Friday, January 7, 2011

What John the Baptist Taught About Repentance

Today we celebrate Saint John the Baptist, the Forerunner.  His message is  one that is fundamental to Christian way of Life.  It is not by chance that the Forerunner was one who taught repentance as the way to  Heaven.  
He said, 
"Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matt 3:2). 
John was followed then by Christ whose first teaching was also repentance: "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." (Matt 4:17)

Saint Gregory Palamas explains the significance of this act.
He says,
Repentance means hating sin and loving virtue, turning away from evil and during good  (Ps 34:14, 1 Pet 3:11). These acts are preceded, however, by condemning ourselves for our faults, being penitent before God, fleeing to  Him for refuge with a contrite heart, and casting ourselves into the ocean of His mercy, considering ourselves unworthy to be counted among His sons. As the prodigal son said when he repented, “Lord, I am not worthy to be called Thy son: make me as one of Thy hired servants” (Luke 15:19).
John was direct in his preaching.  He pointedly warned the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to Him to change their ways.  

He told them firmly,
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. (Matt 3:8)
Repentance has always meant making a change of mind and becoming a new way of being.  When we repent we admit the error of our way, feel sorry for our failing and then commit to change and take on a new way of life.  The aim is to bear the fruit of repentance. Its the fruit that counts.

Saint John goes further warning,
Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3:10)
Gregory Palamas says commenting on this harsh passage,
Being hewn down is God's sentence on those who justify themselves and sin without repenting, and, in accordance with this decision, once they have been cut off from the present and future life, they are sent away to dark, unquenchable hell-fire. That is why the Baptist, too, warns that after such people have been cut down, inextinguishable fire receives them, making known in this way the awfullness of God's wrath and that eternal punishment, in order to bring to their senses that insensitive race and men like them who came later.
Repentance is not a light matter in the eyes of John the Baptist.  One must be motivated to change or else be condemned for fire.  John was not timid in guiding seekers to do more than simply avoid evil things or actions.  He taught that a change in way of being that would bear good fruits was required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here is how Saint Gregory summarizes what John looked for.
 What are these? Firstly confession, as practiced by those who came to him at that time. “Then they went out”, it says, “and they were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). Next, he looked for righteousness, almsgiving, moderation, love, truthfulness, telling them, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you”, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely” (Luke 3:13, 14), and “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11). “For every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low” (Luke 3:5). What is the hidden meaning of valleys being filled in and mountains being brought low? Exactly what the Lord says plainly, “Everyone that exalted himself shall be abased; and he that humble us himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The Baptist who says, “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:5-6). Lying, deceit and slander are crooked, and the rough paths are anger, hatred, envy and remembrance of wrongs, all of which are made straight and level when transformed by the works of repentance. And so “all flesh”, that is, every person of every nation and race who straightens and smooths himself out through repentance, “shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).
 This should lead us to deep thought about our own condition and what it means to repent.  It seems that to day many of these concepts have been watered down to mere politeness.  But what John and then Jesus taught was serious business, meant to guide people to a new way of life where they could see Heaven.

Jesus added power to this act by infusing it with the Holy spirit.  This is what is available to us to this Day in the confines of the Church through the sacraments.  Jesus told His disciples "John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5).

Reference: Saint Gregory Palamas the Homilies, On Baptism and Repentance

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