Jesus and John the Baptist both started their ministry with the same thought: ‘Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand’. That reminds us that without repentance there is no new life, no salvation, no entry into the kingdom of Heaven. St Isaac the Syrian said: ‘This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.’ He also said that ‘During every moment of the four and twenty hours of the day we stand in need of repentance.’
But what do we mean by ‘repentance’? What is it Jesus is telling us we must do?
It is certainly a feeling of shame and sorrow for sin – for where we have fallen short of the law of God; it must include horror and sorrow for the injuries we have done to others, and for the stripes we have inflicted on the Lord. But if that is all it is, if it is simply downcast eyes and self recrimination we have missed something – that is the love God shows us, and the fruits of repentance. Repentance is no more a once for all act than is being saved. We must incorporate it into our lives and make it a part of every day life, for the kingdom of Heaven is already here among us. The great Light of the world who helps us to see our sins as they are, helps lead us on to where we are meant to be. Repentance is, itself, a fruit of Grace. It is when we have a sense of the beauty of God’s law and creation that we have a true sense of sorrow at the way we disfigure it with our disobedience and shortcomings and failures. It is when we accept the miracle of God’s forgiveness that we repent; our sins are no longer intolerable to us. However hard we may find it to forgive ourselves, we need, if we are to repent properly, to come to the knowledge, the understanding, that God forgives us; if we cannot do that to ourselves, we do not yet know the depth of His love.
That is why, in the Church, the sacrament of reconciliation is necessary; in the confession of our sins we express our sorrow and receive the assurance we are reconciled to God; we bring our spiritual sickness to the Great Physician, and we receive what we need. What matters here is not what the priest does, or even what I do, but what Christ does. The priest is simply the vessel through which Jesus works on us.
At the same time we are filled with great sorrow for our sins, we are filled with the great joy which comes from knowing they are forgiven:
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.