I think I’ve already written before about my weird youngest brother. He’s weird not because there’s anything wrong with his view of life, but because he comes up with words like “distructions” to cover both “directions” and “instructions.” On my most creative day, my brain doesn’t work like that. I wish I knew how he did it.
I mention him at this point because about fifteen or twenty years ago, he underwent some kind of religious conversion – my mother, best described as a “born-again Catholic,” was very happy about it, I remember that – and would sit at his favorite bar, nursing a soft drink and periodically shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!” It says much for the character of New Yorkers that they didn’t toss him out on his ear. On the other hand, he was sitting at his favorite bar, and the habitués were probably used to however it is his brain works, and just took him with a grain of salt. More likely, with a barrel of salt.
My Christian readers will know by now that this is the season of Lent, the season of repentance. Any non-Christian readers I have are probably rolling their eyes right about now – hang with me, it gets weirder – and any fundamentalist Christian readers are probably itching, right about now, to tell me to invite Jesus into my heart and my repenting days are over. My Orthodox readers are doubtless holding their breath, hoping I don’t step in it. I hope so, too; but I don’t think so.
A couple of weeks ago, the priest of my parish preached a sermon on the subject of repentance. Now, for you cranks who are about to wig out on the general cluelessness of priests when it comes to modern life – Orthodox priests are married, with children. Nobody with a spouse and children remains clueless for long. And the gist of his sermon was the impossibility of sinlessness for anyone human.
Sin is, like, so not cool. So irrelevant. Right? I mean, mention “sin” and the immediate response of the world at large is going to be a variation on Dana Carvey’s Church Lady: “Well, who do you thin is responsible? Satan?” “Rearrange the letters of ‘Santa.’ Could it be…Satan?” And everybody cracks up because we all know a variation on this dear “lady” and “her” obsession with Sin and Wrongdoing. (Dana Carvey is a guy.)
That was the point of Father’s sermon. Sin isn’t necessarily wrong-doing. That’s a construct of the Roman Church, and all the Protestant churches that split off from it. Sin is a lack of contact with God, period. Repentance is a turning towards God, yet again.
No, really, think about it. What’s “wrong” with thinking about having to do your taxes? At this time of year, all Americans are focused, to a greater or lesser extent, on this necessity; for all I know, so is most of the developed world. Either we did ’em and are looking forward to a sizeable refund; or we did ’em and are cranky about the balance we had to make up; or we haven’t done ’em and are trying to find the time to put together all the documentation to get ’em done (into which last category yours truly falls). Taxes are a necessary evil, and we all have to get the dratted things done.
But while we are thinking about our taxes…we aren’t really focused on God, now are we? Our thoughts are occupied with anything but God. Which puts us into a state of separation from Him. Which, according to Orthodox theology, is a state of sin. Not a state of being Bad, Evil, Get-Ready-to-Be-Zapped-by-Lightning-You-Damned-No-Goodnik; just, we’re not thinking about God.
And repentance is a state of thinking about God, talking to Him, being in communion with Him. Period. (Please, no semantics about Him/Her. God is a spirit, and spirits are sexless. However, understanding the limits of human intelligence, God chose to reveal Himself, in every instance, in a masculine form, so that we could have a grammatical frame of reference. Referring to God in the masculine gender simply respects His preference in His revelation of Himself, and come on – don’t we also desire our preferences to be respected? So have a little courtesy here.)
It’s Lent, and during Lent, we focus on repentance; that is, on greater contact with God, talking to Him more, considering His desires more, putting more effort into our relationship with Him. And part of that effort to refocus is the infamous Giving Up, as in, “What are you Giving Up for Lent?” Chocolate? Candy? Booze? Orthodox Christians observe a modified fast – that is, we eat, but we confine ourselves to a vegan diet. No meat, no dairy. That knocks out Giving Up your favorite treat.
Giving up…um…television? That’s a little closer to the mark. But what are you going to fill in the time with? Janet Evanovich novels? Dishing with the Girls, shredding reputations left and right? Reading is good, but good reading is better: The Bible is always a winner, but there are many, many other spiritual books to occupy your thoughts with.
Or – you could fill in the time with talking to God. About what? Most of us are so accustomed to the notion that prayer is asking God to do something for us, that we forget it has other components, like thanking Him. One of the obligations of a really pious Jew is to find 600 things to thank God for every day. Six hundred!! Maybe you could start with six? And build it from there.
This is repentance, not, “I’m such a bad, bad person, and I promise I’ll be good if You…” You start by recognizing that not only have you sinned, but you also continue to sin – how many times in the past 24 hours did you really think about God? – and then you turn your thoughts and words back to Him. And you accept that you will never be able to think about Him as much as we’re supposed to, which is all the time; it’s simply not possible. And that’s OK, in the sense that when we feel like complete failures, we also realize: of course we’re complete failures. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a Messiah.
I can’t wait to lay this on my brother. It’ll knock him right off his bar stool. 😉