Lent Is All About Repentance
Lent is here. Not exactly the favorite time of the liturgical year for most people. Lent calls us to slow down and take stock, to evaluate our progress on our pilgrim journey back to God, our progress in our ascent of Mount Carmel. Lent challenges us to remember that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.
Lent is a period of fasting and penance. This is true. It is good to fast and to do penance. Fasting and penance remind us of our sinfulness, our falling short of the mark, our distance from God. Fasting and penance, or other Lenten observances, remind us of our need for continual repentance, continual conversion.
In the old days before the second Vatican Council, most Carmelites did not look forward to Lent because it was a period of fast and abstinence. Except for Sunday, Carmelites fasted every day during lent and abstained from meat three days a week. But the first and third readings for Ash Wednesday tell us that Lent is not really about what is going on on the “outside,” about external performances, though these can play a role, as mentioned above. Lent is really about what is going on on the “inside,” about inner repentance or conversion.
In the first reading for Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel, who lived around 375 B.C.E., there is a great locust plague, which Joel interprets as the final attack by God’s enemies against Judah. So he calls for repentance or conversion to turn back the plague. This call for repentance or conversion is the traditional biblical summons to “turn around.” The Hebrew word used here (shub or metanoein in Greek) is the command a General gives to his troops to do an about face, to turn one hundred and eighty degrees, to make a total change in direction.
So repentance or conversion in the scriptures is not just a matter of performing some external practice or religious observance, e.g. fasting or abstaining, saying extra prayers, or even charitable giving, though these are not excluded. Joel tells us that true repentance demands that we rend our hearts, not our garments. Repentance is to “return to me (God) with your whole hearts.” And so repentance or conversion in the biblical sense (shub, metanoein) is a radical turning around, i.e. one which goes right to the root (radix) or heart of a person, the very depths of a person, the depths in which lurks the sarx, usually translated “flesh.” Sarx is the old person of which Paul speaks, the insecure self which is in love with itself, fascinated with itself, tripping over itself, seeking to seize divinity so as to secure its own existence and autonomy. The sarx is the old self which resists abandoning itself and living according to a new self, the Pneuma or Spirit. Repentance involves putting off that old self and putting on the new.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday from Mt.6 shows us that for Jesus also repentance means much more than mere external observances. Jesus tells us to be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see and to applaud. We are not to be like the Pharisees, the hypocrites, who change merely the appearance on their faces. When we give alms, we are not even to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. We are to keep our deeds of mercy secret, pray in private and comb our hair and wash our face so that no one knows that we are fasting.
Lent is a season of great opportunity. It is a season which reminds us, however, that Lent is not just a period of forty days. Lent is a dimension of our lives which must be present every day. Lent is not so much a temporal season as it is a way of being. Lent is a kenotic or self-emptying way of being to which we are all called every day. One’s whole life, and not just forty days, is to be a life of rending our hearts, of questioning and purifying that “old self,” which can and often does create “on the outside” the subterfuge, the illusion of dying through penitential observances but “within” remains filled with deceit and hypocrisy. Within, despite all the externals and observances, the “old self” remains just the “old self,” the self which runs from and hides from a true turn of heart, a true repentance, a true abandonment to God.
During Lent we must not deceive ourselves, much less attempt to deceive others. What is most important is not what appears, what others can see, the external observances. What is most important is what occurs within the “old self,” in the depths of our being. What is most important is our dying to the “old self” so that we can rise through the power of the Holy Spirit to the “new self,” the new creation, which the Father through the power of the Spirit fully achieved in raising Jesus from the dead.
There is something very Carmelite about the season of Lent, especially when Lent is seen as not just a forty day period but as a way of being, the way of kenosis, of self-emptying. Carmelite spirituality is very much a desert spirituality, a spirituality of continual self-emptying, of being empty before God (vacare Deo) as the Reform of Touraine says, so as to be filled with the Spirit of the Risen Christ.
Fr. Donald Buggert, O.Carm
Professor Emeritus – Washington Theological Union