Is Lent a time of penance or repentance?

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Surprise: It’s both! And they’re not just for Lent

Q: I hear some people say that Lent is a time of penance, but other people say it is meant for repentance. What’s the difference? Aren’t they the same?

A: If I had to give a single-sentence answer, I would just say that Lent is a time for both penance and repentance. However, they are not the same thing. Let’s take a look at each of these terms and understand how we can benefit from practicing them, not just during Lent, but throughout the entire Christian life.

Let’s start with the term repentance, since it is deeply rooted in the New Testament and the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus. To study what repentance means, we should look to the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, since these Lukan texts contain the greatest proportion of occurrences in the New Testament of the terms repent (34 percent) and repentance (50 percent). This is one of Luke’s main themes, and he offers a beautiful understanding to inspire and inform our discipleship. However, we can’t properly understand repentance unless we first understand what conversion means as well.

Luke understands that there are two distinct yet related movements in the life of discipleship: conversion and repentance. It might be easiest to understand these two movements in terms of special relationships.

New direction, new mind

Imagine that you are standing and facing a particular direction. All your hopes, energies, resources, values and priorities are focused in that direction. Then one day Jesus breaks into your life in a moment of grace, and suddenly you realize the awesomeness of the Lord’s presence, love and mercy. In that moment, your life focus changes as you respond to God’s self-revelation in Jesus with acceptance and commitment. What I have just described is the moment of conversion — literally, a turning of your life in a new direction with an accompanying reorientation and refocusing of values, priorities, energies, hopes and so forth.

The moment of conversion is really the beginning of a trusting relationship with God, but a very important beginning it is.

Repentance is what happens after the experience of conversion. Repentance translates the Greek word metanoia and literally means to “change one’s mind.” Going back to our special image, we might say that once we turn our life toward God in an act of acceptance and commitment, then we face the many changes that need to take place so that our life can be conformed to Christ himself. Literally, we need to take on the “mind of Christ,” as St. Paul says. (1 Corinthians 2:16) That means we need to rethink the way we have been approaching life and change our mind so that we interpret the world and our experience from God’s perspective. That is the change of mind — the repentance — that Jesus shows us in his life, ministry, death and resurrection.

We grow closer to the Lord every time we let go of a false value or disordered priority and accept the teachings of Jesus and the values of the kingdom of God. Repentance, then, is what brings us into deeper communion with Jesus day by day as we grow in our Christian identity as members of his mystical body. Repentance is a very beautiful thing! It is a lifelong process by which we come to think as God thinks and act as God acts. Repentance is an immersion in the refreshing waters of God’s mercy and a confirmation of the effectiveness of Christ’s redemption.

Every time is the right time to repent. It’s not just for Lent.

Freedom from sin

One part of repentance is the practice of penance. You see, as we grow closer to Christ by responding to the Lord’s grace, studying his word and being nourished with the sacraments, we start to realize how attached we are to sin. This attachment can be based on habit, addiction, weakness, situational susceptibility, or any number of things. We realize that there is an unhealthy and spiritually destructive presence of sin in our lives. That is where penance becomes important.

Penance is the practice of life amendment, virtuous action, restitution, reparation and spiritual strengthening that allows us to grow in freedom from a particular sin by the grace of God. Penance may involve fasting, avoiding the near occasion of sin, modification of life, extra dedication to prayer, or other acts of self-discipline. Penance is the graced means to freedom through growth in self-discipline. Jesus himself identified the liberating power of penitential practices when he said that some evil tendencies can only be overcome by “prayer and fasting.” (see Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29)

Lent is a time when we focus intensely on our need for conversion, repentance and penance, but it’s not the only time we need to experience these spiritual movements. Perhaps by embracing each of them in a new way this Lent we can resolve to intentionally seek them always.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - March 2018

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.