In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete we see the images of Biblical characters pass before us one by one, both the just and sinners spoken of in the Old and New Testaments. To many of us the names mentioned in the Great Canon mean nothing, because our knowledge of the Bible is poor, inasmuch as we do not read it daily.
Yet the Bible is not only the history of the people of Israel, but also a chronicle of the human soul, the soul that fell and rose again before the face of God, that sinned and repented. If we look at the lives of the people mentioned in the Bible, we can see that each one of them is portrayed not so much as an historical personage, not so much as a personality that performed some deed or another, but more as a person standing before the face of the living God. The person’s historical services, as well as other achievements, are of secondary importance; what remains is a more important issue: whether that person stayed faithful to God or not. If we read the Bible from this perspective, we can see that much of what is being said about the ancient just and sinful people is nothing but a chronicle of our own souls, our falls and risings, our sins and repentance.
Let us recall Jonah. Many of us have read the book about this prophet from the Old Testament, and many of us are likely to have regarded it as a beautiful old tale, a legend about someone God saved from “the belly of a whale.” And, probably, few have ever thought that the story of Jonah is the story of many thousands and millions of people who have been entrusted by God to do something and who have tried to flee from God’s face when they failed to accomplish it. Has it never happened to us that we have refused to perform God’s commandment and tried to hide from Him? Have we never found ourselves in the abyss of godlessness and abandonment, like Jonah in “the belly of the whale”? Have we not tried to call out to God from this abyss when we finally realized there was nowhere to run away from Him?
In the psalms of David, another hero from the Old Testament mentioned in the Great Canon, we read: Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? And from Thy presence whither shall I flee? If I go up into heaven, Thou art there; if I go down into hades, Thou art present there. If I take up my wings toward the dawn, and make mine abode in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there shall Thy hand guide me, and Thy right hand shall hold me (Psalm 139, 7-10). Truly, God is everywhere present, and there is nowhere one can hide from His face.
God is present even in places where we do not think Him to be. He is always facing us, even if we think that He has turned His face away from us. God never turns away from man, but men turn away from God – and this is the essence of human tragedy. In the words of one medieval Western theologian, God never abandons us, but we abandon Him; God always hears us, but we often fail to hear Him; God is always within, but we find ourselves without; God is always near, but we are often far from Him. It is not God who sends man into “the belly of the whale,” but man himself who tries to flee, boards a ship, gets caught in a storm, and then finds himself in the abyss of godlessness. And then from these depths, from this abyss, he calls out to God, and God comes to his rescue.
This is what we have to repent of, this what we have to weep about during Great Lent: that there have been many days given us for repentance and for fulfilling God’s commandments – days we could have spent living with God, standing before His face – that we have spent without Him, away from Him; that we have lost and destroyed the precious days of life given us to grow nearer to God. Life has been given to each one of us to approach God and see Him face to face, but we have not seen Him. And who knows how many more Great Lents we are destined to experience, how many opportunities to repent remain? For some people standing here now this Great Lent may be their last chance to reconsider their lives and turn to God.
Listening carefully to the words of the Great Canon, peering into the life stories of people who have tried to flee from God but have been overtaken by Him, people who found themselves in the abyss and have been led out of it by God, let us consider how God is leading each one of us out of the abyss of sin and despair so that we might be able to offer Him the fruits of repentance.
It is a mistake to think that the essence of repentance is delving into our personal sins, engaging in self-flagellation, or trying to identify as much evil and darkness in ourselves as possible. True repentance is when we turn from darkness to light, from sin to righteousness; it is when we realize that the life we are leading is not worthy of our higher calling; when before the face of God we realize how insignificant everything we are doing is and how insignificant we are; when we realize that our only hope is God Himself. True repentance is when before face of God, called out of darkness into His marvelous light, we realize that we have been granted life in order to become God’s children, to partake of the Divine Light [1 Peter 2:9].
True repentance is expressed not only in words but also in deeds, in the readiness to help one’s neighbors, in openness to our loved ones, and not in retreating into ourselves. True repentance is when we turn to God with the hope that, even if it is not within our own powers to become real Christians, He can make us such. As is said in the Great Canon: “Where God so wills, the order of nature is overturned.” When God so wills, supernatural events take place: Saul becomes Paul; Jonah is released from “the belly of the whale”; Moses passes through the sea as on dry ground; Lazarus is raised from the dead; Mary of Egypt turns from a prostitute into a righteous person. Because, as Our Savior said: With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).
Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the Lord says (Matthew 3:2). And today, when we are taking our first steps along the way to the luminous Resurrection of Christ, we must bring forth repentance for our past sins, for our apostasy, for having fled from God when He wanted us to serve Him. Each of us still has a chance, still has time – be it long or short – and we must spend this time bringing forth worthy fruits of repentance.