Of the issues and challenges facing all Christians, especially the ancient Orthodox Church, none is greater than understanding the nature of sin.
Because issues like physician-assisted suicide, same sex marriage, gender equality, abortion, nationalism, present seemingly insurmountable challenges to how Christians bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ, we are left as mute as fish when asked the hard questions about what it is to be human in a world ravaged by violence, poverty, injustice, war, pornography and exploitation. It is our inability to deal with the issue of sin (the underlying element in the above-mentioned concerns) and to repent properly, that paralyze us.
Sin. This is the one issue that pastors, priests, and faithful alike either talk about all the time, or never mention. This was highlighted to me recently when a young man related to me that he has been bouncing around between Churches, only ever hearing about either the burning judgement of sinners, or that everything is happy and sin doesn’t matter at all.
Although one might not find such extremes in the Orthodox Church, to one degree or another, we as Christians vacillate between both. Regardless if it is burning hellfire, or fluffy clouds, our reaction to sin tends to be more about an external choice, than the inclination of the heart.
The problem is that both perspectives are different sides of the same coin, where sin is seen more as an exclusive legal definition or status, the result of breaking divine canons, and choosing the laws of man over the laws of God. Although there is some merit to this point of view, it is only an aspect of understanding the nature of sin. This approach was not a factor shaping the Orthodox teaching of salvation and the work of God in humanity. In short, it is incompatible with the whole Christian experience.
The verb for sin comes from the Greek word “hamartia” which simply means straying off the path, or missing the mark. And whether it is intentional or unintentional, it has more to do with the disposition and inclination of one’s heart to God, and neighbour, and ourselves. Instead of following the path of righteousness towards our Creator, and serving our brothers and sisters, in the excellent way of humility which the Lord showed us,, we follow our own path, skewing the aim of glory and everlasting life by our own targets, desires and passions.
To be fair, some sin carries with it greater consequences and legal ramifications, but no matter how great that sin might be, such as those of the prostitute who came to Christ at Simon the Pharisee’s house (Lk. 7) or how innocent it might be (such as a white lie), it is the perversion of our will, that seeks its own end (no matter how futile it might be) at the expense of God, neighbour, and especially our health and wellbeing.
We are given the life of St. Mary of Egypt on this last Sunday of Great Lent in order, to consider not only what sin is and how it affects our lives, but to consider the abounding forgiveness that Christ to offers all humanity. We, like St. Mary and the prostitute in the Gospel of St. Luke (read in honour of St. Mary), are to one degree or another are broken and storm-tossed by urges, desires, passions and anxieties. We struggle to do what is right, to rise above our mistakes, shortcomings, and sin. And like St. Mary we find ourselves stuck on the threshold of something great and profound, spiritually barred from entering and encountering the life-saving wood of the Cross (her conversion happened at the feast of the Exaltaion of the Cross, Sept. 14th); barred from encountering a God who offers Himself for the life of the world in His passion, death and Resurrection.
And like her, we, no matter how hard we might try, find ourselves spiritually blocked, and exhausted. We find ourselves looking to do what is right, but unwilling to accept the reasons for why it is right; wanting to be loved, without being willing to surrender to that love, and offer our love back. It is in the reflecting upon her life that we see her comprehension of what sin is, its causes and effects, but more importantly we see the love needed in order to effect profound change in her repenting heart.
St. Mary’s conversion was not simply a status, from bad to good, or an acceptance of a legal formula and principle, motivated by the fear of eternal punishment, nor was it a realization that her sins didn’t really matter. It was the profound change of her heart, a true repentance inspired by her love of Christ who loved her first (1Jn 4:19). For like the prostitute at Simon’s house she loved much, and much was forgiven.
We can explain away sin as antiquated or unjust legal principles; we can make sin a legal principle, defining and condemning those whom we consider “bad”. But only love can change our heart, showing sin to be what it is: missing of the mark of a life in Christ Jesus.
Only the love of God and neighbour can kindle the fire that burns up the thorns of those transgressions that choke our hearts. Only love can heal and bring resolution, breaking down the wall of enmity that separates humanity from God. Only love can strengthen us to walk with Christ to His life-giving passion, and only love can help us look beyond the despair of the pierced and broken body of our Lord laid in a new tomb. And only love can reveal the miracle of the empty tomb on the third day.
Only love can enable us to receive the free gift of life and the forgiveness of sins. Those who come to the Lord in confession, receive forgiveness that at the hands of the priest who offering the prayer of absolution says:
“May God who forgave David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins and Peter weeping bitterly for His denial, the sinful women weeping at His feet, the tax collector and the prodigal; may that same God forgive you all things through me a sinner both in this age and the in the age to come, and set you uncondemned before His dread judgment seat. And now having no further cares for the sins which you have confessed, go in peace.”
Understanding the nature of sin and explaining it in this broken world, might be the biggest challenge facing Christianity. But it is the change of our heart, our repentance cultivated by love that leaves sin empty, and death its most terrible expression, mute, as the proclamation that “Christ is Risen” is shouted from the roof tops.