Lent is an annual period of a little more than a month that precedes Easter on the Christian calendar. Easter, of course, is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent represents a spiritual preparation for that celebration: it is a period of personal repentance. The fact that these details must be clarified for some readers is one more indicator of the rapid secularization of American society. There was a time only a few decades ago when the average citizen could be assumed to know these things. Today, one can’t be too sure.
Not only has the number of Americans who identify as Christians decreased dramatically in recent years – many of those who still profess the faith no longer participate in any personal observance of Lent. Instead, they wait for Easter, when they might pop up at church for the Easter egg hunt after the kids have found their baskets at home. The fading of Lent as a feature of public life in America is regrettable. But it is not a surprise: no other Christian tradition is so diametrically opposed to the dominant values and assumptions of contemporary American zeitgeist.
As noted above, Lent is a penitential time. It is a time for reflection and repentance. The idea of repentance lies at the very heart of Christianity, but the English word repentance is a poor translation of an unusual Greek word that was used again and again in the early manuscripts of the New Testament. That word is metanoia. (Readers can find my recent book tracing the history of the concept here). Taken literally, metanoia means “afterthought.” In the Greek manuscripts of the gospels, John the Baptist doesn’t call his followers to “repentance” – he calls them to metanoia (Lk. 3:8). Jesus does the same (e.g. Mt. 4:17), as does Paul (Acts 20:21). But what does this mean? This is not an easy question to answer. Taking into account the various contexts and references to metanoia in the scriptures, it entails a remembrance and regretting of past sin (afterthought), followed by a decision to be “born again” as a different person – one whose essence is defined against the old self who rebelled against God. Metanoia, then, is a change of identity, a kind of personal transformation that serves as the historical exemplar of what Christian conversion involves.
How did we inherit “repentance” instead of metanoia? Part of the confusion results from the fact that there was no obvious word to signify metanoia when the scriptures were being translated from Greek to Latin. Most translations used the term paenitentia, which (translated into English) gives us words like “repentance” and “penitence.” The problem with these translations is that they don’t convey what was perhaps the key feature of metanoia. Repentance adequately captures the backward-looking, regretful relation to sin, the self’s rejection of itself – but it excludes the transformational dynamic of this rejection as a catalyst for personal renewal and rebirth. These ambiguities underscore why observance of Lent is so anathema to the modern milieu of Western culture….