Repentance: An Orthodox Perspective- Sherif Mourad


Introduction:

The ‘natural’ man usually thinks of Repentance with the narrow perspective of it being merely a ‘sorry’ word addressed to God concerning his bad deeds. But for the Church Repentance is one of its Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), it is the way of the Christian to regain his vocation. In this essay, the deeper meaning of Repentance is investigated, as perceived by the Orthodox Church. Where the focus of the Orthodox Theology is God’s call to man from nothing into existence to have communion with Him and participate in His Divine life, the Fall of man and God’s redemption for him so that he can regain his vocation. For the reality of sin is that “we have fallen short of what we were created for”.[1]

  • What is Repentance:

By consulting the Holy Bible, the word Repentance is found to be metanoia in Greek (from meta=change and nous=mind) as in Luke 24:47, where the Lord commands his apostles “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” Concerning the dictionary meaning of metanoia it is: a change of mind, as it appears to one who repents, of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done.[2] This regenerative aspect of Repentance is emphasized in St Paul’s words in his epistle to the Romans: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.[3] For the Church repentance means, the renewal of mind which is the faculty of the ‘Heart’, the center of our being. And by it man receives God’s forgiveness so as to be able to get back to communion with Him.

  • Orthodox Church Practice and Rite of Repentance:

A Christian can start his Repentance with a time for self-examination with the help of the Holy Spirit in prayer. After discovering his true inner state of being detached from God’s love, along with any evil dispositions or sins he has committed, a Godly sorrow takes over his heart. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation”.[4] Then he confesses his sins in the presence of a priest, usually in front of the iconostasis. At the end of the confession “the priest gives not only absolution but spiritual advice.”[5] This is contrasted with some modern non-Orthodox Churches, that have either totally neglected the confession of sins or practice confession privately. But in Orthodoxy “let us also remember that the truth of our repentance is sealed only when we confess our sins before a man “of like passions”, a priest of the Church of Christ”.[6] Following confession comes the ‘absolution’ where the priest places the cross over the head of the confessing person. The absolution starts with a thanksgiving prayer, Psalm 50 and Litany of the Sick. Then the priest prays the ‘Three Absolutions’, declaring God’s forgiveness for the repentant.

  • Spiritual and Ascetical Aspects:

What is really beautiful and inspiring in these absolutions is that it is said in the plural form, indicating that the whole Church represented by the priest and the repentant come in unity to God’s presence asking for his forgiveness: “Dispense unto us Your mercy, and loose every bond of our sins, and if we have committed any sin against You”.[7] In the sacrament of repentance “the sinner is reconciled to the Church…. Since all sin is sin not only against God but against our neighbor, against the community’[8]. Thus is the call of the church, to preach ‘on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”[9]

Confessing one’s sins maintains the ‘living in the light’ theme in the Christian life. “We lift up the eyes of our hearts,”[10] the apostle Paul says “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling”.[11] Repentance enlightens the eyes of our understanding, of our hearts, that is, the mind. Enabling us anew to perceive God’s calling, the cause for which we were created and for which we exist.

The priest is a witness on God’s forgiveness for man, and a witness for man’s genuine repentance, as understood from the Russian practice “I am merely a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all the things which you have to say to me.” The priest can tell the sinner to reconsider his repentance, if he found no real change in his heart. As humans we are in a great need for this testimony of the priest concerning God’s forgiveness being given to us in a specific space and time. This is an extension for the ‘Christian materialism’[12] resembled in every aspect of the ecclesiastical life. Of course, God’s forgiveness is always present in Gods time (Kairos, καιρός), even before we repent. It is we who receive this forgiveness at a certain time (Chronos, χρόνος), as if a portal to eternity is opened by our act of repentance.

Confession of sins is a great way to bring humility to the heart. Helping us to get healed from “pride (which) is the commencement of all sin”,[13] but “…those who have bowed their heads beneath Your hand, exalt them in their ways of life, and adorn them with virtues.”[14]

Praying the Litany of the sick in confession indicates that the Church treats the sinner as a sick person and not as a criminal. The Orthodox Church is free from this legalistic view point.

 

  • Relation to Other Mysteries:

The Mystery of Christ:

Repentance is one of the Church’s seven Holy Mysteries, where a church Mystery is the way to entering into ‘the Mystery’ of Mysteries, that is, ‘the mystery of Christ’, the source of all Church mysteries. Which was declared by the Church “to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ” Who desires to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”[15] As Timothy Ware puts it: “the whole Christian life must be seen as a unity, as a single mystery or one great sacrament, whose different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts”.[16] The person of Christ and his salvation is what gives Repentance and any other Sacrament its meaning.

Baptism:

Baptism is the right way for understating the truth of Christianity. From the beginning Repentance has been connected to baptism, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins”.[17] In fact Repentance “can be seen as an extension of “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” – a reawakening to the grace of forgiveness already given in baptism”[18], “Repentance is the renewal of baptism.”[19] So, if Baptism is for man to unite himself to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Repentance is for regenerating and promoting this union.

