As we take our leave of the seasons of Easter and Pentecost, we once again resume the life of repentance, of ongoing conversion. Granted our repentance and our penance is not as intense as during Great Lent, or even Advent for that matter, but we are still called to repentance and penance because we all have sinned, we all have some area in our life that lies in darkness and needs to be penetrated by the light of Christ so that Christ can set about the task of healing us of our sickness.
Repentance, I believe, really has a bad reputation among people in the Western world. We think of it in terms of guilt, depression, a "woe-is-me" attitude. We were caught with our hand in the cookie jar, and now we stand before our Father in shame. But that is not what repentance is all about.
We have just celebrated one of the most joyful seasons of the liturgical year. We have been celebrating the fact that we have been made a new creation through Christ's resurrection and been given new life through the descent of the Holy Spirit. We have had breathed into us the new life of grace. How spiritually and psychologically messed up would it be for the Church to shift so abruptly from such a joyous season to a season where we feel nothing but guilt and shame over our falleness! But nothing could be further from the truth.
The Church is very much in touch with reality, not only the reality of the material world, but more fully the reality of the material world in light of the spiritual world. In our Baptism we were given the new life of grace, new life in Christ by the creative (or we could say re-creative) power of the Holy Spirit. The old man was put to death and a new man has arisen from the baptismal font. Or we could think of the font as an entry into the womb of our Mother, the Church, from which we are reborn or "born again" into the life of grace. Through baptism the old creation is destroyed as was the world at the time of the Flood, and from the waters a new creation is brought forth. Death and resurrection, rebirth, a new creation, this is what we celebrate at our baptism and what we enter into every year through the celebration of Great Lent, Easter and Pentecost. In the Roman tradition this is emphasized even more strongly through the renewal of the baptismal vows on Easter Sunday.
Despite this rebirth, this resurrection, this recreation, however, we remain fallen beings. The seeds of sin still grow within us, and we have to work continually to uproot them. Recognizing this, St. Theophan the Recluse, along with other Eastern Fathers and Mothers, identified two hinges upon which the life of grace turns: Baptism and Repentance. Here he means repentance in its fuller sense of the actual Sacramental confession of one's sins in addition to the ascetic life in general. If we are given this new life, the life of grace, in Baptism, then that life is renewed in us after we fall through repentance and Confession.
We have been given the gift of Confession because Christ knows our weakness. He knows that despite the new life that is given to us, we will fall. But He loves us enough to provide us a way back, a way to renew the life within us through humble admission and confession of our sins. Is this not what the Father did at the very first moment after the fall of Adam and Eve! Immediately after our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, our heavenly Father gave them multiple chances to confess in order to renew the life that had just been given them. First He starts with Adam, who accuses not only the woman of causing his fall, but indirectly accuses God (the woman whom you put here with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it). God then turns to Eve, who very promptly passes blame on to the serpent. Instead of owning up to their fall and allowing the Father to then forgive and restore their relationship with Him, they hide in their shame and choose to pass blame from one person to another. I could go on and on about how we continue this trend, not only as a society, but in our own individual spiritual lives as well.
But here is the gift of repentance and Confession that has been given to us. We have been given this new life in grace, but we often turn from that life through our sinfulness. However, our loving Father continues to ask us, "Where are you?" It's as if He is asking us, "Where are you in relation to me?" or "Where do we stand in relation to one another?" Just like with Adam and Eve, we are given the chance to admit our falls so as to restore our relationship to the Father in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit; we are given the chance to allow God to renew His life within us! Do we take that chance, or do we hide in shame because we are "naked?" Do we attempt to cover up our sin with fig leaves? Or, after we have done that, do we attempt to accuse others of causing us to sin instead of taking responsibility for what we have done?
So not only have we been given new life, but we have been given the means to renew that life within us when we turn from the new life that has been given us in Baptism. Seasons of fasting and repentance, therefore, do not stand in contrast to the great seasons of rejoicing. Rather, repentance, Confession, fasting, ascetic labor, etc. allow us to re-enter the joy of Easter by providing us the opportunity to renew the life of grace within us. This is why repentance should not be an occasion for an overly guilty conscience or an exaggerated emphasis on shame. Guilt and shame certainly enter into our repentance because we recognize what it is that we have done through our sins, but guilt and shame are not the fullness of repentance, only its starting point. True repentance takes that guilt and shame and exposes it naked before our heavenly Father. It humbly acknowledges our sins before the Father so that He might restore us and renew His life within us. Repentance, therefore, is an opportunity for rejoicing and for gratitude. Repentance rejoices because of the life of grace restored in us. May heaven consume us!