by Archie Wilson
The Orthodox Church is a Scriptural Church. Her traditions originate in the Lord of the Scriptures. She is an Apostolic Church, having the understanding of Her Scriptures as taught by them, and deposited in Her bishops. Her understanding of the nature of man of sin, and of repentance, come from the Scriptures as taught by the Apostles, and through their successors, faithfully transmitted to the present. Repentance, as taught by the Church has its origin in the scriptures. The thesis of this article is that Orthodoxy faithfully maintains the Scriptural teaching on repentance.
It is the belief of the Orthodox Church, that the Prophets of Israel spoke by the Holy Spirit. They called Israel to repentance. When they spoke of repentance, it always had to do with averting a punishment God was going to give them for breaking the Covenant they had vowed to keep with God. A favorite image is the harlot, and the faithful husband. The Covenant is the marriage vows. The people of this Covenant, went after other lovers (idols), and the prophets were sent as God's messengers, with His Word to his faithless wife. When she did not give up her adulterous ways, and return to her Husband, then He sent the prophets with a bill of divorce. God's call to His faithless wife to return to him can be put in one word: "Repent". Repentance always means to turn back from a way that leads to destruction, to the way that leads to life.
When John the Baptist appeared, he called his people to repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. The Orthodox understanding of repentance is always in relation to his Kingdom. During the time of Israel's fall, its kingdom was united under David, and the glory of it, built by his Son, Solomon. With its destruction, the prophets began to speak of its restoration, but the words they used to describe it, though earthly, spoke in ideal or heavenly terms.
It would last forever. Its king would rule not only the tribes of Israel, but the nations, as well. In it death would be abolished, the lamb would lie down with its mortal enemy, the wolf; the child would play over the adder's den, and the man one hundred years old, would die a child. In it nations would war no more, and day and night would disappear, in the glory of everlasting light. The Spirit of God, who spoke by the prophets, would be given to all flesh.
This Kingdom was to be ruled by one, of the seed of David. He would build the house for God's Presence (The Church). He was at first, thought to be Solomon, a ruler of an earthly kingdom, but with the destruction of the Temple, his rule became one that could not be destroyed. He would be born of a Virgin in Bethlehem, come forth from Galilee, and be called the "Mighty God, the Highest Power, the Prince of Peace". In fact, his whole life was foretold by the prophets, including his betrayal, his crucifixion, his burial, and his exaltation. So, John announced the dawn of this heavenly kingdom, that the prophets had foretold, would replace the earthly kingdom, Israel had lost.
He also announced, that there was one among them, who was the King of this kingdom. With the dawning of the new age, the King had come. He was the long awaited Messiah of the Jews. He would baptize with fire and Spirit. Repentance, then, in the message of John was to turn toward this new kingdom, because the old one was to be destroyed. Even now, John said, that "The axe was laid at the root of the tree" (Lk 3:9). The prophets had foretold that "out of the stump of Jesse (The line of David) would come forth a righteous branch" (Isa 11:1). So, when John used this imagery, he was announcing that the tree of Israel was about to be chopped down and a new branch would shoot forth out of its stump. John's call for repentance was a call to new life for Israel, not like before. That life was to be abolished. In the true prophetic tradition, repentance meant to turn from destruction to life.
Jesus preached repentance in the same tradition as John, calling men to repentance because the Kingdom was at hand, but he described in vivid detail the ethical demands of the Kingdom, which were so unearthly, that it caused his disciples to cry out "who then can be saved" (Lk 18:26)?
Jesus taught his Apostles that the Kingdom was not of this world (meaning it originates in God), but the descriptions by the prophets should have taught Israel's sons to have expected that. Then he added, that He was not of this world, declaring himself to have come forth from God. When he was glorified, and revealed himself to his Apostles, risen from the dead, Victor over death, the full impact of what they had been taught, by their Master, came home. He is the King of a Kingdom that has no end because both He and the Kingdom originate in the Blessed Trinity. To be in readiness for the coming of this kingdom means life. To not be ready, when it comes, means destruction. Repentance is towards life.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Apostles, "speaking as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4), declared Jesus as both Lord and Messiah, which to the Israelites trained in prophesy, meant God and King. The Apostles said that the Jews had crucified their God and their King. When his hearers believed what Peter proclaimed, they asked what they should do? He said that they should repent, be baptized, and they would receive the Gift of The Holy Spirit. Then we are told that they continued steadfastly in the Apostle's teaching (which the Orthodox Church continues to do today) in fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. The theme of this article is that in Orthodoxy, repentance leads to life away from death and destruction. The life these first disciples were called to was Sacramental. Repentance led into the sacramental fellowship. In that fellowship was life. Outside that fellowship was death. It was turning from a life, "in the flesh" to use a Pauline phrase, to life in the Spirit. The crowning Sacrament was the Eucharist, but it is not to be viewed, as in the West, separated and explained from the other sacraments. Life in this early fellowship, total life, was life in the Spirit. Apart from this fellowship, Cyprian taught, there is no salvation for man.
