Jesus insists in today’s Gospel (Lk 13:1-9) that, without repentance (metanoia), we “will all perish” and be “cut down” like barren fig trees. He’s not threatening us or merely requiring us to reject sin. He’s lovingly calling us to metanoia as the only way to share His life, bear fruit for the kingdom, and be saved.
Despite His urgency, we’ve widely failed to proclaim and foster metanoia as He intends. This has severely compromised our Christian life and witness, as evident in the declining faith and practice, repeated ecclesial crises, and ineffective renewal programs of the last half-century. Our failure to understand and embrace metanoia is depriving us of the abundant life Christ desires for us.
Metanoia is Greek for “after-thought.” It signifies a fundamental and enduring change of mind, heart, and perception that produces a new way of seeing and relating to God, others, and the world. The Latin translation penitentia gave us the English words “penitence” and “repentance.”
The problem with those words today is they don’t typically convey the ongoing and holistic transformation of the person that is at the heart of Christian metanoia. “Penitence” suggests contrition for sin expressed in self-denial, such as in penances accepted after Confession or during penitential seasons like Lent. “Repentance” indicates a rejection of sin and a turning to God.
Certainly, Jesus includes those specific actions in His call to metanoia, but he intends much more. He means we are to “pass over” from a worldly life as slaves of selfishness and sin to continual participation in His life as members of His Body and Bride, the Church.
We undergo that Passover in Baptism, by which Jesus unites us to himself, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, and the Trinity comes to dwell within us. At that moment, we are reborn as adopted children of God who share His divine life. This is the radical change of mind, heart, and perception – the essential transformation of our whole person and our relationships – expressed by the word metanoia.
Metanoia, then, is not in the first place a human acknowledgment of sinfulness or our need for God’s mercy. It’s the unmerited work of the Trinity, calling and enabling us to be joined body and soul to Jesus, cooperatively to give ourselves daily in loving service to God and neighbor. Metanoia is Christ’s life, transforming us from within.
In Matthew 6:1-18, Christ describes this new life in terms of prayer, fasting (or self-sacrifice), and almsgiving (or works of mercy). Prayer is the Trinity moving us from within to turn ourselves, our hearts, and our minds to Him. Self-sacrifice is God moving us inwardly to turn away from our selfishness and sin. Works of mercy are God moving us to turn toward others, sharing with them the divine life He shares with us.
The “turnings” of prayer, self-sacrifice, and works of mercy are the living out of metanoia. They have the power to change us, to perfect us as God’s children, because they’re His works in which He allows us to participate. In Christ, we’re both God’s handiwork and His co-workers.
This means that as long as we cooperate with Christ, everything we do becomes a participation in His life and saving work, bearing fruit for our salvation and the world’s. That may sound unbelievable or blasphemous, but we’re members of Jesus’ Body (and Bride) which, like Eve, is fashioned by God as a helpmate to her spouse, joined in life and labor.
Once we recognize the source and purpose of metanoia, we can see why we would perish without it. As human persons and sinners, we have no natural ability or “right” to enter personal communion with God. Even those united to him in Baptism cannot see Him until they are pure of heart and love as He loves.
Christian life is a transforming purification by which we die to a life shared with the Old Adam and come to share perfectly the life of the New Adam. It’s a Passover or Exodus which, like the one led by Moses, entails passing through water and journeying to the Promised Land. Metanoia, born of our passing through the waters of Baptism led by Christ, is that journey. When it’s complete, we will know and love Him even as He knows and loves us, we shall become like Him, and God will be all in all.
The wonder, majesty, and beauty of the salvation God are working in us beyond our comprehension. So, too, is the reality of the participation in His saving work bestowed on us through Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and gift of the Holy Spirit.
Mercifully, it’s not necessary to fully understand this new life or to undertake great things to “earn” heaven. It’s enough that we respond by doing everything, no matter how mundane or simple, with and in Christ for love of God and neighbor. That’s the path of metanoia, the “narrow way” of prayer, self-sacrifice, and works of mercy, which the Trinity has prepared in order to perfect us amid the details of our lives. We need only abide with Him and deal each day with ourselves, those we encounter, and the circumstances we face.
It would help, of course, if our pastors lived and reflected on metanoia so they could more effectively witness to and nourish its central role in the life of the Church. They could then guide us past false teachings, misguided pieties, and trendy movements to the rediscovery and meaningful practice of metanoia as our purifying participation in the life and work of Christ.
The wounds of the Church, her pastors, and her people won’t be healed until we embrace more deeply Jesus and His call. The Lenten season is an appropriate time to ask the Lord to teach us to live metanoia always. He will hear and answer us, for He died that we might not perish but share His life abundantly.
*Image: The Penitent St. Peter (Reuiger Petrus) by Jusepe de Ribera, between 1600 and 1649 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s The Pandemic and Repentance
Anthony Esolen’s Jesus’ Wholly New Way of Life