In our hemisphere Lent coincides with the long, slow march of winter towards spring, beginning this year on March 6 with the ashes that symbolize repentance in many religions. In keeping with the season, we asked some Crozet pastors to talk about the meaning of repentance in today’s world.
“Lent is a process,” said Liz Hulme Adam, teaching elder at Tabor Presbyterian Church, “as we make our way toward Easter.” She added that Lent is her favorite time in the liturgical year because of its focus on reflection and confession. It’s one stage of our spiritual journey, she said: “a movement through stages and season, ups and downs, doubts and fears, joys and celebrations.”
Adam sees plenty of parallels between Lent and the faith practices of Jesus, who observed Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. “Long before there were Christians,” Adams said, “our predecessors in faith would allocate sacred time and space for fasting and confession.”
During Lent, Adam said, we face our own fragility and sin.
Despite its ancient antecedents, “Lent is the specifically Christian way of privately and publicly acknowledging all the ways we fall short, miss the mark, fail in word and deed to uphold the scriptural mandates to love God and our neighbors,” she said. “Repentance includes committing to do better in the future.”
Adam introduces her congregation to practices that help them observe the meaning of Lent. This year, she’s asking people to release some of their excess belongings by putting one item in a bag each day to be collected and distributed at Lent’s end. She said Tabor continues to reckon with the sin of racism and hopes to build bridges with others having the same concerns in the community.
Remembering that Lent mirrors Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, Adam said, “We enter the Lenten journey with volition and care, trusting that we, too, will be equipped and sustained when going into hard places.”
We will be prepared, she said. “The future waits with joy.”
Todd Johnson, pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, said to understand repentance, we have to acknowledge our cultural moment and wrestle with the idea of sin, an idea that’s disappearing from modern conversations.
“So, in 2019, we must ask,” he said, “is it out of date to talk about sin?”
Johnson answered his question. “For Christians, it is never out of date to talk about sin. Sin is a universal, perennial problem. It will dog the feet of every human until Jesus returns to finally make all things new.”
He’s talking about sin in the larger sense, not single acts of disobedience and other mistakes. “In one sense, sin is the simple fact that the world is not the way that it ought to be—and neither am I. The world is broken and I am part of the problem.”
He cites the catechism definition. “Sin is rejecting or ignoring God in the world He created, rebelling against Him by living without reference to Him, not being or doing what He requires in His law—resulting in our death and the disintegration of all creation.”
What can the sinner do? The first step is to be honest, Johnson said. “Christians encourage honesty because if we deny sins, we will never get free from them.”
Many faithful believe that repentance is sorrow, but Johnson said there’s more to it: it’s “heartfelt sorrow that results in a change of mind, which leads to us turning from the thing that causes disintegration in order to turn to God and his good and loving ways.”
Lent’s not the only time for repentance, Johnson said: Repentance is to be part of everyday living, yet Lent can still be a special season in the church, as Christians historically prepare for the Easter celebration. He uses the analogy of preparing for a guest and realizing that we’ve become accustomed to a certain level of dust and grime that we now notice differently.
“So Christians have historically taken the 40 days before Easter as time of inspection and preparation in order to determine if there is anything untoward to which we have become accustomed,” Johnson said. Like Adam, he believes it’s important to take on practices rather than thinking just in terms of giving something up. “So, for example, though I may give up a meal by fasting, I do this in order to add a special time of reflection that I do not typically have in other seasons of the year.”
Johnson notes that the Bible never commands Christians to celebrate Lent, but it does command repentance and belief. In fact, he said, words to that effect are the first recorded words spoken by Jesus in his public life.
Walt Davis, founder and teaching elder of Life Journey Church, said he’s probably in the minority camp when it comes to his beliefs about repentance. “And that’s okay,” he said. Davis takes us back to the Greek word for repentance, “metanoia,” which translates as a change of mind, he said.
Davis believes we must struggle to understand that we are already cleansed of sin. “Not recognizing this is what we must change,” he said. He gave a couple of examples: “Let’s say Joe is cheating on his wife (something we know for certain is considered a sin) and he rationalizes it’s fine because ‘everyone does it,’ or some other modern excuse.” If this hypothetical man has a change of heart, knows that he is essentially good, and forgiven, then his actions will change, Davis said.
The second man, Sam, has an addiction that he knows is wrong and suffers from its wrongness, but just can’t seem to overcome it. “He doesn’t need to repent,” Davis said. “He needs help, support, spiritual guidance, counseling, whatever, but he has repented because he has honestly seen the reality of what is happening in his life.”
Davis’s understanding of the New Testament is that Jesus was constantly trying to teach his disciples and others that they need to see things differently: “For instance, they kept expecting to regain the kingdom that had been lost to them since the time of David.” Instead of a political revolution, they needed to change their hearts to acknowledge a spiritual revolution, but the change was hard after years of misunderstanding. “What they thought was coming was a return to Mosaic law,” Davis said. “What they got, though, was the kingdom of heaven.”