A Recipe for Repentance

Ash Wednesday Scripture Readings

Clearly, the season of Lent begins today. Traditionally, we’ve understood it to be a penitential season—a season of repentance, a season of self-denial, a season of prayer and fasting, a season of atonement. Is it possible that, in our focus on making up for sin and wrong-doing, we’ve got it all wrong? When we consider the readings chosen for us in this Ash Wednesday liturgy, is the word “sin” mentioned anywhere? No, it’s not. Today’s liturgy and the entire season of Lent have very little at all to do with sorrow and atonement for sin.

There’s something more than just a little bit perverse in the idea that God wants us to punish ourselves for whatever we’ve done wrong. In fact, there’s something a bit perverse in the idea of punishment itself. Think about it: when we decide to inflict punishment on ourselves or on others, aren’t we actually just taking revenge and imagining wrongly that it will somehow restore some sort of mystical balance that we think has been upset by the wrong that was done? Why is it that we imagine that two wrongs will somehow magically make a right?

“But,” you may object, “isn’t punishment corrective? Doesn’t it teach a lesson about consequences and prevents people from doing it again?” I ask you: is that the way it works in real life? My experience has been that resentment toward the punisher is the actual result of punishment. Is it any wonder that those who believe in a punishing God resent even the concept of God, let alone any religion that purports to establish and sustain a relationship with that God?

What about the idea that we find in our first reading today that fasting and self-denial can allay God’s anger and restore us to God’s good graces? In practice, there’s some truth to that, but not in the way we may imagine. Penitence is not some kind of bribe that will somehow change God’s mind. There’s an old saying that applies very well here: when God feels distant, who moved? Penitence can’t change God’s mind, because it doesn’t need changing. God hasn’t moved. The mind that penitence is meant to change, is our own. The God who seemed to us to be angry and distant is restored to closeness and affection because we decide to see God differently.

Remember that repentance—a cognate of the word “penitence”—is our translation of the Greek term, metanoia. That, we know, means “a change of mind and heart.” Metanoia means taking a look at everything from a new perspective. It reminds me of a song from the musical, Oliver, where the villainous Artful Dodger sings, “I’m Reviewing the Situation.” At the end of each verse, he sings, “I think I’d better think it out again.” Repentance—that is, metanoia—demands that, for every situation, we’d better think it out again.

Our sinful attitudes—anger, resentment, blame, victimhood, annoyance, anxiety, and even despair—are all rooted in one thing: fear. All fears are the same. We’re scared that we’ll lose what we have, or we won’t get what we want when we want it … and then we’ll die. So, we lash out at whatever we imagine is the cause of our fear. But I think we’d better think it out again, because the root cause of our fear—the fear of death—is always within us, never outside of ourselves.

Perhaps you may think that the resurrection of Jesus is all about dead bodies coming back to life. That’s just a physical manifestation of a much deeper and fundamental truth. The resurrection—for Jesus and for us—means we will not die. If our sinful attitudes are all consequences of our fear of death, then the resurrection—whatever that means in our physical world—is the antidote. Lent—this season of repentance—is an invitation to us to change our minds away from the fears that drag us down, and back to our appreciation of God’s lifegiving love.

This is a call to humility. Once again, that, too, is not what we think it is. Pride is the illusion that we’re weak and worthless, so we must constantly build ourselves up to achieve some standing in this world in the estimation of others. We do that by overcoming all the other weak and worthless people in our world, and especially by preventing those others from besting us. Pride lives in a dog-eat-dog world. 

Humility, on the other hand, is the recognition that our value is not self-created. Our value comes from the undeniable fact that our God loves us unconditionally. Repentance, metanoia, and humility are all the same thing: our remembrance and recognition of the fact that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, our innate dignity comes only from the love of God for us. Likewise, we come to appreciate that the same love of God endows every person in our world with that same dignity. All that repentance requires is that we remember that.

How do we change our minds? How can we think it all out again? Here are some suggestions for our Lenten metanoia from Pope Francis himself:

• Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

• Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

• Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

• Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

• Fast from worries and have trust in God.

• Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

• Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

• Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.

• Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

• Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

• Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

Readings & Homily Video

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