Maybe one of the most misunderstood aspects of Christian life is repentance. In our day and age, repentance has been understood as shame and embarrassment, and the promise of reconciliation has been replaced with the fear of disappointing God, and being judged and rejected by Him.
This, in part, might have something to do with the situation in which the sacrament of confession is something that is either never done, or the person in confession declares no sins were ever committed (I have had people say to me “really I not that bad of a person”). Regardless of whether anyone is really a “bad person” or not, or whether they never take advantage of the blessing that confession offers, the Orthodox Church has never seen the act of repentance as being shameful, something that is repulsive to God and His mercy, (in the same way that a doctor would never reject a sick person for coming to be healed).
For the Orthodox Church, repentance implies a “change of mind or heart” μετάνοια (metanoia). It is the return to God from the selfish desires that separate us from Him. And far from being something that is a stench to God, true repentance is like the sweet smelling oil poured over the Lord by the sinful woman at the Pharisee’s house (Lk 7:36-50), and profoundly, it is like the myrrh brought to the tomb of Christ by the Myrrh-bearing women on that blessed third day (Mk. 15:43-16:8).
We can only imagine the shame of the sinful woman at the Pharisee’s house, surrounded by the pious and noble priests and scribes, and the humiliation that weighed heavy on Joseph of Arimathea when he went and asked for the body of Christ. We can barely conceive the fear and disappointment of the Myrrh-bearing women, who with heavy hearts, having lost everything in the death of Christ, went at the break of dawn to anoint the body of their Lord and teacher. But instead of meeting the broken and dead body of a man, they were met with the angelic proclamation that He had Risen!
When we offer our repentance, however great or small, to our family and friends, and profoundly to God, we follow those brave women, and Joseph and Nicodemus, who despite shame and fear, came to Him. And like them we do not encounter the horrible reality of death and decay, but the Risen Christ who calls out to us by name (Jn. 20:16).
And this is the miracle: that our repentance, that change of mind and heart, is the movement from the darkness of a life without God to the light in Christ that is a radiant as any city on a hill (Mt 5:14). Our offering of sin and failure to our loving God, is sweeter, more profound and redemptive than building Churches, attending services, preaching, and serving the world around us.
“For You (Lord) do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— these, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 50 :16-17)
May we have the courage of those Myrrh-bearing women, of Joseph and Nicodemus, and come to Christ with the myrrh and sweet smelling spices of our repentance. May we desire to be forgiven and healed, and by that proclaim like those first witnesses of the Resurrection that Christ is Risen!