REPENTANCE — THE AXE TO THE ROOTS
by Fr. Michael Harper
We have just entered the period of Lent, a time of special repentance. During these weeks the fasting is only a means to an end, our own deeper repentance; if we ignore this, then it will all be in vain. The last Sunday before Lent is called "Forgiveness Sunday", and there is a special service of Vespers, sadly neglected in some parts of the Orthodox Church, which includes the specific asking of forgiveness by the members of the community. This is initiated by the Priest, who asks forgiveness specifically for his shortcomings.
Lent, in a sense, is a return to basics. Lent began as the period for preparing catechumens for their baptism at Pascha (Easter). But it is just as much for us a recovery of the essence of our baptism, the first word of which is "repent". One of the Church Fathers we will be remembering in Lent is St John Climacus. He once wrote, "repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort … repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair".
We see the same in the ministry of John the Baptist, who called people to a baptism of repentance. He addressed his catechumens with radical words, "even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees: every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:9). So Lent for us is a time for doing some drastic pruning, and to lay the axe to the roots of our sins, our pride and self-indulgences.
But we should not forget the concept of forgiveness, because it was central in the teaching of Christ, who often contrasted our forgiving others with God's forgiveness of us. It comes, of course, in the Lord's Prayer — "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." We are passing through a period in history when forgiveness has come to the fore. A Christian leader, Lynn Green, recently organised a reconciliation march from France to Jerusalem to ask forgiveness from Muslims, Jews and Eastern Orthodox for the sins of the Crusades. The Pope himself has asked forgiveness for the sins of his Church, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. I have also just received notification of a group of Germans who plan to visit every city in Germany where Jewish people suffered during the Jewish holocaust, to ask the forgiveness of the Jews. All this has its place. But sometimes it is easier to ask forgiveness when one was not personally involved, than when one was. And it is this personal need for forgiveness which Lent is all about.
If we go to the heart of forgiveness we shall find that it is closely linked with the question of judging. When we forgive someone we are saying in another way, "I don't judge you". To judge people is to act as "God" to them; it is to by-pass God's sovereignty. God is our judge, and in the final analysis no one else. We are not saying that no one can assess another person, or be wise in discerning their behaviour and acting accordingly. In 2 Timothy 4:14, for example, Paul certainly expected his fellow Christians to exercise such discernment. But to judge someone is like taking them into a court of law, and pronouncing sentence on them. That we must never do.
There is a subtle reason why we like to do this judging in our worse moments. It is because it makes us feel better. Normally there are always people around whom we feel are not as good as we are. So we compare ourselves — condemn others, and so get off the hook ourselves. The famous prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, said regularly in Lent, shows the right way for us, "grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother."
Saint Dorotheos of Gaza puts it well. "Those who want to be saved scrutinize not the shortcomings of their neighbour, but always their own, and they set about eliminating them. Such was the man who saw his brother doing wrong and groaned, woe is me; him today — me tomorrow'".
So some deft wielding of the axe to the roots of our sins this Lent is going to be good for all.