by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
This Sunday, we launch the Triodian—three specific Sunday Gospel Readings that lead us into the Monday, March 11th, beginning of our 40-day Lent (the Pharisee & Tax Collector; the Prodigal Son; and the Great Judgment on Love), preparing our hearts to engage the journey ahead. Many have described the Lenten Season as “a School of Repentance.” Yet, when some people think of repentance, they think it’s just about beating yourself up over some wrong that you’ve done in breaking God’s laws. If that were the singular way we approached Lent, it would be a very dark and depressing thing. But, the Church has not only referred to Lent as “a School of Repentance,” but also as a time of “Bright-Sadness,” and “Joyful-Sorrow.” So, what does that mean? What is sin and repentance anyway? Is it really possible to find Brightness and Joy in this School of Repentance?
As many of you know, last Saturday, I was engaged in a forum conversation with my new Protestant friend, Pastor Joshua, during which the subject of sin came up. His Reformed Protestant view (which is typical of western Protestant Christianity) was that sin was primarily a matter of breaking scriptural laws that God laid out. For him, right relationship with God was based solely on rigorous obedience to all of God’s laws. I was grateful to discover that among the Orthodox in attendance, several said they felt sad for Pastor Joshua, since, by focusing so much into a strict adherence of laws, it overlooked the spirit of God’s laws.
Orthodox Christianity’s approach to this subject is more holistic. The Greek word for sin is hamartía (ἁμαρτία), which literally means, “missing the mark.” It’s as though someone is shooting arrows at a target and keeps missing the bullseye. Now, if sin is “missing the mark,” then it begs the question, “What’s the mark?” What are we Christians supposed to be shooting for anyway? For Pastor Joshua, “the mark”—the bullseye—is obeying all the scriptural laws…but for Orthodox Christians, it’s something more natural…more organic. And I think the mystery of our two disparities might be revealed in the distinctive emphasis he and I would put on the passage of scripture, Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” For Protestants like my friend, Pastor Joshua, the emphasis is on the first half of that verse, “all have sinned.” However, for Orthodox Christians, the emphasis is on the second half of that verse, “the glory of God.” You see, that’s the part of the verse that reveals the meaning of sin…the part that unveils the bullseye we’re missing. What we’re shooting for is the “glory of God.” Except, that also might be a little too abstract for us…because, what exactly is “the glory of God” anyway?
From the very beginning, humanity was created in God’s image, to grow in His likeness…to grow in union with God’s will in Christlikeness, to bear forth fruit, and to have stewardship over all of creation (Genesis 1:26-30). Yet, our first parents, Adam & Eve, failed in this divinely given mission (Genesis 3:1-24). Later, God gave a set of commandments to His people, Israel, to clarify for them what it meant to be unified with Him in His likeness. Still later, in the Gospels, Jesus clarified even further what God desired from us, “to love God with all our heart, soul strength and mind…and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” He said that all the law and all the prophets hang upon these two expressions of love (Matthew 22:40). Christ, Himself is the very fulfillment of those two expressions of love (Matthew 5:17-20). Therefore, the “glory of God” is always seen where Christ and His Body, the Church, are fulfilling those two offerings of love (Acts 7:55; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Philippians 2:11).
Along those same lines, in his letter to the Hebrews (12:2), Saint Paul, tells us what to put within our sights as we take aim: “Looking away from everything that will distract us, let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the cause and the completion of our faith…” Throughout the rest of Hebrews 12, Saint Paul shows us what it looks like when Christ self-sacrificially pours Himself out on behalf of His beloved creation.
So, if “sin” is “missing the mark,” there’s where we’ll find “the mark”—the bullseye—we’re supposed to be aiming at. The bullseye is our growing, more and more, into unity with our Lord’s self-emptying love, for the sake of the other members of the Trinity, and our growing in tangible participation with Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for our neighbor. This isn’t about merely saying that we love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind; nor merely saying that we love our neighbor as our self, but rather, it’s revealed in our physical acts of those two expressions of love. That’s why Saint Paul tells the Church in Corinth, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
A good metaphor for how sin and repentance work in our life is, trying to row a kayak across a swollen river in a rain-storm. We look across the water to the other side fixing our sights upon our mark—our target landing place—which is unity with Jesus Christ, and we begin rowing across. But the strong current of that stream of life (pulling us toward countless other things) and the various temptations of our own body (e.g. the self-absorbed desire to preoccupy ourselves with spiritual laziness, recreation, food, sex, chasing after money and possessions) are constantly pulling our direction off course, sweeping us away, if we’re not careful. So, we have to focus our attention upon our intended landing sight, our true rest, Jesus Christ—the cause and the completion of our faith…and then we have to make constant adjustments to the direction we’re rowing, as we fight the current.
So, what happens if we just don’t row and we let the currents of life and our own bodily desires overtake us? Chaos begins to rule our lives. The more we let it take over, the more we become its slaves. Most of us are already feeling the effects of lives lived this way. You know, that’s not a direction that’s ultimately to your benefit. You know you can’t continue on that way and end up in a place you and your family need you to be.
That brings us to Lent. It’s a lot of extra services, and a focus on changing our diet, our prayer life and our attention towards helping those in need—on replacing our self-absorption with tangible acts of love for God and our neighbor. But, do we really need to add even one more thing to our busy lives? Do we really need all of the extras that come with Lent? Through Lent, the Church offers us tools to help keep our eyes focused on the landing target we need so badly—the love of Jesus Christ expressed through us—and it gives us the benefit of brothers and sisters together in a bigger boat (the ark of salvation) working jointly in repentance (adjusting our aim), so that it’s not so overwhelming. After all, doing this alone practically insures you’ll be swept away. Lent also reminds us of the need for the sacrament of confession, so that we can name out loud, the ways we’ve gone off course, and commit to adjusting our course back toward unity with our Lord’s will for us. You don’t want any more of the disarray that’s pulling you and your family’s lives apart, do you? Then commit to engaging in Lent with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Make an appointment to go to confession, adjusting your aim to the Joy of Christ’s Brightness.