Lent & The True Meaning of Repentance
As it is Easter this weekend, I thought it would be good to reflect on the history and meaning of Lent. Lent is derived from the Latin word for “forty” and references Jesus’ forty days and forty nights in the desert wrestling with his faith. In the forty days leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up something else they like as a form of penitence, mirroring Jesus experience of fasting in the desert. Why do Christians, and so many other faiths besides, have some form of deprivation? As one way of answering this question, in this article I explore the meaning of two commonly misunderstood words in the Christian lexicon, repent and sin, and use this understanding to explain Lent’s tradition of giving up something of earthly significance.
Jesus is famous for saying words to the effect of “repent of your sins for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (e.g. Matthew 3:2). Yet this doesn’t sound like something a spiritual person could say, let alone the famous Jesus of Nazareth. Why would someone who held love and forgiveness at the center of his teachings demand that people stop doing so-called sinful or bad things and threaten hell as punishment for such transgressions? Sadly for the Christian world, this concept is based on a huge, albeit very common, misunderstanding. The word repent, or “metanoia,” literally means ‘to go beyond the mind’ or ‘to go into the larger mind’. (For those that are interested, Cynthia Bourgeault has a wonderful discussion of metanoia in Chapter 4 of her book “Wisdom Jesus.”)
And the word sin doesn’t mean what many people think it does either. There are 33 words (really 10 if you fold together same-word variations) used in the bible that are translated as sin. The main one used throughout the text, “harmartia,” means ‘missing the mark’ or ‘to fail to attain the goal’.
So when Jesus says “repent of your sins for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), he actually is saying something more like: ‘to reach your goal of inner peace you have to move into a mind greater than your own.’ Or you could say it like this: ‘to experience the kingdom of heaven, all you have to do is let go of your attachment to your mind (and body).’
This is one of the most profound and important insights Jesus provided humanity. Using the same mechanism as Lao Tzu and Buddha and Krishna, he is showing us how to achieve everlasting happiness and peace right here and now. If that isn’t our lived experience of the world, if our life is instead filled with suffering or illness or fear or sadness or anger, then clearly we must be “sinning” or missing the mark. How does he teach us to stop all the suffering? We “repent”, or go beyond the body/mind. How we do that is how the tradition of Lent began. The point of depravation in its various forms isn’t to suffer. Rather, it is about breaking the habits of “sinning” or missing the mark through identification with our minds and bodies and egos and conscious selves. Lent is about breaking the habit of identification with our bodies and the illusion of the world of the senses, or ‘going into the greater mind’.
Giving up something that you are habituated to doing or having or wanting is a way to practice giving up the habit of self-identification so we can more easily “go into the larger mind,” just as Jesus encouraged us to do in Matthew 3:2. Every time you are offered or reach for but don’t take that thing that you have given up for Lent, you are reminded that you have given it up. You are reminded that responding to the wants of the body/mind are not a path to fulfillment or happiness. Declining to partake puts us into the mindset of higher-self dominance, puts us closer to the mark so that we can go beyond the (body/)mind.
So that is what Lent is about, at least as I understand it from a spiritual and non-religion oriented perspective. To recap:
- If our life right now is not a heaven-like experience then we must be missing the mark (aka “sinning”);
- To experience the perfection or peace Jesus is talking about, we need to stop using our conscious selves (our body/mind) as the source of wisdom and direction in our life. We need to go beyond the mind (aka “repent”).
- An annual ritual we can practice to help us go beyond the mind is to spend forty days choosing one thing that our body/mind craves each day and give it up. Like a mindfulness bell in a Zen monastery that brings us back to an awareness of the present moment, the daily act of forsaking something we enjoy, however insignificant, reminds us of the secret Jesus revealed that shows us how to experience oneness and perfection right here and now.
Lent culminates in yet another ritual of transcending our conscious selves: Easter week. This period is meant as an annual ritual symbolically re-enacting the four key events of Jesus’ final days, and that that four part cycle itself was a model for how we could achieve complete happiness ourselves. These parts include:
- Jesus entering Jerusalem (Palm Sunday).
- The Last Supper & his betrayal/arrest. (Maundy Thursday).
- Crucifixion, death and burial (Good Friday. Holy Saturday is traditionally spent in silence, symbolizing the stillness of his entombment.)
- His Resurrection (Easter).
This cycle of death and rebirth provides a model (a ritual within the Lenten ritual) for how we can stop “sinning”: the good news of Easter and the reason for celebration on Sunday is not just that Jesus is still with us, but that ending our addiction to the self may feel like a painful and dreadful death but in fact results in a glorious resurrection into the knowledge of this “larger mind.” And with this knowing, we finally hit the mark.