The Doors of Repentance
February 26, 2009
“Open to me the Doors of Repentance.” These words give hope in times of bleak disconsolation. They are heard about this time of year, every year, in the Orthodox Church, during the three Sundays immediately preceding the start of Lent, in a Matins hymn sung after the reading of the Gospel; like buds upon the branches of dormant trees, they are a sign and promise of renewed life, a sure token of approaching spring even in the dead of winter. They are an echo, heard from afar, of the promised Resurrection. “Open to me the Doors of Repentance, O Giver of Life; for my soul rises early to pray toward your holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled.” How is it that the prayers that speak to us most directly are, almost always, prayers that have been prayed from time immemorial? Is it that human nature really hasn’t changed all that much — that sin, sickness, poverty, suffering and death have always cast their heavy shadows across the paths of human life, and each of us has had to learn anew the meaning of these terms? The human experience begins with being shut outside of doors — the gates of Paradise were closed upon Adam and Eve, and an angel was set to guard the way to the Tree of Life. Great Lent begins by recalling this primal fact of human experience. We begin Lent by acknowledging our poverty and estrangement from God, and by seeking forgiveness from those around us whom we have injured, and who are also involved in this common human predicament.
The text of the hymn is as follows:
Τῆς μετανοίας ἄνοιξόν μοι πύλας Ζωοδότα· ὀρθρίζει γὰρ τὸ πνεῦμά μου, πρὸς ναὸν τὸν ἅγιόν σου, ναὸν φέρον τοῦ σώματος ὅλον ἐσπιλωμένον· ἀλλ᾽ ὡς οἰκτίρμων κάθαρον, εὐσπλάγχνῳ σου ἐλέει.
The translation of this generally in use in the Orthodox Church in America goes something like this:
“Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of Life; for my soul rises early to pray toward your holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled. But in your compassion, purify me by the lovingkindness of your mercy.”
A more precise translation of πύλας would be “gates.” Thus, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s translation of the hymn reads as follows:
“Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.”
From: Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, trs., The Lenten Triodion (London 1978), p. 101.
A question that has puzzled me is, where does this expression, “the doors” or “gates of repentance,” come from? It does not occur in scripture. Probably the closest thing to it in the Bible is at Psalm 118:19 f.:
Open to me the gates of righteousness (שערי ־צדק, shaarei tzedek; LXX πύλας δικαιοσύνης): I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD:
This [is the] gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter.
It does, however, occur in rabbinic literature. There was a certain Yonah of Gerona, a thirteenth-century rabbi, who wrote a work with precisely this title, “The Gates of Repentance” (שערי תשובה, shaarei teshubah). I used to own an English translation of this work, and somehow lost it; it still may be purchased, e.g., at Amazon.com. As I recall, it made much of the point that the genuineness of repentance is measured by the extent to which, when presented again with the same temptation, one successfully resists it (by this measure, most of my own spiritual efforts must be judged to fall miserably short). But it also seems clear that, in titling his book in this way, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona was in fact alluding to some earlier, known phrase from rabbinic literature; apparently it occurs in a talmudic work, the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, specifically, at Pesiḳ., ed. Buber, xxv. 157a. About this work I know nothing more than can be gathered from the linked Wikipedia article; it is not clear to me that there exists an English translation of it, nor do I know in what context the phrase in question occurs or how it is used. All that seems clear is that the Peskita, homilies on the appointed scripture readings for Sabbaths and feast-days, evidently derives from Palestine from the period of the fifth to seventh centuries A.D., although material in it may be older.
According to Metropolitan Kallistos’s Introduction to his translation of the Triodion, the hymn “Open to me the doors of repentance” was added to the structure of lenten liturgical prayers fairly late in its development:
”Surprisingly, some of the best loved elements in the Triodion are also the most recent in date. The three troparia sung at Sunday Mattins after the Gospel reading, ‘Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance…’, ‘Guide me in the paths of salvation…’, and ‘As I ponder in my wretchedness…’, do not appear in this position before the fourteenth century, although the texts themselves are probably more ancient.” Op. cit., p. 42.
This does not rule out entirely the possibility that the Jewish use of the phrase may have been influenced by the Christian one, but it seems, on the whole, more plausible that the historical dependency goes the other way around.
That being said, what does the phrase “Gates of Repentance” mean?
This coming Sunday is called, in the Orthodox Church, “Sunday of Forgiveness.” In certain parishes, it has become common to observe the monastic practice, at the end of Forgiveness Vespers, of asking forgiveness of each member of the community. It is also the Sunday on which we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. One of the hymns from Saturday night Vespers goes like this:
”O precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.” Tr. in Ware, op. cit., p. 169.
Surely, the “Gates of Repentance” and the Gates of Paradise have something to do with each other. Surely, there is no other way back to Paradise, into the kingdom of heaven, the eternal Temple where God dwells, than through repentance, although many try to get in by other means:
”Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Mt 7: 13-14; cf. Lk 13: 24-30)
Surely also, when Jesus calls himself both the Door (John 10: 7, 9), by which the sheep enter in and go out and find pasture, and the Good Shepherd (John 10: 11), who leads the sheep in and out, he is not saying that the Gate of Repentance, the narrow gate which leads to life, is a different gate and door than himself. He specifically excludes that idea: “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10: 1). Perhaps one might paraphrase what he is saying in some such way as this: any repentance to God which is not repentance through faith and abiding in the Son of God is missing the point. “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14: 6).
Accordingly, repentance, although it is a human act, an act of the sinner returning to God, is, in the first place, an act of God opening the mind and heart of the sinner to an awareness of the wretchedness into which sin has plunged him and awakening in him a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation (Lk 15:17-19); it is also God who moves the mind and heart of the sinner to recognize and seek out the means of reconciliation which God has put forward, the sacrifice by which atonement for sin has been made. It seems pretty clear that St. Augustine is right, that the sinner can in no way move back to God on his own power, without God’s drawing him to himself (John 6: 37, 44); it also seems quite clear that this divine action absolves no one from the necessity of making an effort (cf. James 4: 8-10).
In any case, by asking God, “Open to me the Doors of Repentance,” we acknowledge that repentance is not a door we are able to open merely on our own strength, any more than the buds on the trees are able to open into leaves without the warmth and light of the sun. Nor are the buds on the trees able to receive sap and moisture merely by virtue of their own separate, individual nature; they have it only by abiding in the tree. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15: 4-5).
Great and Holy Lent is that period of the year in which we, the branches, seek the help of the vinedresser, the Father, a time in which we allow ourselves to be purged by him so that we may bear more fruit, and so that we may not be taken away because of our fruitlessness (John 15: 1-3). It is a time in which we seek to become more firmly rooted in the vine, lest, in being severed from it, we be gathered up as dead sticks and burned (John 15: 6). That vine is the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Through his Passion, he heals us of our passions; by his death upon the tree of the Cross, he has brought life and resurrection into the world. He is the New Jerusalem, whose gates are always open, but into which no vile thing, or that which makes a lie, shall ever enter (Rev 21: 25, 27). To him be everlasting glory!
 One may note that this psalm was probably sung by Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper, on their way to Gethsemane (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26); it was part of the “Hallel” or “praise,” Psalms 113-118, traditionally sung at certain major Jewish feasts.