By Robert Droel
Sometimes faith is funny. For me, Ash Wednesday is a prime example of this truth. I don’t think this day is supposed to be. Actually, I get the impression that it’s intended to be quite the opposite. It’s a dour occasion for thinking about sin, repentance, and ultimately death. But just look at the Gospel reading! I can’t help but crack a smile every year. It’s taken from the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, verses 1-6 and 16-18. Never mind the fact that I seem to recall something of great import being found in between those two selections (I think it’s the Lord’s Prayer). In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Well call me a hypocrite, because every year, only a few minutes after hearing Jesus’ words proclaimed, I approach the altar and have ashes rubbed onto my forehead with the instruction, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (or if it’s a particularly spooky year, I luck out with, “Remember, you are dust to dust you will return”). Then, I go about my day as usual (minus the eating) and try to ignore the fact that I have what is hopefully still a cross-shaped smudge on my forehead, though as the day progresses, it tends to lose any resemblance to that symbol which is so central to Christian faith and to this season of Lent. Surely I’m not the only one who recognizes the irony. Jesus tells us to wash our faces when we fast and instead we dirty ourselves. It would be almost as bad if we were to read Isaiah’s critique of penance practices: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Is 58:5). I find the choice of Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday to be ironic and humorous, which inevitably leads me to beginning my Lenten journey with a bit of joy. From a sociological perspective, I also find a bit of humor in the fact that so many people show up to get their ashes on this day, despite the fact that it’s not a so-called holy day of obligation. I won’t see many of them again until Easter, if even then. Part of me wants to tell them that they don’t really have to be there on that Wednesday, but that it would be great if they could come on the next five Sundays of Lent. What is it about this day which attracts so many? And why not me?
I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of Lent. I don’t like giving things up and I really don’t enjoy listening to others brag about what they have given up. Fish is not even one of my top ten favorite foods and purple is a color which does not suit me in the least. Forty days (or is it forty-four?) is an incredibly long time for me to sustain an increase in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, while the endless attempts to find loopholes and exemptions from abstinence and fasting requirements makes me think that maybe we’ve missed the point of it all. And then there’s repentance. I loathe the word.
In common usage, repentance is a word associated with sin and guilt. It’s about feeling really bad for the things we’ve done (or not done), said (or not said), and even thought (or not thought) which are wrong and begging God for mercy and forgiveness. God won’t forgive if we don’t repent. And sometimes it seems that everything is a sin—especially the fun stuff. This is how I used to think about repentance and it’s what turned me off to the whole idea. It’s just didn’t seem to make sense to me in what it was saying about God and to be honest, Catholic guilt just never worked on me.
I was surprised to learn that the biblical meaning of repentance is not only different from this grim characterization, but it is much richer. So much so, that it makes even me want to repent. It’s all about turning and returning! Marcus J. Borg explains that shuv is one of the two Hebrew words which make up that word in the Old Testament which is translated as repentance or repent. It is a word which literally means to turn or to return and it stems from the experience of the Babylonian exile. To repent is to return from exile back to the homeland, that is, to return to God on a journey which is also with God.
In the New Testament too, we are instructed by Jesus to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). The Greek word used here for repentance is metanoia and from its parts meta (after/with) and noeo (to perceive/think), we come up with a meaning of repentance as being, “to go beyond the mind that we have.” It’s about a change of mind and of heart, ultimately a change of consciousness. It’s about turning and returning, not sin and guilt.
To go beyond the mind that we have means seeing in a new way—a way shaped by God as known decisively in Jesus. This is repentance. The Bible does speak of repenting for our sins. But the emphasis is not so much on contrition and sorrow and guilt, but about turning from them and returning to God. Repentance is about change, not primarily a prerequisite for forgiveness. To repent means to turn, return to God and to go beyond the mind that we have and see things in a new way. That’s pretty exciting. Forgiveness is not dependent upon repentance. We are forgiven already, loved and accepted by God. We don’t need to do anything to warrant God’s love. But repentance—turning and returning to God, going beyond the mind that we have—is the path that leads to transformation.
I don’t know why I had never seen this meaning of repentance and ultimately of Lent before. It is right in front of me every year when I receive the ashes: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” For too long, I focused on the word sin and completely ignored that first word: turn. Turn around! Change your perspective! Go beyond the mind that you have! Repent! And this Lent, I might try to do just that. And to what am I turning? “Be faithful to the gospel” is the instruction I am given as that ashy thumb presses on my forehead (and hopefully not my hair). The gospel is what I am turning to and recently we have all been reminded by Pope Francis’ exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium, that the gospel is one of joy. We are not to be “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” or more colloquially, “sourpusses,” but rather, are to accept “the joy of the gospel [which] fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” So I will not feel any guilt as I smile as the ironic Gospel reading is proclaimed on Ash Wednesday. Rather, I will see it as the beginning of my repentance, that is, my turning towards the joy of the gospel and the gospel of joy.
May my journey of Lent begin with the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash-Wednesday,”
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
 Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored. New York: HarperOne, 2011. 158.
 Ibid., 159.
 Pope Francis. “APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION: EVANGELII GAUDIUM,” 2013. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html. 6.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 1.
 T. S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday,” Faber & Faber Limited, 1963. http://www.msgr.ca/msgr-7/ash_wednesday_t_s_eliot.htm.