Repentance and Holiness: The True Meaning of Lent
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” This verse from the Book of Joel (Jl 2:12) is part of the Mass readings on Ash Wednesday, followed by further prophetic exhortations to repentance: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” It is an age-old reminder that Lent is a time of penance, that we are sinners in need of repentance and God’s mercy. We are called to mourn, to fast, to turn with sincere sorrow from our failures to follow God’s call, with both outward signs and inward conviction.
That the Lord seeks not to punish us for our sins but to call us all back to holiness is a conviction so strong among theologians in the church in the modern age that it risks becoming a truism. Any look through some of the Lenten homilies of the church Fathers reminds us that fire and brimstone most certainly play less of a role in our spirituality and theology now than in ages past. Rather, we gravitate more toward a sense that the Lord wants for us the integrity and wholeness that comes with being made in the image of God—and surely the words of Jesus in the Gospels amplify that call to “return to me with all your heart.”
The danger of situating our understanding of sin and repentance in this framework, however, is that it can become pablum, half-hearted nods toward the existence of evil by a people fully convinced of their own goodness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant theologian put to death by the Nazis in 1945, had no such illusions about human nature when it is unmoored from fear of God, and identified in his own time the danger of “cheap grace.” What did he mean? “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession,” he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Discipleship has a cost and discipleship has a reward.
Bonhoeffer recognized the opposite as well: grace that comes at a cost. “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods,” he wrote. “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.”
These are valuable words for us all to reckon with both in and out of the Lenten season. Discipleship has a cost and discipleship has a reward. Throughout the history of Christianity, various proponents of an emphasis on one vision of human nature or the other have come and gone, and for every Pelagius comes along a Jonathan Edwards, for every John Calvin an Origen. In our Easter celebration we recognize that depravity, sin and death do not have the last word. We hear as the antithesis of the Lenten call to mourn the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John: “Woman, why are you crying?” And we see in Mary’s response—she goes to tell the others the good news of the Resurrection—the beginning of the church itself. The time for sorrow and repentance is followed by a time of rejoicing and sharing the good news of God’s love.
In the past few months, America has featured several articles contributing to the perennial conversation in the church about where our emphases should lie in our theological and pastoral approach to sinfulness and holiness. In December 2022, the theologian James F. Keenan, S.J., delved into the history of the church’s approach to reconciliation and the sacrament of confession, arguing that “the moral tradition developed from its inception pathways to holiness, embodied pathways that were collective, merciful, hospitable, inclusive, exemplary and grace-filled.”
In January and March of this year, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego contributed essays on the church’s need to be more inclusive toward those who find theological and pastoral barriers thrown up against their full participation in the life of the church, particularly divorced and remarried and L.G.B.T. Catholics. It is important to recognize, he wrote, that “the pastoral cannot be eclipsed by doctrine. For the pastoral ministry of Jesus Christ stands at the heart of any balanced understanding of the church that we are called to be. And pastoral authenticity is as important as philosophical authenticity or authenticity in law in contouring the life of the church to the charter our Lord himself has given to us.”
Many Catholics find the church to be an unwelcoming home, a place not where wounds are healed but from which the wounded feel excluded.
An essay in this issue by Sister Nathalie Becquart points out another reality uncovered in the listening phase of the ongoing synodal process: Many Catholics find the church to be an unwelcoming home, a place not where wounds are healed but from which the wounded feel excluded.
We have wounds that only God can heal, and the church’s role is not to set up barriers, but to bring to God those in need of healing. Yet we are not healed simply to go back to our old lives. The healing found in Christ gives birth to a new life marked by holiness and discipleship.
In the work of these scholars—and many who have responded to them in various forums—we see that as a church we continue to struggle with a question that is as much an anthropological as a theological one: Are we sinners who must make amends in order to receive God’s grace and mercy? Or are we made in the image of God, and in need of the church’s guidance and care on our lifelong path to holiness? Everyone involved in such conversations, even when these become rancorous and impassioned, surely confesses that the answer is both. When answered with careful discernment and a recognition of past wisdom, when received in the spirit of charity, these questions are always worth asking and answering. St. Paul reminds us of exactly this in one of the Easter Sunday Mass readings: “Let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8).
In our engagement with Lent and our celebration of Easter this year, we are all profoundly aware of the suffering and despair that human sin has wrought upon the world and ourselves. So too, however, are we reminded of what the Lord has done for us on Easter morning—and so we rejoice and resolve once again to care for the wounded, to welcome the stranger, to cooperate in God’s bringing life out of death.