into something otherwise closed. The true weight of this word ‘repentance’ lies in its incomprehensible power – and from this the demons tremble. By it, we are able to call down the divine; we empty ourselves but only to be filled. And in this – we are told – lies incredible sweetness. Have we surmounted our sins, fixed our problems, before this moment? Absolutely not! It seems to me, there’s no more powerful, dynamic, way of approaching God than this. It is not about being “good” or “bad” – of course we must strive to acquire the virtues – but it’s about the state of the heart. Let us become good! But let us first have repentance! And let us keep this repentance! “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15, 7).
When we hear the cry of the Baptist and Forerunner: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” let us not be overwhelmed – let us not freeze! Repentance is not heavy, but light! It is freedom – perhaps disguised to those of us lacking this sweet experience – but it is there for the taking. There are no prerequisites. No divine ladder which must first be climbed.
Let us be like the thief on the cross and repent, so that Christ can also say to us: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23, 43).