A Lenten Reflection on Repentance

February 12, 2013

A Lenten Reflection on Repentance

February 12, 2013

“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live…pardons and absolves all those who truly repent and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.” – The Absolution in the Ash Wednesday rite, Book of Common Prayer, page 269
 


I suspect that for many modern Christians, “repentance” is a notion that causes some pause.   Perhaps we associate repentance with sorrow and regret.   Perhaps it is a concept we find dour or uncomfortable as we consider a God who loves us unconditionally.  

 
I would suggest, however, in this week of Ash Wednesday, as western Christians embark upon the holy season of Lent that will lead us to the foot of the cross, that repentance is worth a second look.    Repentance is, of course, a central theme of Lent, but I fear we often fail both to understand its true utility and to invest it with the joyfulness it deserves.  Eastern Christians, who will begin their own Great Lent much later this year than those of us in the west, have sometimes seen Lenten repentance through a brighter lens.   An Eastern liturgical verse sung each year says, “Behold, the Lenten spring has come, the light of repentance!”
 
The Greek word translated in the English New Testament as repentance is “metanoia.”   It means, literally, a change of course or, as a priest I know puts it, a conscientious decision to turn around 180 degrees and walk another path.   Rather than being backward looking and negative, repentance is a commitment to the pursuit of something righteous in the days ahead.  “Repent, therefore, and turn again,” the Apostle Peter says in his sermon at the Beautiful Gate of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts.   One can almost picture a stop in one’s tracks and a pivot onto a different course.
 
In Scripture, a frequent locale for such pivoting, and a ripe theme of Lent, is the wilderness.   The wilderness, theologically, is a place apart from the things of this world where one can encounter the Divine more honestly and more thoroughly than is normally possible.  Jesus, of course, spends time in the wilderness – 40 days and 40 nights, a pattern for Lent – immediately following his Baptism.   The Gospel of Mark puts it best, in my mind, when it tells us that, following Jesus’ Baptism, “Immediately, the Spirit *drove* him into the wilderness.”   What an image!  Might we, like Jesus, as a response to and consequence of our own baptisms, be physically impelled, driven, by the Holy Spirit to a place where we may more fully encounter the work of God?
 
The prophet Hosea describes the journey to the wilderness somewhat differently when he envisions God beckoning a wayward Israel in language that is almost seductive:  “Therefore, I will now allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”  The prophet goes on to describe the wilderness encounter between God and his people as a betrothal, a sealing of the eternal Covenant with the people of God.   Another amazingly powerful image, to be allured by a loving God to the place where we might pivot and walk the course God intends for us!
 
What might all of this mean for us at the present moment?  Why do I raise the theme of repentance in a blog post about the Episcopal Church’s public-policy witness?
 
I believe we might see Lent as a time for a renewed understanding of, and commitment to, our own role in reshaping our world and our nation (whether we are Americans or citizens of another nation) in the image God intends for them.   While I suspect many of us have been taught to understand the sins of which we’re called to repent in Lent as primarily personal in nature, in fact, the collective sins and failures of society to protect its weakest members and live by the commands God gives us are no less personal.  (In fact, good theology holds that ALL sin is corporate in nature.  When I sin, no matter what the nature of the offense, I sin against God and against my neighbor and community.)   
 
God does not call us to be passive onlookers to the deficiencies in the social conditions around us, praying privately that the poor be fed, the naked clothed, and the war-torn given peace.   God calls us to be the agents of the transformation for which we pray.   “Be ambassadors for Christ,” the Apostle Paul tells us in the Epistle reading for Ash Wednesday, “Since God is making his appeal through us.”   
 
This Lent, the Episcopal Public Policy Network will feature a weekly series of educational and advocacy engagements around the cycles of violence that are so pervasive in our culture and around the world.   Violence is the very antithesis of God and so to the extent that violence has subsumed different aspects of life in our communities, nation, and world, God calls us to repent of that, pivot, and lead the world to walk a different course.   

 
Likewise, when we see unchecked poverty both in the United States and around the world, when we see society’s inability or failure to educate its children, or when we see a callousness of spirit to immigrants and refugees, God calls us to repent, pivot, and lead the world in walking a different course.  
 
When we see war and conflict consuming people we love, be they members of our families and communities, or people far away in Sudan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, or the Congo; and when we see the institutions of our government not doing all in their power to promote peace, God calls us to repent, pivot, and lead the world in walking a different course.
 
Consider the pledges we make in Baptism and reaffirm each year at Easter: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you have fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?   Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  Do you *turn* to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
 
In these promises, we see the contours of the road God calls us to walk, and in Lent, we are called to go once again to the wilderness – whether the Spirit drives us, allures us, or brings us by some other means – and to act as we have been freshly baptized, newly committed to this course.   For most of us, it requires pivoting from the course we’ve been walking.
 
This is repentance, but it is anything but dour.   It is transformational, and it is thrilling.   God is appealing to the world through ua!   As we commit to live a holy Lent, I urge you to consider your advocacy for a more just and peaceful world as a discipline that will allow you to pivot and walk forward in “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8)
 
“Behold, the Lenten spring has come, the light of repentance!”   Thanks be to God.

--Alex Baumgarten is the Director of the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations

 

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