This week, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the great feast of Theophany, where Christ comes to the Jordan river and is Baptized by the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. As a prelude to this feast, today's Gospel reading is always read on the Sunday before the feast of Theophany. This reading is actually the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Unlike other Gospels, the Gospel of Mark does not begin with any infancy narrative, as does the Gospel of Matthew or Luke. Nor does it begin with a pre eternal theological narrative on the nature of Christ being one with the Father as the Gospel of John does. Rather the Gospel of Mark begins with almost a sense of urgency. It immediately starts with the preaching of John the Baptist about the coming messiah.
As we see, John the Baptist preached a simple message, one of repentance. "Reptent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!" This simple message is one that is also full of much meaning. I believe in the English language the word repent has lost the ancient meaning. Generally when we hear the word repent, it almost makes us think of feeling sorry for what we did. It almost is an emotional response to our sin. But in the ancient world, this was certainly not the case. The word repentance in the ancient Greek word is one of action and urgency, not one that is emotional. The word repentance in Ancient Greek literally means to turn oneself completely around and to change your life.
Now if we take this meaning of repentance and combine it with the other part of the message that St. John is converting, we see that this creates a sense of urgency, something we have to do now. Reptent, IE change the path you are going on, because the kingdom of heaven is here, at hand! This is something that St. John calls us to do right now because the most important thing in the world is here, the kingdom of heaven, where we are given eternal life.
As we see in the Orthodox Church, we have a plethora of Saints and holy ones who started off their life as sinful. Some examples of these are Saints like Mary of Egypt, the Thief on the Cross with Christ, and Moses the Black; all of these were great sinners. Mary of Egypt as we know was a lewd woman, who would seduce many different men and do that which is unseemly with them. The Thief on the cross with Christ was caught stealing something or even murdering someone, and that is why he was sentenced to be Crucified. Moses the black was a theif and a suspected murderer and let a band of robbers. Yet even if their lives were less than ideal, each of these became Saints of the Church through one action: they repented of their ways.
St Mary of Egypt left behind her old life and wandered in the desert. She abandoned all human contact in order to cleanse her of the sin she had lived. The Thief on the cross confessed Christ and acknowledged that what he had done was wrong. As the other thief was mocking Christ, the wise thief said: "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." (Luke 23: 40-42). Finally, Moses the black had left his thieving ways and renounced the world and became a Monastic, even becoming the Abbot of the community.
All these Saints took action, they did not just feel bad and then continue to live their lives like nothing has changed. This is what we are called to emulate. How many of us constantly confess the same sins over and over again. We make no progress, give no effort, and do not renounce the things of this world. Rather, we should try to push ourselves to make an effort, to change our ways.
Maybe we never kept the fasts as we should have: well today we can change that and start to observe the fast periods of the Church. Maybe we never did our morning or evening prayers regularly, well we can change that today and start to take our prayer life seriously. Maybe we never attended a vigil or only attend once a year, well that too can be remedied. All these shortcomings we have we can take action and remedy it. We should not wait until tomorrow or next month, but we should begin now because the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Procrastination is exactly what the devil wants us to do because he does not want us to repent. He wants us to remain how we are, so he plants seeds of procrastination: I'll begin fasting next fast season. I'll do my morning prayers tomorrow, and I'll attend the Vigil service on the next major feast. And what ends up happening is we repeat these excuses and never get to do what we should do.
The Saints chose to do what no one expected of them to do. This is why they are commemorated by the Church. They renounced their former delusions and embraced the life of repentance, one that is a constant struggle to do the right thing. Was it easy? No it wasn't! But that constant struggle to do what is right and to give up those things that lead us away from God is what truly gives us freedom.
So begin today to change our former ways. Today is the day we should start, because today the kingdom of heaven is at hand!