When we enter into the season of the Great Fast, we start to use a number of special prayers and services. Amongst these is the hymn that we sing at Matins every Sunday from the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee until the Fifth Sunday of the fast:-
Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving kindness and Thy mercy.
This hymn, which entered the Triodion (service book for Lent) in the 14th century, is probably of quite ancient origin. One can visualise the crowd of traders and visitors standing outside a city gate in the cold air before dawn waiting for the sun to rise, the blast of a trumpet and then the great gates of the city swinging open to allow the day to begin. Or indeed, one can think of the great bronze gates of Ayia Sophia in Constantinople opening as dawn breaks for worshippers to enter from the dim twilight outside into the gloriously lit interior of the great cathedral.
Either idea, either vision, brings us to ponder on the idea of CHANGE. We pass through the gates from where we were, to where we want to be. We enter a different place where things can be different.
The English word “repent” means to have regret or sorrow for something that has been done in the past. The Greek word, metanoia, that is used here in this hymn is significantly more dynamic. Yes, there is a sense of regret for the past but it really means to change, to turn around, to face in a different direction – to pass through into new mode of being. So the image of a gate is a good one. However for repentance to be real there has to be another element. After we have passed through the gate, the gate closes behind us, and there should be no going back. We do not go back to an old mode of being so there is a fundamental notion in Christianity that there can be change, that we can be different people. We do not have to be where we were or the people that we once were. Everything around us may be exactly the same but within we can be profoundly different, and because within, within our hearts, we are different so too, bit by bit, everything around us will change as well.
This is a very important notion at the heart of Christianity. It is entirely positive. The Saviour’s first words at the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the Good News.” So change is at the heart of the message. Cardinal Newman said: “To be a Christian is to change: To be a saint is to have changed much.”
Oddly enough however, in our increasingly secular society, this idea is gradually disappearing. I am not sure why this is happening but it is most obvious in some of the professions that have to do with counselling, psychology and psychiatry. Here the idea is to delve back into the persons past to find out why they are like they are: so far so good. But then comes the problem, because there follows the notion: “That is where you are and you must now get on with it” or, what I believe is a really unhealthy delving back into the past as if this will in some way – through presumably greater understanding – allow one to live with the problem. So people rake over where they have been in their lives without moving forward at all. This sort of brooding over the past can be actually sinful. It can be one of the ways that we sin in thought. However it is even more dangerous because it has recently been reported, after a scientific experiment, that if people are accused of a crime which they did not commit, 50% will eventually admit to the crime and “remember” what happened!!! So things in the past can be suggested to us and we can start to believe them even if they are not true.
We cannot of course, change the past in any way at all. But we do not have to live in the past as perpetually disappointed people like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. We can change the present and the future. We do not have to be judgemental, or angry, or gluttonous or rude or bear grudges.
With the help of the Church services and the fasting we can learn to see how we are affected by all these things and how our sins affect others. We are strengthened by the self discipline to change. Because we can change.
Let us therefore go through the gates of repentance leaving behind the body all defiled to a new us, a new me, with the help of the One who truly loves us, our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.