To repent means to turn or to return, and so many associate the whole idea with guilt – with turning away from behaviors and even thoughts that are hurtful, enslaving, self-indulgent (or perhaps merely pleasurable), counter-productive, or immoral by one code or another. I find that Christianity’s biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) present Jesus’ call to repentance with much more emphasis upon turning to the promising and life-giving than upon turning away from the stifling and life-defeating things, which I think makes it much more likely that the hurtful things actually will be left behind as trust and hope are pursued.
The prophetic view in the Hebrew scriptures (Isaiah, chapter 58) strives to turn fasting from a matter of grumpy self-denial into the deeper and more helpful self-denial of putting ourselves out to make justice and mercy happen for people who are marginalized, suffering, or deprived (without mention of whether we think they deserve help or not). Instead of merely making ourselves artificially hungry by depriving ourselves for a while of our readily available food, feed the truly hungry who are deprived of adequate nutrition for real. For me, that outwardly turned fasting requires, not only food or money donations, but also systemic shifts toward jobs that pay living wages (not merely minimum wage), fair housing, worker empowerment, health care for all, and equality as human beings.
Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent, a traditional time for education and renewal in the faith. How might I use this season well?
We live in an age of cynicism. Turn? We seem not to have much hope for turning, for changing our ways, for doing anything that makes a real difference, and many of us find no great reason to try. For some, cynicism pushes toward greed, getting while the getting is good; for others, toward despair. Lying has become so much a way of life that we tend more toward picking our favored distortions than seeking anything like truth that would challenge our opinions and beliefs or help us understand each other respectfully.
I won’t pretend to be able to tell you what you need, whether or not you have any concern about Lent. I realize I don’t even know yet specifically what I need myself. So, I think what Ash Wednesday requires of me is an open mind, an open heart, and maybe open hands as well. But I do hope to be turned.