When we in our modern society hear the word "repent", it tends to conjure up images of a fanatic on the street preaching fire and brimstone. It is not a word that hits our ears well nowadays. In fact, in a culture that embraces individuality and relativism, it is a foreign concept. How can one turn from sin if we don't acknowledge sin? If a celebrity or politician does "repent", it is normally done to get back into the good graces of the public eye. Tiger Woods needs to apologize so he can get back to playing golf. A politician caught in a scandal needs to make a teary-eyed confession in order to have a chance at winning public office again. This "repentance" isn't a sorrow for the wrong that has been committed, but rather for the loss of some temporal good due to that behavior. Repentance loses all meaning and becomes simply a means to an end.
Yet here we are in the Catholic Church, at the beginning of a whole liturgical season devoted to repentance. But how many of us truly understand Lent? Most of us will give up something for Lent, be it chocolate or soda or television. But these sacrifices have no meaning in and of themselves. Separated from the goal of repentance, they are absurd. If we give something up just for show, then we are even further from the goal of true repentance than those who "repent" for personal gain, for we gain nothing. We offer up these insignificant sacrifices to detach ourselves from the things of this world, and to focus on God.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It does not simply imply sorrow for the wrong committed, but a fundamental change. To repent, we must change our hearts. Lent is a period for us to reflect on our lives. We must search our hearts and be truly sorrowful for the times when we have sinned. This is not something that should be done out of fear that an angry God will punish us. God loves us and wants what is best for us. He wants us to be all that He created us to be. But when we sin, we distort the image of God in our souls. We become something less than what we were created to be. More importantly, in sin we turn away from the God who loves us. We choose worldly things over the love of the Creator, and our priorities become confused.
We must recognize that we have done wrong, that we have allowed ourselves to become something less than God made us. We must be truly sorry for our sins. But it does not end there. God does not wish us to wallow in self-hatred because of our sins. Rather, we must turn to Him in His mercy. God will forgive us, but we must seek His forgiveness and trust in that forgiveness. Peter and Judas both felt intense sorrow for what they had done to offend the Lord, but Peter trusted in His mercy, while Judas went and hanged himself because he did not trust in that mercy. Peter trusted, Judas feared.
Finally, we must let God transform our hearts. We must let His grace change us so that we desire the good rather than the evil. That we seek His will rather than ours. And to do this, we must deny our own will. That's what the discipline of Lent is about.
Repentance is about freedom. The freedom from sin. The freedom to be who we are in Christ. In Jesus, there is not fear, but freedom. So let us go to Confession. Let us give up those things that hold us back from God. Let us delve into this season of Lent, and ask the Lord to free us from the chains into which we have put ourselves.