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Repentance - A Christian understanding
"Be converted!" The prophetic message which the Jewish people faithfully heed every day and each year, is also addressed to Christians, calling them to assess and re- orientate their lives continuously. This article will develop Teshuvah (Repentance) as Christians understand it and seek to integrate it into their existence.
It is clear that Christianity has received from Israel and its Holy Scriptures the language and the experience of repentance. To come back to God, to return to God's will and the way of holiness, to forego a life of dissipation, is not a programme human beings can map out for themselves. It is an invitation of the God of the Covenant, "so that everyone may turn from their evil way" (Jer.31:18). To turn in order to come back to God from whom we have strayed is to respond to a call and to receive the spiritual power to make such a step "Bring me back that I may be restored" (Jer.31:18).
Christians, therefore, receive from the Bible a message of humble realism and constant hope: they too recognise that they are sinners and can leave the path of sin (since God wishes it) and follow God's way once again: The gates of repentance are always open for those who trust in the "thrice holy God" and his great mercy.
Thus repentance is "good news" on which to reflect and to bring about. Of course there are other terms which also describe the relationship to God. Contemporary Christianity speaks of "reconciliation" and "pardon"; there is also delight in the "reawakening" which is encouraged in the preaching of some churches; with St. John, Christians know that "to believe" is the fundamental attitude underlying repentance. But Christians also say they must bring about their own conversion. This fidelity to biblical language is not simply a fact of memory or tradition. It has a spiritual significance because the word repentance emphasizes in the experience of the believer "return" or conversion, its concreteness (confession of sins, change of life, its reorientation by fasting, prayer and almsgiving), and the need to rediscover its source or its essence.
Distinctive Christian Characteristics
In attempting to describe the distinctive Christian meditation on repentance I want to emphasize two points.
The first is that the call to repentance is fundamental in the teaching of Jesus which is summarised in Mk.1:15 "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel". For Christian faith this means that the ancient prophetic message is repeated in Jesus. But one must go further. The call to repentance in the Gospel is put into an eschatological or apocalyptic context (the time has been fulfilled, the presence of the kingdom of God bears witness to it) and a renewed confession of faith (repentance opens itself to faith and is prolonged in the act of believing).
In my view the context in which repentance is presented is extremely important. "To repent", according to the Gospel, is to respond to a kind of spiritual urgency because of the closeness of the end times. It is not a question of ethical repentance, it is not even a refocussing of faith, it is a participation in what Jesus proclaims in affirming that the end is approaching and the last times are beginning. Repentance (Conversion) is an apocalyptic way of living fidelity to God without putting off the lifegiving decision that God offers, yet allowing a radical openness to the life to come, that very openness which the last times imply. Moreover repentance goes hand in hand with faith, but an innovative and renewed faith. To be converted is to believe in a new way: a "gospel" is proposed, the fidelity of God invites us to a daring belief, the potential of which we cannot know by ourselves.
This "Christology" is not the only original feature of repentance as Christianity understands it. There is a second element present in the Christian Scriptures which needs to be highlighted. It is a matter of vocabulary. The verb shuv "to turn back" or "to return" is translated in the gospels in two ways. Either by epistrephein, the classical Greek word, the one found in the Septuagint, or by metanoein, a word also used by Philo, and which etymologically means a going beyond knowledge, intelligence or interiority. Metanoia therefore, implies repentance, conversion, no longer with the image of a return to God, a return analogous to that of exiles going back to the land of their birth and promises, but with another symbolism, that of a realignment of our mental and spiritual potential.
What are we to think of this semantic innovation? For myself I am pleased that repentance can be expressed in the two ways I have mentioned, on condition, however, that the second does not cause the first to be forgotten. That is to say that the interior change which is effectively one of the components of the returning in question, does not blot out the great traditional image, that of a return when one was far away, lost, enslaved or wandering.
The Concrete Character of Repentance
Having shown the biblical roots of repentance as Christians understand it, a few questions which contemporary Christianity seems to encounter when it hears the call to return to God and to interior transformation will now be examined.
The first question relates to the realism to which faith is called here. "To repent" - what is this, practically speaking? The Medieval West thought that metanoia could be translated by the Latin paenitentia. That was indeed something concrete. To do penance, is it not to adopt the means to change the heart? In other words to engrave within the self the return or the reorientation that is envisaged? In fact it is not simply a question of confessing sin but living as converted persons and therefore changing behaviour patterns and attitudes. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving and other practices traditionally indicate this transformation. However the merging of repentance and penance had a serious disadvantage. It ran the risk of considerably reducing the area of repentance, of limiting its scope and dimensions. To repent, in effect, is not only to be sorry, it is also, and more profoundly, to turn back to God.
It seems that Christians today, for example during the Lenten observance, need to redeploy the harmonics of the call which comes to them. In this sense repentance can be thought of as having at least three dimensions. The first is spiritual - conversion of heart, metanoia, interior transformation, renewal of faith. In an age like ours this spiritual emphasis is obviously essential. Taizé, the "awakening" movements, the Pentecostal and charismatic groups are examples of this. The second dimension of repentance is the ethical. It is this that is highlighted in the word "penitence" which indicates that definite action is required if the transformation is not to be an illusion or an idealistic dream. It is clear however, that these actions remain partly symbolic and in any case they are not sufficient to change life in its entirety, notably that of society. Thus the necessity for the third dimension: to put into effect, there where one lives, justice, trust and liberty, respect for the poor and sharing with them, the desire to return to God. How can anyone return to God without changing their relationship with those whom God has placed alongside them in the economic, political and cultural situations of community life?