Ignatius taught that the Church is constituted, or manifested locally around the Bishop celebrating the Eucharist. Cyprian taught that the Church universal was everywhere the same, because no matter which local Church was visited, one would find it in agreement with all others. They would find the same faith in the bishops as well as the laity.
This unity of faith is vitally linked to the bishops, continuing as the Apostles taught, and did themselves to celebrate with the faithful the Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Body of Christ is constituted. As in the old dispensation, there was a covenant between God and man, a "marriage" agreement, based on the Decalogue, so in the new there is a covenant. This covenant is the Body and Blood of Christ, which Christ declared to be the elements of the Eucharistic Feast. In and through this Sacrament, Christ is forever present with his people, making them joined to Him. I mention this emphasis on the Eucharist, because the penitents were led to the holy Eucharist through sacramental rites that prepared them for communion, where they and their Husband were made one. They were communed the Body and Blood of Christ. When they repented, they did not know everything, it was not knowledge that saved them. Like children they were led. They were just obeying their Lord and their God speaking to them through the Apostles.
They were baptized in preparation for the marriage feast. None could approach God in a sinful condition. In their condition of sin, that they were sorry for, they did not know how baptism would cleanse them from their sins. They simply obeyed the Spirit. When they were Chrismated, they did not understand the mystery, but they submitted to it. Repentance for them was to believe and to submit to God's commandments. All that happened to them was for the celebration of the Eucharist. They were washed of their sins, sanctified by the Chrism, so that they could be prepared when the Bridegroom comes.
Through these preparations each new penitent was brought to the Eucharist, by the Church, to be constituted as a member of the Body of Christ. They were brought without stain or sin because they had offered themselves up humbly to the Church. This is one reason the Church has no problem baptizing infants. It is the Spirit in the Church that does the work of salvation. He does not do it alone without cooperation from man, but in the final analysis, man cannot cleanse himself from his sins. The message of repentance in the Church is a message of, "what is impossible for man, is possible for God". Once a man is constituted a member of Christ's Body, through the Eucharist though, he begins to live his new life in Christ and to keep his wedding garment unstained.
To aid him in doing this, he is given the Sacrament of Repentance, which is a second baptism, only this time the Holy Church teaches, it is a baptism in tears. Not like at first, when the penitent did not have the experience of marriage to Christ, but now he has spotted his own wedding garment. To come back to the Cup, he must be cleansed again. It is no wonder that the monastic movement concurred with the inrush of the world into the Church during the time of Constantine. They saw in their own minds the very constitution of the Church altered. The Church was not of this world and the Church led by the Spirit knew this. The Sacrament of Repentance in the Church is there to remind the world that the Church has accepted and baptized, that they are responsible to keep their marriage garment unpolluted. She teaches that if one comes to the cup and partakes in an unworthy manner, they drink fire and damnation to their souls. That which was meant to give life would bring death. Repentance is making real the Christian teaching concerning the amount of times one's brother should be forgiven. The Scriptural answer is, "As many times as he repents" (Lk 17:3-4).
Let me conclude by saying, the Table is set. All is prepared, but each one must decide, whether he will come and eat? When the Bridegroom comes, will the Chrism oil still suffice, being replenished time and time again, through repentance? Will the Seal of the spirit still be engraved in their hearts, or will they, through carelessness, or neglect, or perhaps even unbelief, be in darkness when He comes? One does not have to wonder what their condition will be when He comes? Every Eucharist, He is present.
But the way to Him is repentance.
Mr. Wilson is a member of St. George Church in Indianapolis and is enrolled in St. Stephen's Course of Studies of the Archdiocese.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America