Presvytera Melanie DiStefano lives with her husband Rev Fr Joseph DiStefano and their son Michael Seraphim. Together they serve the parish of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Youngstown, Ohio. Melanie has a background in Chemical Engineering and graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity in 2003.
If you plugged in to the media at all over the past election year to hear politicians share their views on a myriad of issues, you have likely heard the phrase “My views have evolved on this issue”. Both political parties have claimed changes in their beliefs over time: Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton attributed her changing beliefs about marriage to “evolving views”; President Donald Trump as well, in his stance on abortion. All this talk of evolving views got me reflecting on repentance – a radical change in one’s mind and heart. Is repentance subjective? Does it simply mean to change views – no matter which direction that change takes?
Our modern culture seems to only accept a change in one’s beliefs when that change is toward a mainstream, “liberal”, cultural norm. It seems perfectly acceptable – even progressive – to the majority when President Obama flipped positions on the definition of marriage from one man and one woman to any combination of genders. However, when people’s beliefs become more “conservative” by worldly standards, such as in the case of the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, the person is considered an intolerant hypocrite. Her past mistakes of previous failed marriages revealed, it was inconceivable to many that she may have changed.
Modern Culture and the Conflict with Faith
And so, I would pose, that Christian repentance is a turn from one’s old errant ways toward God’s perfect will. For the Christian, it really is not a matter of personal opinion that is important. One who strives to follow Christ will strive to conform him/herself to His teachings as interpreted by the Church for centuries. “Lean not on your own understanding”, Proverbs 3:5 reminds us. Left to our own reasoning, we can easily justify our wayward tendencies. Left to examine the world’s reasoning will be equally confusing – it is all opinions. Where is Truth to be found? Is there an absolute to which we turn that will assuredly lead us on the “right” path? Yes – and His name is Jesus Christ. “I am the Way, The Truth and the Life” He tells us. A relationship with the Living God is organic and grows us, prunes us so that we bear good, healthy fruit. No GMOs! No artificial ingredients!
So to learn more about what Holy Scripture tells about repentance see for yourself – open up The Good Book and receive The Good News!
To get a sense of what the scriptural meaning of “repentance” is, here are a few passages:
Ezekiel 14:6 – Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
Mark 1:2-5 – The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
Mark 1:14, 15 – Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
From these references we can infer that repentance means a sincere turning away, in both the mind and heart, from self to God.
As a young adult I erringly thought that if I began to change my stance on issues I would in essence be a hypocrite and my beliefs would be invalid. I also thought it judgmental to say that a cultural norm was wrong. THESE. ARE. LIES. Repentance toward Jesus Christ does precisely that: changes one’s heart – transforming it into one of Truth. This Truth has been proclaimed by the Church for millennia and do we contemporary people think we know something more than the first Christians did who shared their daily lives with Christ? And as for being judgmental, there is a difference between judgement and discernment. I know I am a sinner and have no right to judge another person, but that does not mean I must conform to another’s beliefs if they conflict with Christ’s teachings.
I often look at myself and this world and wonder what is natural anymore? Everything is artificial. How can we discern what is Real and True when we are immersed in a sea of pretense? We eat fake food with synthetic ingredients, we are obsessed with artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we hide our physical and spiritual flaws with masks…What did God create? Do our man-made creations serve to mimic His and give Him glory? Do we take what is naturally granted us and transform it into something to benefit ourselves and others through our toil?
My Liturgics professor, Fr. Alkiadis Calivas, gave an amazing lecture diving into the depths of the Mystery of The Holy Eucharist. He explained how, in God’s love for man, He wants us to be a part of the transformation of holiness. The Church’s choice of bread and wine as the elements used in Holy Communion express this beautifully. God creates the wheat grain and the grapes, while the toil and patience of man change them into something more: bread and wine. Furthermore, The Lord takes what he has allowed us to change and makes it complete: His Perfect Body and Blood. This Transfiguration, if you will, condescends to His fragile, imperfect creation and makes it one with His all-powerful, perfect Self.
An experience I had in the summer of 2002 brought this teaching to life for me. I was blessed to be a part of an OCMC mission team in Chevogere, Kenya. There were a variety of jobs our group engaged in, including catechism, medical services, and assisting with the building of a school. A couple of us were assigned the very unique job of preparing Prosphora – the bread loaves used in The Divine Liturgy for the Holy Gifts. I was no expert at Prosphora preparation to begin with, but this was no “normal” bread-baking endeavor for the contemporary member of an industrialized nation!
The ingenuity of the villagers was truly inspiring. They made an oven from the rims of tires, heating a fire upon which we placed a pot containing the dough. A makeshift cover served to contain the heat and help the baking to be more uniform. We took turns fanning the heat to keep it kindled throughout the baking process. It was already quite hot – we were in Africa in June! So you can imagine the discomfort experienced by us spoiled Americans. Never had I felt so intimately a part of making the holy gifts. I could only imagine the days of yore when grain was hand-ground. Did I mention the number of loaves we made? Nearly 40! Not only did we need bread for Sunday Liturgies, but the village parish was preparing for the Consecration of St. Mark’s Church and was expecting the entire village to attend.
We did our best with the tools we had and with our limited experience. Many loaves were misshapen, slightly burned, or had poor seals. After the Consecration we were left with a few loaves to allow for the remaining few liturgies we would celebrate. Our beloved leader, Fr. Gerasimos Makris, had to remove areas that had grown moldy on the bread. They began to decompose with time and exposure to the elements.
The miraculous lesson that I witnessed in this experience was that these very imperfect, dirty loaves were actually acceptable to The Lord. In His great love and mercy He condescended to His fallen creation and transformed the ugly loaves into something beautiful, life-giving and perfect: His very own Body. “For my flesh is food indeed…” He reminds us.
What a perfect image of what repentance is!!! We toil to try and prepare ourselves to meet God’s grace. We strive to change into something “more” based on the gifts and abilities He has given us to begin with. We place ourselves before Him – dirty, crooked, and broken-down. And behold! Mystery of all Mysteries – He who is Love – unites with us in our imperfections and makes us one with Himself.
It is His love that changes us and makes us beautiful, healthy and whole. He is the source of our repentance – if it is true repentance. “We love…because He first loved us”. Encountering this love we cannot help but be changed. We fall to our knees in humility not being able to bear the “unapproachable light” , and we submit willingly to The One who is our purpose for living, The One whose love “will never leave (us) or forsake (us).”
Repentance takes trust. We must trust that The Lord loves us and will help us change because He wants us to have the fullness of Life. We must trust that He knows better than our feeble minds can reason. But to trust takes getting to know someone, spending time with them, searching their heart, watching their actions. Our repentance grows to the degree that we remain in a close relationship with Him, to the degree that we are in Communion with Him and the teachings of the Church which He established.
If we spend our time listening to the voice of our fallen culture, we will mold the lies it tells us into our moral compass. If all we do is look at the world without praying for discernment – the ability to see the truth from the lies – we will be wandering sheep, following the voice of the wrong shepherd. How do we know the voice of Truth, the voice of The Good Shepherd? We all have access to this beautiful voice. Open your bibles! Offer prayers to the Holy Trinity. Attend church services. Ask your priest for guidance. Receive reconciliation by confessing your sins. Receive His Precious Body and Blood poured out for “the forgiveness of sins”. Then you will know His meek and gentle love. Then you will be united to The Truth Himself. Then you will be nurtured and formed so as to be magnets that draw people to the Truth – Who is a Person – Who is Jesus Christ, the King of All.
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