From darkness to light28 February 2023
On the eve of our entry into Great Lent, everything in church speaks to us of repentance. The wonderful hymns ‘robe’ the message of repentance in a poetic manner; the Gospel reading gives us the keys to open the gates of repentance; and the Epistle reminds us of one of Saint Paul’s most pressing admonitions: to call us to repentance. In essence the leading apostle repeats, in his own, graphic manner, the message of Christ and his Forerunner: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’.
For Saint Paul repentance means the transition from darkness to light. The more we’re firmly attached to the illusionary and deceptive things of this life or, even worse, to shameful deeds, the more we walk in darkness and slumber in the sleep of sin. Indeed, those who distance themselves from God sink into a deathly sleep; a sleep which, according to Saint Mark the Ascetic is induced by negligence, obliviousness and ignorance. Saint Mark calls these three soporific passions, dread, ‘slaughterous dragons’.
However, what should put us on our mettle isn’t the threat of appearing before a court, but the joyous remembrance that, with every passing day, if we really want this, we’re closer to our salvation. Because, as one commentator says, if we prepare properly ‘the day of judgement will mean our salvation’. Saint John the Damascan makes a realistic observation: ‘Usually, when we start something enthusiastically, we gradually become less willing to do the work. But here the apostle urges us towards the opposite: the closer the time of the kingdom and the distribution of prizes approaches, the more we should prepare with greater zeal’.
This preparation consists in our rejecting the works of darkness. Elsewhere (Gal. 5, 9), Saint Paul calls these ‘the works of the flesh’, among which- as here- are included not only drunkenness, fornication and licentiousness, but also jealousy, anger, envy, strife and so on. So once we’ve put aside these ‘clothes of the night’, we must dress brightly in the garments of the day, which he calls the ‘armor of light’. The ‘armor of light’ is the godly virtues and -according to Saint John Chrysostom- he calls them ‘armor’ because they make the soul feel safe in the battle against sin and the devil. In this struggle, to which the Church calls us in particular in Lent, the hymn-writer tells us to put on ‘the armor of the cross, with prayer as our breast-plate, alms-giving as our helmet and fasting as our saber which cuts all wickedness from the heart’. Of course, this attire and armor aren’t our own ascetic achievements, but, in the end, are Christ himself. Immediately after this, Saint Paul urges us to ‘put on Christ’. We did so at our baptism, which is why, in essence, Lent should aim at the renewal and reacquisition of the divine grace we received at baptism.
The weak and the strong
The ‘new creation’ into which baptism leads us is not a given nor is it self-explanatory. Then, as now, those who came into the Church couldn’t put aside all the dead skin of their previous life. Passions, prejudices and erroneous religious habits were deeply rooted within them and a great deal of work was required to get rid of them. There were Judaizing Christians at that time who continued to observe elements of Judaism, such as, for example, abstinence from pork. Thereafter, so as not to draw comment, they decided not to eat meat at all and displayed an excessive tendency to fast.
These are the people Saint Paul calls ‘weak’, whom those with the right faith, and who didn’t make such distinctions in food, should accept and not condemn. By the same token, of course, the ‘weak’ shouldn’t criticize the ‘eaters’, because we’re all servants of God and he alone has the right to judge us, as our sole Master and Judge. Moreover, if, in fact, both groups sin, they do so against God. As Saint John Chrysostom says, it follows that ‘if God, against whom they’ve sinned, doesn’t judge anybody prematurely but is endlessly patient in awaiting the return of the sinner, who are you to oppress the guilty by bringing them untimely and indiscriminate stress?’.
Mighty is God who established him
The outstanding example of godlike patience and prayer for the salvation of someone not only ‘weak’, but wallowing in sin is Saint Monica. With the tears of her prayer she brought her son, Saint Augustine, not only to repentance but to holiness. The saint himself describes the moment of his conversion in a moving manner: ‘Why is there not an immediate end to my uncleanness? I heard a voice… chanting: “Take up and read, take up and read”. I returned to the place where I had left the volume of the Apostle… I seized it, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell’ (Confessions VIII, 12).
The passage which Augustine read was today’s Epistle reading. It marked the beginning of a dynamic repentance, a progression from the darkness of sin into the light of Christ. With his prayers, may we steadily walk our own path of repentance, exploiting the rich opportunities provided by this year’s Lent.