07 May 2009

Doing Penance--Metanoia

I should also say, in response to Josh's comment below, that the other title I considered for the blog was poenitentiam agere "doing penance," a term equally central to the Franciscan tradition and one especially dear to the Third Order, which has its roots in the medieval "Brothers and Sisters of Penance."

The roots of this notion are found in such places as the Vulgate of Mark 1:14-15, in which Jesus begins his public ministry:
postquam autem traditus est Iohannes venit Iesus in Galilaeam praedicans evangelium regni Dei et dicens quoniam impletum est tempus et adpropinquavit regnum Dei paenitemini et credite evangelio
After John was handed over, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of the Reign of God and saying "The time has been fulfilled and the Reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel."

The word paenitemini is in Greek metanoeite.

The parallel passages in Matthew, namely Matthew 3:2, which concerns John the Baptist's preaching, and Matthew 4:17, which concerns that of Jesus, use the phrase "paenitentiam (=poentitentiam) agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum," or "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near."

Here too, the Greek is simply metanoeite.

As many studies have pointed out, this word actually has more the sense of a changed mind. When I preach on a text like this, I often gloss it as a complete change of direction, orientation, and values. Let your lives be changed, be converted, turn your lives around.

This of course is what it means to do penance. Penance means forsaking our sins in sorrow and turning to embrace Christ and the Kingdom of God with joy. It is at the heart of the baptismal liturgy. First, we make the triple renunciation of Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the powers that corrupt and destroy the children of God, and all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Then, we turn to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, promise to obey him as our Lord, and put our whole trust in his grace and love. (BCP, p. 302) I think also of Ignatius' meditation on the two standards, or battle flags. Or the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." Or Paul's notion of being in Christ (or putting on Christ) as opposed to being in Adam. Again and again in life, even after baptism, we are forced to choose. And we need the grace of the Holy Spirit, who leads us to the font and who is always, already present in those who have not come to the waters (since he/she has been poured out on all flesh in and through Christ) but who is given to us in power in the sacrament of new birth, in order that we might be be made one with Christ in his dying and rising--and thereby turn.

At the same time, we can't speak of "doing penance" in our culture without an incredibly negative connotations. Insert visions of hair shirts and self flagellation here. My own sense is that the Gospel can be more powerfully presented in positive terms, in terms of what we are turning towards. Hence "living the Gospel," which for sinners like us means a life of ongoing and imperfect conversion.

But putting the note on the positive doesn't mean that we give up a profound sense of sinfulness. Sorrow and guilt are good to the extent that they are an honest response to sin and ultimately productive of change. We need to examine our conscience daily. We need the help of all our brothers and sisters, including clergy, confessors, and spiritual directors, to see our sin. We need to confront Satan, the powers, and sinful desires that draw us away from Christ. We need especially to confront those things that deface and disfigure the image of God in ourselves and our neighbor.

And this precisely is what is so deeply troubling to me and to others about the attempt of Bishop elect Kevin Thew Forrester of Northern Michigan to remove all references to sin from the baptismal rite. He has a very different interpretation of metanoia and the Gospel of salvation than in the central rite of the Book of Common Prayer. It also runs counter to the preaching of Jesus himself, as well as central trajectories of the New Testament interpretation of the saving significance of his life, death, and resurrection.

There is admittedly, as the more mainstream critics of Fr. Forrester have noted, room for a wide variety of approaches to the doctrine of the atonement. But there has to be some positive sense that we can give to the statement "Jesus died for our sins." There needs to be some sense of a vicarious action, in which we ourselves come to participate once for all in Holy Baptism and day by day as the Spirit continues to sanctify us. But the life of doing penance is one of ongoing, often painful conversion.

The purpose of this blog in large measure is to invite all people, including myself, into a deeper conversion. One that will not cordon off some parts of our lives as immune from Gospel influence. We seem to want to give Jesus only parts of ourselves, and in the post-Enlightenment West especially, to want to deny his relevance to the public square. Those who claim him most loudly in public are motivated by a theocratic and reactionary vision that is in fact a false anti-Gospel. Our political and economic decisions, at least as much as our personal lives, should be transformed in light of the Gospel. The one Jesus actually preached.

And we ought never to forget what this is all for. The vision that guides us is a joyful one of all creatures gathered in a new heaven and a new earth, in God's new world where weeping and mourning are no more, where war and torture and degradation are no more. And where all God's creatures live as brothers and sisters.

In the concluding words of Hymn 296:
A new creation comes to life and grows,
As Christ's new body takes on flesh and blood
The universe restored and whole will sing
Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.


  1. I am very excited about this new blog both because of the gifts of the author and its subject matter. My primary interest is how we begin to preach penance and live into the Gospel while maintaining love for the world and avoiding self righteousness. I agree with Fr. Bill, that acknowledging sinfulness is very important. What troubles me is a reluctance to name these sins (especially corporate) and then little effort to follow with a substantive and prolonged discussion on what penance would mean, especially in a church context. Two brief examples; energy and food. We need to be able to say coal is a poison from start to finish. We daily receive at least 50 percent of our household energy from coal. By far, most of our food comes from exploitative land and labor practices. How do we think about and do penance for examples like these? How do we move beyond consumer and often fantasy based approaches (solar, hybrid, organic) to thinking about the necessary life changes addressing these sins (consuming much, much less, using our own energy more, and being more involved in food production). I am a farmer and part time carpenter, so I am more at home in practical things than theology. Yet, my question for the theologians out there is not about energy and food per se, but how we make sin and penance specific. Yes, I agree Fr. Bill, penance desperately needs to be about turning towards something, but how do we start that conversation.

  2. I think we do exactly the kind of work you are doing. The beast we are fighting must be fought on many different fronts. And we can only make the very first steps. I think that organizing people is key to an effort that is more than a drop in the bucket. My own shift toward parish ministry had to do with this conviction. We need communities grounded in worship and a story other than that of the dominant consumerist narrative. Do people really want this? I don't know. I think some probably do. If the church is to survive, to say nothing of the human race, we must find some people who do.