I therefore tend to think that repentance for Christians today, consists in holding together the spiritual aspect, the ethical impact and the social demands found in the prophetic preaching. God alone can give us the intuition and the generosity for such an integration.
Repentance (Conversion) as a Personal Event
Another question is undoubtedly addressed to Christianity today. It often happens that conversion (repentance) is used to denote the experience of those who discover or rediscover the gospel faith. The problem, however, is not to remain in a state of wonderment, full of thanksgiving, but to understand what God wants to say through these mysterious transformations. To do that several kinds of experience must be examined, without letting the analogy which brings them together lead to confusion. There are non- believers who sometimes discover, in an unexpected way, the truth and liberation of their existence through the message and presence of Jesus. There are also believers whose faith was routine, almost humdrum, and who one day experience its vital force. And there are the believers who had distanced themselves from the churches, and in certain cases from the faith, and who decide to follow the path of the gospel again, thus becoming what are called today recommençants.
What is this repentance (conversion) which is expressed here? Sleeping believers return to the original energies of faith. Their repentance is an awakening or rebirth. As for the recommençants, they are returning to a more or less explicitly religious experience which already had a place in their lives: they are re-seeding their history by writing a beginning into it, that is to say a new origin, or more precisely, a re-experienced beginning. But what is the position of non-believing persons who make the journey and enter the faith? How is this for them a "return" to God since apparently they have never yet met God? On reflection the term "repentance" is not out of place here. In becoming a believer does not one return to an origin, unknown but real, where God is present as creator and as saviour, even if not recognised?
I think that these different images of repentance are to be welcomed like a bouquet in which God's call addressed to human beings manifests its abundant munificence. To return to God is always unexpected and constantly full of mystery. For each one of us the repentance to which we are called can be lived in solidarity with that which is lived by many in our religious communities, as also in the world at large. The living God is also the God of our infinitely varied conversions.
Repentance of the Churches
I would now like to show a third focus of attention for Christians today when the question of repentance among and within them is raised. It is the matter of repentance of the Churches for their infidelities throughout history and of the sometimes demanding changes that their future implies.
This ecclesial metanoia is indeed difficult for the Church to which I belong - the Roman Catholic Church. This Church aspires to be holy, according to the exact word of the ancient Creed and she finds it difficult to admit her limitations and sinfulness. And yet, as Vatican II affirms, she is "at the same time holy and always in need of being purified", incessantly seeking "the path of penance and renewal" (Lumen Gentium 8). At the same time she must therefore thank God who causes her to exist and who points her towards the Godhead, and confess her inadequacy which testifies her need and desire for repentance. This humble admission gradually becomes real. On this point John Paul II has done much to make it normal and true. In February 1992 on the Isle of Gorea, close to Senegal, he acknowledged the complicity of certain Christians in the Slave Trade. In March 1995 in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae he noted that "in history mention is made of cases where crimes have been committed in the name of truth" (No.70) and in May of the same year after insisting on dialogue of "conversion" in ecumenism, he declared in the encyclical Ut unum sint: "for that which we are responsible, I ask pardon" (no.58). On their side the group "Dombes" sets out at the end of some of their documents "proposals with (metanoia) confessional repentance in mind".
Obviously not everything has yet been made explicit by the R.C. Church in this matter of confession and repentance. If (in 1992) the Czech bishops recognised that Catholicism collaborated in part with the Communist Régime and if in this same Czech Republic the Pope affirmed in May 1995: "In the name of all Catholics I, the Pope of the Church of Rome, ask pardon for the wrongs inflicted upon non-Catholics", it remains that in Argentina the bishops have difficulty in acknowledging the compromises made by the Catholic Church with the military dictatorship of the 1970s. And elsewhere we are still awaiting the Roman text on Christian anti- semitism which was promised in l987 but which is taking a long time to appear.
The Opportunity for Conversion
I would like to conclude this reflection by stressing the spiritual strength implied in the term repentance. To repent, to be converted, is not a retrograde return, it is the possibility of finding one's vocation. It is the grace of hearing and re-hearing the divine word which created us and gives our life its true direction. In other words, the biblical message of teshuvah points us towards the future, starting from the Covenant which is the foundation of what we are. What we will become, which is never defined in detail in advance, will flow out from what God wills to be for us and which God invites us to remember even when we are not always attentive to his voice and presence.
The experience of faith reveals that repentance has many facets. They become clear according to our different vocations and at various times in our lives. Having said that, it is apparent that repentance has a common form. It is always an act of faith. It is equally always a daily experience, though at times marked by special moments (sometimes unexpected) in our personal or collective history. But it is the humble heart which prompts us to examine how to respond, here and now, ... to the call of God.
Finally, it seems quite normal to emphasize here the extent to which repentance gives rise to solidarity among all believers who welcome its message. May Jews and Christians listen together, both in their own vocation, to the Living God who invites them to live in faith and hope.
Saint Augustine, Les Confessions.
S.Schlumberger, "Saul renversé. Actes 9: Le récit d'une
identité reconstruite", Foi et Vie, September 1995, 61-74.
Henri Bourgeois, Redécouvrir la foi. Les recommençants,
Desclée de Brouwer, 1993.
Groupe des Dombes, Pour la conversion des Eglises, C enturion,1991.
Jean Gillibert, Conversions. Trois études de métapsychanalyse: de Dieu, du monde, de l'homme, Calmann- Levy, 1995.