The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Monday, February 23, 2015

What does repentance mean?

"Turn aside from evil and do good;
seek and strive after peace."
Psalm 34:15

NOTE: Each week during Lent, I will post a short reflection on the Sunday Gospel passage--a little food for prayerful thought to go along with our fasting. -- Br. Francis.

In the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:12-15), Jesus begins his ministry by declaring, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." Repentance is a key theme during Lent, and Jesus here is calling each of us to do it--and to do it now.

But what does repentance really mean? Unfortunately, we have come to associate the term almost exclusively with struggling more intently against our sinful tendencies or weak natures. Figuratively speaking, with sorrowful hearts, we put on sackcloth and sit in ashes, like many Old Testament figures. During the season of Lent, this may take the form of "giving up" certain things which we acknowledge have too much influence over our daily lives--such as chocolate, watching TV, or engaging in gossip.

That is all fine and good--as long as the point is to grow in our love for God and neighbor. However, mere self-improvement, while commendable in itself, cannot be the point. Otherwise, "giving up" something for Lent risks becoming an exercise in willpower--with the focus entirely on self rather than on God.

That is not the true repentance Jesus calls us toward. Take a moment to read and reflect on the passage from Psalm 34 above: "Turn aside from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace." Or, consider Ephesians 4:22-32, which reads in part: "Put away the old self of your former way of life...and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth" (you may want to take a moment to read the passage in its entirety in your Bible). These passages hint at the full nature of repentance.

Notice that the admonitions are twofold: we are not only to "turn aside from evil" and "put away the old self," but also "do good; seek and strive after peace" and "put on the new self." In other words, we are called to become our true selves as children created in the image of God the Father. This is true repentance, as the Greek term metanoia in the original gospel texts suggests. Metanoia implies striving for a genuine change of heart, attitude, and direction in one's life. It means turning toward God in our daily lives.

So, true repentance during Lent is not just temporarily "giving up" something--with an eye toward self-improvement--that we will likely take back up again come Easter Sunday. Genuine repentance is associated with positive, lifelong transformation. During Lent, we focus more intently on becoming who we are called to be in Christ, on being renewed in the spirit of our minds, and on putting on the new self created in the image of God--now and forever.

During Lent, it is OK to strive to tame our sinful tendencies and weak natures by giving up something. But if we want to fully repent in the true spirit of the gospel, we must ask ourselves what we intend to "take up" in order to grow closer to God and our neighbor--in ways that are lasting and life-giving. Examples may include volunteering a little time each month to a local charity, committing oneself each week to a sustained period of Eucharistic adoration or quiet prayer, looking for ways to say something good about people we don't necessarily like all that much, spending more time with family, engaging daily in lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), making that visit we've been putting off to a sick/elderly relative or friend, asking God for the wisdom and strength to remedy an injustice against someone, inviting a lonely acquaintance to lunch or dinner, swallowing our pride and sincerely congratulating a colleague chosen over us for a much sought-after promotion, or seeking to be more patient and forgiving in daily interactions. Those are just a few possibilities--the choices are endless.

So, yes, as we repent, let us turn aside from every evil. But by God's grace, let us also do good, as we seek and strive after peace to become our true selves. There is no time to waste. As Jesus says, "This is the time of fulfillment." Let us fully repent, and not only believe the good news (of God's steadfast love and mercy) that Jesus proclaims, but be the good news by allowing ourselves to really be changed by it--not only for Lent, but for our entire lives.

"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me."
Luke 9:23

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