The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday, a day in the church year when we are called to repentance. In the Book of Common Prayer a portion of the minister’s reading is as follows:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
But what does repentance mean? And how might we practice this discipline together throughout Lent?
A Holistic Change
The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, and, while Jesus and the disciples likely spoke Aramaic (an “uncle” of Hebrew), the language and imagery of the Hebrew bible shaped their understanding of God and God’s ways.
So, when Jesus announced, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15), he was likely drawing on the Hebrew word nacham – which means to be sorry, but can also mean to comfort, or even to have compassion.
The New Testament, however, is written in Greek. The Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—used sources that had likely translated Jesus’ Aramaic sayings into the Greek language.
The Greek word that the Gospels use, then, to translate the Hebrew concept of nacham, is metanoia, which means, literally, to change one’s mind.
When we think about “changing our mind,” we might think of being persuaded by intellectual arguments after looking at evidence both for and against whatever subject is being discussed.
But the Hebrew concept on which Jesus is drawing here involves much more than mere intellectual ascent.
It requires a change in our whole person—our emotions, our minds, and even our bodies.
As we engage in the discipline of self-examination (also a Lenten practice), repentance will certainly follow.
As we become aware of how we fall short of God’s intention for our lives, and how living out of the broken places in our lives causes pain in the lives of others, a natural response is to be deeply sorry.
This isn’t simply an intellectual exercise, but strikes at the core of our being.
The Good News
We can’t stop there, however.
Jesus’ call to repentance is also a call to “believe the good news.” When we find ourselves in sin, and thus under God’s judgment, we long for mercy, for compassion.
This is why, as Christians, the goal of repentance is not, ultimately, self-hatred, but rather being embraced by the one, in the words of the Prayer of Humble Access, “whose property is always to have mercy.”
When we repent, our deep sorrow gives way to deep joy because, in Jesus, we see the God whom we have offended take the burden of our offenses on himself.
So, as we engage in the disciplines of self-examination and repentance this Lent, may our deep sorrow lead us to God’s boundless mercy, demonstrated on the cross.
And then to the joy of new life offered in and through Jesus’ resurrection.
Let us all repent, then, and believe this good news.