Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent—the season when most Christian churches begin a 40 day journey toward Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The Lenten Season has always been a time of preparation. Originally it was probably a time of learning and preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. It remains a time of preparation for all Christians to welcome the risen Christ with lives renewed and transformed during this period as they assume a discipline of self-examination, confession, and repentance.
The word “repentance” is often misunderstood in this context. The conventional wisdom thinks of “repentance” as “saying I’m sorry” and feeling guilty for what we have done or not done as Christians. This is far from the biblical meaning of the term “repentance”. So, what is the Biblical meaning of the word?
In the Old Testament the meaning of the word translated as “repentance” means literally “to turn, to return“. It is the word used to describe the Hebrews return to Jerusalem and to the worship of their God from the Exile in Babylonia. It has the meaning of “a journey of returning”. To “repent”, in the Old Testament, meant to “embark on a journey of return to God.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “repentance” has the meaning of “turning around and going in a different direction—-the most literal translation is to “go beyond the mind that we have.” Thus when we repent we turn around and go in a new way. It is interesting that being a disciple of Jesus in early times was referred to as “The Way“, and that repentance is to go in that new way—the “way” described by Jesus and his ministry when he said “I am the way the truth and the life.”
So let’s give up the “I’m sorry” view of repentance and instead see repentance as a turning or return to God that goes beyond the mind we have at present and sees things in a new way—in God’s way as taught us by Jesus the Christ.
The biblical meaning of repentance suggests that it is an act, not just a feeling of guilt or wrongdoing. That goes back to the Hebrew people in the Old Testament performing rituals of repentance and sacrifices of animals. They took these actions to try and show God their repentance and to draw nearer to God. But we read in the Old Testament prophets that all the rituals and sacrifices were not what God wanted to prove that God’s people had turned to God. The prophet Micah stated what God really wanted in these verses:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myuself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? HE HAS TOLD YOU, O MORTAL, WHAT IS GOOD; AND WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE OF YOU BUT TO DO JUSTICE, AND TO LOVE KINDNESS. AND TO WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD! Micah 6:6-8)
The prophet Isaiah is even more to the point:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly….Then you shall call and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help and he will say, “Here I am!”. (Isaiah 58:6-9a)
It is still a common practice for people to sacrifice and “give up something for Lent.” Instead of “giving up” something may I suggest that the prophets tell us that what we need to do is to “do something.”
During this Lenten Season, let us reflect in prayer and scripture and with each other on our relationship with God. Let us consider our need to draw closer to God in a more personal and meaningful way. Our God is a God of love, and if we are to draw nearer to God, then we need to repent, turn toward that God of love, and with love in our hearts for others do what Micah says God wishes as His Way—to justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
Let’s not do 40 days of “giving up” something but this Lenten season let us commit to do 40 days of “random acts of love and kindness”. As we turn toward God’s people with love, we turn toward God—for GOD IS LOVE!