As we enter yet another new year of the Lord’s goodness, we hear from today’s Gospel pericope, on this Sunday after Epiphany, a message of personal renewal: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). How appropriate, given this time of year, when people commit themselves to various kinds of personal and collective resolutions. Many persons resolve to lose more weight or to change bad habits such as smoking. Others plan to reconcile with people with whom they have had bitter arguments. Still others set personal financial goals, whether it is to make more money or invest more for their retirement or set aside adequate funds for college. Whatever the case, a new year can be an exciting time to make positive changes in one’s life.
So what about this “changing of one’s mind over to God”, what the spiritual tradition of our Holy Orthodox Church calls metanoia, or “repentance”? Is this a resolution on our list or do we best relegate it to the period of Lent? In truth, Holy Lent is not only the forty-day preparatory period for Great Week and Pascha, but it also serves as a model of ascetic living for how we should live daily, for every day and week culminates into the Feast of feasts, our Lord’s Resurrection, which we celebrate each Sunday. How we live our lives — the ways we think, the choices we make, and the behaviors we adopt — should be reflections of our Lord’s life, in which seemingly bitter defeats end as victories. And the only way to experience the utter and sublime internal joyfulness of divine victory is to constantly renew our hearts over to God — through repentance.
As the Greek roots of the word indicate, metanoia is a voluntary and conscientious effort to change the abnormality of wrong thinking within us into the normality of right thinking. As Orthodox Christian Tradition teaches, the demons are utterly powerless until they find a “host”, a mind willing to entertain their nonsensical and whimsical suggestions [that is, temptations] and pass them as definitive reality. In this way, man adopts a thinking completely foreign to him but very much enticing, which can lead him and especially others to catastrophic and irreversible damage. A mind that rests comfortably in the remembrance and thought of God, however, has distanced itself from wrongful thoughts and has received divine grace and peace; it has changed its focus from oneself to the Lord and has spared itself the tragic insistence upon stress as a normal way of life. Man’s heart is never at peace until he abides in the truth of God, until he changes his thoughts to reflect his true desires and expectations. St. Augustine of Hippo said it best when he prayed to God: “You have formed us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1).
We often think repentance means to apologize for a wrongful action or sin, or to feel remorse for what we have done. Metanoia can never be confined to a sentiment; it is a dynamic action that involves not only one change, but several changes. I submit to you three of these: (1) a change in temperament and attitude; (2) a change of environment; and (3) a change in how we envision the world. All these alterations contribute in changing the way we think and lead us to a more wholesome relationship with God. I would like to briefly address these three forms of metanoia.
We are surrounded by manifold viewpoints and policies that affect us, either positively or more commonly, negatively. For example, with the upcoming presidential elections, Americans are exposed to a hodgepodge of differing and often conflicting political platforms. All these inevitably form in us a particular temperament toward the candidates, rooted in our passion for or against them. On another note, we often tend to develop attitudes, either in school or at work, that can be judgmental if others do not agree with our opinions. In both these cases involving temperament and attitude, the common denominator is surely the definitive and absolute nature of our stance. No one is as right as we are, no one knows the issues or the problems better than we do. We live in the world according to Luke or Anna or Fr. Stel. This is precisely what the demons want, namely, to make ourselves the point of reference. We need to change our temperament and attitude and realign our free will to God, not the other way around. In other words, we need to practice humility — another way of saying we need to accept the truth for what it is. And when we see how far away from the truth we have strayed, in all honesty, we can no longer live in the lie that is fueled and fed by the unnecessarily destructive and vain temperament and attitude we have adopted.
Secondly, metanoia often warrants a physical change of environment or scenery. This suggestion may seem odd but in fact there is much merit to it. It is very easy to become overly comfortable with our surroundings and the monotony of the sensory perceptions around us that are repeated. Certain sites tend to create in us either very pleasurable or very uneasy sentiments. In either case, we become overly familiar and comfortable with our surroundings and they inhibit our spiritual life, which requires us to focus not so much on context but on content. A beautiful home may be conducive to an enticing prayer life, but it can also prove a distraction when we strive with all our energy to maintain the beauty and functionality of the house, neglecting our focus on the centrality of prayer in our lives. Christ tells the labor-driven and overly-stressed Martha to follow her sister Mary’s example and seek out the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). When we change our environment, we begin learning that location isn’t everything; what we do at each and any location is what matters.
Finally, it is most pertinent that we learn to exercise tolerance toward other people who share our journey in this world. Diversities of all sorts abound not only from country to country but from neighbor to neighbor. Not everyone will agree with our belief system, and neither shall we agree with theirs. And that is fine because change can never be forced or imposed upon anyone. The world can never be how we imagine it to be, according to our own limited expectations. The exercise of openness and patience is, truthfully, an imitation of God’s own incarnation, which we celebrated just a few weeks ago. Change of how we envision the world will lead us to respect and love others more because our preconceived notions, founded in the darkness of our ignorance (cf. Matthew 4:16), will dissipate as foul air and be replaced by the fragrant aroma of our tolerant and compassionate love for one another. A change in how we think about the world will make us see a stranger as our brother and his fault as our opportunity to love him and redeem both himself and ourselves.
And why should we repent and so change ourselves this new year — indeed, every day and moment of our lives? Because the Kingdom of God is intensely before us at every moment. At every moment, Christ calls out to us to take the Kingdom by violence (cf. Matthew 11:12), with passionate resolve, faith, and courage. The opportunity here today may not be here tomorrow, so the immediacy of a sound decision is of primary importance. Encounters with God happen continuously but we remain oblivious to such “meetings”, because of our lukewarm disposition and disinterestedness throughout life. Nothing seems to burn brightly within us except a desire for pleasures and achievements that are short-lived. The Kingdom of God does not faze us; it is simply a myth, an afterthought for many. At any moment within history, the grace of God, experienced as kairos, can penetrate into our limited reality and transform it back into the reality for which it was created, to be penetrated by God’s presence. In order to experience this grace, to receive a taste of heaven, and to touch the garment of Christ like the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) and so “touch” God, we need to adopt the thinking of Christ and so transform and expand our limited and erroneous thoughts. We need to repent — correct ourselves, be enlightened, and then unite ourselves to God.
Christ calls us all, brothers and sisters, to embrace the Kingdom of God at the beginning of this new year, to turn away from anything and everything that leads us away from the Lord and to redirect our steps toward the “One needful.” He is as close to or as far away from us as we want Him to be. Let us change what needs to change within us, and let us hold on to what needs to be held onto, that this year may be the best year ever for us, in our individual and collective pilgrimages to the Kingdom of God.
A blessed and “changeful” New Year to us all! Amen. (+)
Photo of icon by Anastacia Villis
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