For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. (1 John 3:20)
There is no sin that surpasseth the loving-kindness of God.
–St. Spyridon of Tremithus (Saint Spyridon of Tremithus: Life, Miracles, Liturgical Service, and Akathist Hymn [St John of Kronstadt Press 1997], p 21)
In three day’s time, on the Gregorian calendar, we will begin the Nativity Fast, a forty-day preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. And as is typical of the Orthodox Church, we prepare to prepare. We begin to elminate or store away meat, egg and dairy products as we abstain from these during the fast (that is to say, those who can abstain, do, but not pregnant or nursing mothers, children and others whose health would be negatively affected by such abstentions). We clean our homes, eliminating or giving away items no longer needed, reducing the dust and dirt and clutter of our physical environment as we also reduce the dust and dirt and clutter of our hearts and minds. Already I’ve attacked some of the rooms in my apartment, and will need to get down to the storage area and also work on the girls’ bedroom/playroom.
The seasons of fasting in the Orthodox Church, as in other churches, are designed to lay bare before our own eyes all the darknesses of our hearts, all the sins of word and thought and deed that we commit, including the sins of omission (the failure to do the things we ought). In the Orthodox Church, however, this rigorous inventory is not meant for self-condemnation and hopelessness. It is meant, rather, for healing. Although juridical metaphors are not absent from the Orthodox Faith, the primary metaphor Orthodoxy uses for communicating the life we have and are to live in Christ is that of the hospital and physician. We are ill, desperately ill, and in mortal need of healing. And in God’s love and mercy, through our union in Christ, we are given that healing. We confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e., of Confession), not in an attempt to feel as much guilt and shame and despair as we can–though we frequently do feel these things–but so that we can bring forth out of our hearts and souls all the infectious and diseased matters for cleansing and healing.
This is the great joy of the penitent who steps away from the just-received absolution: he is free, she is cleansed, they are loved. The Lord has applied his antiseptic grace and washed clean all the filth with which the soul has been soiled.
This mystery of sin is so great and so deep and so dark that had not Christ left to his Body the communication of his grace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation I do not know how any of us could continue in the Christian life–though clearly the Holy Spirit does so preserve us. How desperate one feels having committed the very sin he never could have believed he would ever commit! The shame and humiliation of it drive him as far away as can be from God and his fellow Christians–which is precisely the devil’s design. Guilt frequently manifests forth in anger, an anger that is turned outward in displacement while at the same time turned inward in self-destructive thoughts and behavior. The sinner looks at himself, and sees the darkness he has brought and cannot imagine that God would ever again embrace him. This despair leads to a sort of recklessness, which may actually be more of a hopeless dare to God: let me be ever more wicked than I am and see whether You love me still.
And so he turns and draws himself, and is drawn, further and further away from God. All his conscious thought may be a rejection of God, but more likely the truth lies still in the dark recesses of his heart: though I run from you, do not forsake me, but seek me and pursue me, run after me and love me still. He can hardly believe that given all his words and thoughts and deeds that God would still love him, and yet, and yet, that is precisely for what his inner self aches.
And even here, the prodigal kneeling in the mud and excrement and feeding on garbage, is hope and joy: for no matter how and how rightly our hearts condemn us, God’s love is greater still. After all, the father did not wait in the home for his son. He did not sit calmly in the shade of a tree. No, he was in the road, straining his gaze, arms widening for the embrace as he looks for his son. Yes, the son must come to himself. Yes, the son must himself turn so that he may return to the father. But the father has already started toward his prodigal expectantly awaiting his return.
We may weep in the night for our sin. God’s love is greater still. We may damn ourselves as cut off from God. God’s love is greater still. In our guilt and self-anger we may feel hate or even indifference toward God. God’s love is greater still. We may feel powerless, out of control, unable to turn or to give up the path away from God we have taken. God’s love is greater still.
Yes, the cruel nails were shoved through his hands and feet. Yes, our sins were the hammer driving those nails through his flesh. Yes, the thorns pierced his head. Yes, our sinful thoughts and words and deeds shoved those points into scalp. Yes, our anger and hatred and lusts and lies and selfishness were the hands that shoved the spear in his side. Yes, the death we embraced, the death we consumed as our food and drink, was the death that tore his body.
But it was his love that held him to the Cross. It was his love that sent him to the souls in hell. It was his love that raised him from the dead. And it is his love that raised him to the Father’s side. It is his love that surrounds us and makes the impossible possible. It is his love that removes the shame, the humiliation, that gives us strength to rise from the muddy excrement and filth, that puts wings to our feet and sends us home to the Father.
And it is love which wraps the arms of the Father around us. Love which puts on us clean and new clothing and the ring of inheritance. Love which feasts with us. And love which reunites us with those from whom we severed ourselves.
There is no greater love than that of God for us. Such love makes all things new, makes strong the weak, makes pure the defiled, gives insight to the blind, takes away fear and shame and humiliation, and gives peace. Nothing, absolutely nothing we can do will ever quench the love of God for us. He is there on the road, looking expectantly for us, waiting to embrace us.
The love of God for us is everything.