The Holy Scriptures tells us that the Lord began His work of redemption with a call for repentance. After He had fought off the temptation of the devil in the wilderness, He withdrew to the coastal areas, in order for the prophecies to be fulfilled: “The people that sat in the darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death, Light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16) The holy evangelist Matthew says: “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 4:17
“In the words of the Holy Fathers who were blessed with divine wisdom, God gave men the gift of repentance as an anchor of salvation from drowning in the sea of the world’s evil. He is not as angered when people, because of their human nature, fall into sin,” writes Father Zivan Markinkovic, “as He is when they do not make use of this anchor of salvation. In other words, God is angered when people fail to repent and rise after falling into sin, continuing their struggle against sin, when they fail to work on their salvation.
St. John the Theologian says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Many of us fall, believing ourselves to be pure and undefiled by sin. In today’s world the devil can rejoice in at least one victory: he has managed to dilute the feeling of sinfulness in individuals. The plethora of sins is limitless in range and the devil’s tricks and illusions are infinite in number.
“We ought to become well versed in the art of all arts – the struggle against sin, that most cunning and powerful of enemies. However, I must tell you in advance that this struggle exceeds the limits of human strength,” says St. John of Kronstadt. “Let no one believe in their own power, their own strength, courage, skill and resourcefulness. The enemy is by far more powerful than any of us. We should entrust Christ with this struggle, Christ who has conquered the adversary and has given us His name, His Cross, His grace and power.
God has assured us many times of His mercy which is so great that it can seem that it is greater even than His justice. The prodigal son who squandered his inheritance was welcomed with joy after he returned to the home of his father in repentance. The Lord Himself has said that “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
When the Pharisees and the Scribes condemned Him for keeping company with tax collectors and sinners, the Lord rebuked them saying that it was not the healthy who need a physician but the sick (Mark 2:17). He said to them, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” (Luke 15:4-5)
God’s mercy surpassed all human understanding. There is no sin, other than the suicidal blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that cannot be erased by true and fruitful repentance. Father Zivan Markinkovic gives us the example of St. Anthony who, without knowing, prayed for the devil and was told that God would forgive even the devil if he were to repent.
The Lives of the Saints are full of examples of former sinners who were glorified after great feats and struggles against evil spirits. One of the most prominent examples in the Church is that of St. Mary of Egypt, who spent a part of her life in a terrible sin but who, after realizing the abysmal depth of her sin, spent the remaining two thirds of her life in the wilderness in repentance. She spent a full forty eight years “mortifying her body with asceticism, in torment and fear and in struggles with the passions that assailed her as wild beasts.” (The Prologue of Ohrid) These are the fruits of repentance of which St. John the Baptist speaks in Matthew 3:8
Another prominent example is that of St. Moses the Black. He was endowed with superhuman strength. In his youth he ran away from his master and formed a band of robbers. He robbed and terrorized people all over Egypt, raping and murdering and committing many atrocities. However, a change came over him and from a fearsome robber he became a contrite penitent. His hagiographers do not say what exactly happened, they only state that the most dreaded band leader retired to an ascetic life in a monastery. “This means that the transformation was sudden, that God Himself led him to it, and that he was guided by a divine Providence,” writes the theologian Dimitrije Bogdanovic. “God’s plan was to show, in the life of St. Moses, how a repentant robber, just like the one in the gospels, can quickly find his way to the kingdom of heaven.”
Let us not be deceived. This man had been a great sinner, but he repented and God accepted his repentance and there we have a happy ending to his story. But it wasn’t that easy, brothers and sisters. It is not so easy to offer the fruits worthy of repentance. The example of St. Moses proves this. During his ascetic life in the wilderness he was accosted by the demon of fornication. “The more Moses fasted and prayed, the more he was consumed by the fire of carnal passions. He was tempted to stop his ascetic feat and go back where he had come from – the robbers’ nest.” (The Prologue of Ohrid)
He was advised to intensify his fasting. “Moses began to fast more than perhaps any ascetic in the wilderness. He ate only a pound of dry bread, drank a little water and laboured at hard physical tasks, praying ceaselessly all the time. That did not help either. An elder told him to keep vigil. So Moses spent the following six years standing in his cell and praying. That did not help him either. He served the elders and brought them water from the farthest spring, at night, so as not to fall asleep. He engaged in the hardest of labours and kept praying. Only when someone (most probably a demon) attacked him from behind and injured him so badly he barely survived, was Moses freed from his tormentor. In reality, he was healed by his own humility in asking for the prayers of the holy elders.
We can get an idea of the power of true repentance and God’s infinite mercy from the Prologue of Ohrid by Bishop Nikolai. “In the days of the Emperor Mauritius of Byzantium, there was a notorious robber in Constantinople who instilled fear in the inhabitants of the city and its suburbs. As no one was able to capture him, the emperor sent him a cross as a promise that he would be forgiven if he turned himself in. The robber took the cross and gave himself over to the authorities. When he came to Constantinople he fell at the emperor’s feet and asked for forgiveness. The emperor kept his word and forgave him, setting him free.
However the former robber fell ill soon after that and foresaw his own death. As he lay on his deathbed he repented for his sins and prayed to God in tears and contrition to forgive him. He wept so bitterly that his bedclothes were soaked with tears. The former robber gave up his spirit after ten days. That same night, the physician who attended him saw a wondrous vision in his dream. When the soul of the robber had departed from his body, it was surrounded by a host of little black creatures with papers in their hands. His sins were written on these papers. Two angels of light also appeared, as well as a scale. The black creatures joyfully placed their papers on one side of the scale and that side tipped. Then one of the angels placed the bedclothes on the other side of the scale and said, ‘Let us put these bedclothes and God’s mercy on this side of the scale.’ As soon as they had done so, their side of the scale tipped and the little black creatures fled screaming in horror. The angles then took the robbers soul and accompanied it to heaven, all the while glorifying God and His mercy and love for mankind. After this vision the physician woke up and rushed to the hospital. He encountered the dead body of the robber, still warm.”
May the All-compassionate Lord shower us with His mercy when we, too, turn to Him in repentance.