Far off, yet Here
Today is Day 20—half-way through the 40 days—of Lent. Sometimes we can feel beaten up about this time: penitential seasons can be hard on us, and the few sporadic remaining days of late winter, when they come, can be cold, wet, and dark.
Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the word “penitence.” We often assume it is related to the word “pain.” The image of the Mexican penitentes beating themselves with whips in procession around the Cross only reinforces such a perception.
But that is wrong. “Penitence” does not mean “pain.” The word “pain” come from the Latin poena and Greek poine “punishment, penalty, retribution, or suffering.” “Penitence,” however, comes from Latin paenitentia “repentance,” which itself comes from the verb paenitere “cause or feel regret,” originally “feel inadequate, unsatisfactory” from the Latin preposition paene “nearby, almost.”
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia “to change your mind or heart.” The Hebrew is simply shuv, “to change directions, to turn around.”
The season is not about suffering pain or inordinate guilt. It is about looking at where we feel inadequate, not up to measure, and letting God change our ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This process comes from God and directs us toward God. Often, it simply directs us closely to the truth and love of God that is hidden in our own hearts despite our inadequacies.
The hymn (no. 149) we usually begin Lent with tells it well:
Eternal Lord of love, behold your Church
walking once more the pilgrim way of Lent,
led by your cloud by day, by night your fire,
moved by your love and
toward your presence bent:
far off yet here the goal of all desire.
So daily dying to the way of self,
so daily living to your way of love,
we walk the road, Lord Jesus, that you trod,
knowing ourselves baptized into your death:
so we are dead and live with you in God.
If dead in you, so in you we arise,
you the first-born of all the faithful dead;
and as though stony ground
the green shoots break,
glorious in spring time dress
of leaf and flower,
so in the Father’s glory shall we wake. (–Thomas H. Cain)
Grace and peace,