The Cross in Repentance
Fr. Gregory Hallam · March 2, 2012
The first in a series of Wednesday sermons during Great Lent on the topic of the Beatitudes.
The beatitude for reflection today is: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mat 5:8). Now, what does St Matthew mean when he writes of “the heart”? How can we learn to be “pure in heart”? In both the Old and the New Testament, “the heart” is not primarily the internal physical organ that pumps blood throughout our bodies. The heart is the core of how we live our lives—the combination of the mind and the emotions and the will. The heart is what empowers us to think and to feel and to will. Therefore, if we wish to be “pure in heart” we need to consider: What am I thinking now? What am I feeling today? What do I wish would happen in my very own life?
The modern English word that perhaps best expresses the challenge that confronts each of us is “heart-searching”—making a close examination of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings and conscience. That examination is not simply a private, individual act. No, to be “heart-searching” is to seek a relationship with God, who is the Heart of the universe, the source of all life on earth. I believe Jesus Christ was born as a human being to model for each of us precisely how to be “pure in heart”, how to follow Him into a relationship with God the Father, empowered by God the Holy Spirit. To be “heart-searching” is to move into the life of the Trinity, to link our thoughts and feelings to the will of God, to the blessings that God wishes to communicate to each of us.
Many of the Psalms express that deep understanding of “heart-searching” that draws us into to the will of God for the short span of our lives here on earth. From more than 100 references to the heart in the Psalms, let me draw your attention to only one, Psalm 50(51), verses 10 to 13: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:10-13). That was King David’s heart-felt prayer after the prophet Nathan pointed out to him the depth of the king’s sin with the beautiful woman, Bathsheba, and David’s deliberate killing of her husband, the outstanding soldier, Uriah.
Now, happily and hopefully, none of us in this church today have gotten ourselves into the mess that happened to King David, But look what happened to David when he recognised his sin. In 2 Samuel 1:13, David firmly acknowledged without qualification: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Although the first child born to Bathsheba and David died, the second child was Solomon, whom the Lord loved and named Jeddiah, which means “beloved of the Lord.” So even from the depth of sin and selfishness and pleasure-seeking and poor judgement there remains the possibility for David and for each of us to become one with God.
How? How can we achieve such oneness with God despite our tendency to sin? St Gregory of Nyssa, an outstanding 4th century bishop and theologian and thinker, guides us into understanding how to discover both our own hearts and the heart of God. In Sermon 6, he writes: “The divine nature, whatever it may be in itself, surpasses every mental concept. For it is altogether inaccessible to reasoning and conjecture, nor has there been found any human faculty capable of perceiving the incomprehensible…The way that leads to the knowledge of the divine essence is inaccessible to thought. For He is invisible by nature, but becomes visible in His energies…”
How? How does God become visible in His energies, when we cannot understand Him through reasoning? St Gregory refers us to Luke, chapter 17, verse 21, when Jesus Christ tells His disciples, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” St Gregory interprets that passage quite profoundly. He says, when a person’s “heart has been purified from every creature and all unruly affections” such persons “will see the image of the divine nature in [their own] beauty,… for God imprinted on our nature the likeness of the glories of His nature.” In other words, God becomes visible to us in His energies, because our energies have been purified, because we can lose our dislike or jealousy or even hatred of others, we can lose “all unruly affections”. That is to say, amazingly, the love of God, the possibility of becoming one with the Holy Trinity, is already present within each of us. How can we experience that love? How can we live in such a way that our hearts are, in St Gregory’s words, “purified from every creature and all unruly affections”? How can we see God?
We are all sinners, but we can all be “repenters”. Whatever our sins, big or small, we can still join with David and say simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” In the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, in the Troparia, Song 2 of Great Compline for Wednesday evening of the First Week of Lent, we pray: “I have slipped and fallen like David through lack of discipline, and I am covered with filth; but wash me too, O Saviour, with my tears. [Yet] no tears, no repentance have I [at this time]…. But as God, O Saviour, grant me these [tears]. I have lost my first-created beauty and comeliness; and now I lie naked, and I am ashamed. Close not Thy door to me then, Lord; but open it to me who repent[s] to Thee. Give ear to the sighs and groans of my soul, and accept the drops of my eyes, O Saviour, and save me. O Lover of man[kind], who wishes all to be saved, in Thy goodness recall me and receive me who repents.”
That’s rather dramatic, but it is a genuine Orthodox plea to the Lord Jesus Christ to empower us to repent. In Prayers by the Lake, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich of Serbia who died in 1956 in the United States, has reflected perhaps more calmly, but with the same vision, on the possibility of repentance. I close with the words of Bishop Nikolai: “Repentance rejuvenates the heart and lengthens one’s lifetime. The tears of a penitent wash darkness from [the] eyes, and give [those] eyes a childlike radiance. The eye of my lake [writes Bishop Nikolai] is like the eye of a deer, always moist and radiant as a diamond. In truth, the moisture in the eyes drains the anger in the heart…The penitent clears the weeds from the field of the soul, and the seed of goodness begins to grow. A wise landowner not only cuts the thorn bush that has pricked him, but every thorn bush on the field that is waiting to prick him. O my Lord, make haste to show a new way to every penitent, after [they] scorn [their] old way. We bow down and beseech You, O Life-giving and Mighty [Holy] Spirit.”
So be it. May all of us in private during this Lent repent as we each “bow down and beseech” the Holy Spirit to show us “a new way” to live in which our own energies, limited as they are, become joined with the energies of God because we seek His purpose in our lives. Then each of us will truly see God.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.