Eucharist:

Just as Baptism initiates us to participate in the Eucharist and in all the other Mysteries at the beginning of our Christian life, likewise Repentance is the initiating step for each participation in other Sacraments through our whole ecclesiastical life. Eucharist is where we have communion with God and Church. It is forbidden to participate in this communion without practicing regular Repentance and Confession. The priest should inquire if one did repent and confess before receiving the Holy Gifts (in case he doesn’t know him). “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”[20] This Repentance prepares us to take of the Lord’s Body and Blood, which are “given for the remission of sins and eternal life to those who partake of Him.”[21]

Unction of the Sick:

In this Sacrament the priest performs the Sacrament of Repentance and Confession first. Then he prays for the sick asking for the healing of the body and soul. And as the scripture says about this Mystery: “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”[22]

 

  • Theological Meaning:

Under the Cross:

The priest putting his cross on the head of the confessor relies on the power of the Mystery of the lord’s crucifixion, in which Jesus Christ puts an end to the power of Death: “so has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?”[23]

The priest thus prays the first Absolution: “Lord who has given authority unto us to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon all the power of the enemy, crush his heads beneath our feet speedily, ….”

The Second Baptism:

Repentance as a second Baptism regenerates the life-giving union to the lord’s Death and Resurrection that we were given at our Initiation. It is not just a moralistic regret on one’s sins, or simply asking God to excuse us, for this wouldn’t be enough to save man as St. Athanasius explains, “repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.”[24]Thus Repentance as an extension to Baptism allows us to continue our journey of deification and to live according to the Image of God that is in us. We live by putting on Christ.

Absolution:

Forgiveness is granted from God to man, not from the priest who is only a witness. This understanding is crucial in revealing Christ’s mystical presence in the priest and the repentant, in the Church. Where Forgiveness is not legalistic but curative. The dismissal of sins includes healing man from the pangs of Death, a divorce (ἀφίημι, aphiēmito: send away, to bid going away or depart, of a husband divorcing his wife)[25] between man and sin along with its consequences. Man is released from the bonds of sins and Death as prayed in the third absolution: “loose every bond of our sins”.

  • Existential Event:

Man, through repentance is transformed from the state of living for himself isolated by sin, to the state of being a real member in the body of Christ. A son to God through Jesus Christ, no longer a servant to sin, but an heir to the eternal Kingdom of God.

We ask God saying “Fill us with Your fear, and straighten us unto Your holy, good will, for You are our God, and all glory, honor and dominion and adoration are due unto You”.[26] Man is made whole again through Repentance, regaining the honor he was called to by God, to live in communion with Him.

Conclusion:

The Church understands Repentance in the analogy of the returning of the prodigal son on the way to the ‘tree of life’, it is an ongoing journey through the earthly life to recover man’s vocation to be in communion with God, participating in his Divine life. Repentance is regeneration, illumination, cleansing and reconciliation.


[1] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (SPCK, 2013).

[2] Joseph Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Pub, 1996), G3341.

[3] Thomas Nelson, NKJV, Holy Bible, EBook (Thomas Nelson, 2005), Rom. 12:2.

[4] Nelson, 2Cor. 7:10.

[5] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (Penguin UK, 1993).

[6] Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love (Revelation 2:4/5): The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony (Mount Thabor Pub., 2010), 134.

[7] Third Absolution

[8] Ware, The Orthodox Church.

[9] Nelson, NKJV, Holy Bible, eBook, 2Cor 5:20.

[10] Second Absolution.

[11] Nelson, NKJV, Holy Bible, EBook, Eph 1:18.

[12] Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology.

[13] St Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings (Jazzybee Verlag, 2012), chap. 33.

[14] Second Absolution.

[15] Thomas Nelson, NKJV, Holy Bible, EBook (Thomas Nelson, 2005), Eph. 1:10.

[16] Ware, The Orthodox Church.

[17] Nelson, NKJV, Holy Bible, EBook, chap. Acts 2:38.

[18] Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, 123.

[19] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Independently Published, 2017), Step 5.

[20] The Twelve Apostles and Wyatt North, The Didache (Wyatt North Publishing, LLC, 2014), para. 14.

[21] Abd Elmaseeh Almasoudy, ed., Holy Euchologion, first, 1902, 408.

[22] Nelson, NKJV, Holy Bible, EBook Jam 5:15.

[23] Saint Athanasius and Aeterna Press, On the Incarnation of the Word (Aeterna Press, n.d.), chap. 5.

[24] Athanasius and Press, chap. 2.

[25] Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament G863.

[26] Third Absolution.

Bibliography

Almasoudy, Abd Elmaseeh, ed. Holy Euchologion. First., 1902.

Apostles, The Twelve, and Wyatt North. The Didache. Wyatt North Publishing, LLC, 2014.

Athanasius, Saint, and Aeterna Press. On the Incarnation of the Word. Aeterna Press, n.d.

Climacus, St John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Independently Published, 2017.

Hippo, St Augustine of. Saint Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings. Jazzybee Verlag, 2012.

Louth, Andrew. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. SPCK, 2013.

Nelson, Thomas. NKJV, Holy Bible, EBook. Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Thayer, Joseph. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Coded With the Numbering System from Stron’s Exhausive Concordance of the Bible. Reissue, Subsequent edition. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Pub, 1996.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity. Penguin UK, 1993.

Zacharias, Archimandrite. Remember Thy First Love (Revelation 2:4/5): The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. Mount Thabor Pub., 2010.