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Reimagining Lent By Rethinking Repentance

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Lent can be for Christians a dour and dispiriting time because we suppose it to be a season to remember our sinfulness and move into repentance. But might Lent be reimagined as a season of joy? Yes, but only if we rethink "sin" and "repentance."

Sin is a word we are too quick to utter. It is, by no means, the primary word to be said about the human condition. That first word must be vulnerability. The second is woundedness. The third word is sin, a word that names not only our wounds but that we, in turn, wound others and ourselves. If we are to use the term, we must deploy it with great caution as it can exacerbate injuries rather than bring about healing. Only after we have spoken of vulnerability, woundedness, and sin can we turn to talk of repentance.

To be human is to be vulnerable. We are soft, fleshy beings who inhabit a universe full of beauty and delight but also danger. Its powers dwarf and overwhelm us. Not only are we vulnerable, but we know also that we must die. When awareness of vulnerability and mortality overwhelms, when the sharp edges of the world threaten us with loss and pain, we understandably act to shield ourselves from hurt and seek our own private well-being. Under these conditions, it is all too easy to be wounded and to wound.

We fragile creatures are wounded by and wound each other, through simple shortsightedness, inattention, partial knowledge, and preoccupation with our own needs and anxieties. Everything then hinges upon how we attend to the sites of our wounding. The gravity of the wounds we suffer can leave us fragmented, persuaded that we lack worth and are unlovable. In the worst cases, we find ourselves tempted to injure as we have been injured. The poison in the one who wounds is felt in the bodies of those who are wounded generating propensities for self and other destruction.

Of course, our propensities to wound and to be wounded are driven by more than compromised personal interactions. We live in the midst of distorted social, cultural, and economic systems into which we are habituated. We are captive to powers and principalities such as capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and militarism, to name a few.

The word "sin," is a comprehensive term we use to name these multiple realities. Sin names: 1) The power of structures of violence to wound human beings, other creatures and even the earth itself; 2) It names also our captivity to these powers of psyche and society; 3) Sin also names our collaboration with these powers of destruction. 4) Finally, the term "sin" names the fact that we are estranged from God when we wittingly and unwittingly enter into service to the powers and principalities.

When captive to sin, we adopt ways of being that constrict our finest capacities. We elect by way of inertia and even by furious self-injury to remain enslaved to smallness of spirit, believing that we are unworthy to enter into abundant life. Diminished and injured by abuse, by sociocultural narratives that teach us to despise ourselves because of the color of our skin or the nature of our sexuality, and by the crushing weight of unjust economic structures, the light and joy in our eyes dies a slow death and we become imprisoned. We are not only imprisoned; at our worst, we seek even to imprison others.

To repent is to turn away from captivity to these powers of destruction and enter into the joyous liberation that comes from service to Love. But how does that come about? What makes repentance possible?

At this juncture, Christians remember that Jesus did not call people to repent before they could enter the kingdom of God. He first proclaimed that our sins were already forgiven by the love of the Father and thereby invites all to enter into the coming kingdom. When the gracious proclamation of the God's embrace is heard and received, repentance follows. Repentance is a response to God's love and not its precondition. Repentance is the ongoing recovery of our true dignity as children of God.

But repentance can also be a disposition and a practice. Repentance, as I have come to think of it in light of Buddhist discipline, is not a once and for all act. Rather, it is the constant, moment-by-moment, act of returning, back to focus, back to presence, back to love. It is the realigning of breath, body, mind, heart and will under organizing intentions -- the intention to be gentle with oneself, the intention to be alert to the miraculous plenitude of this evanescent moment. Repentance is also the process by which we extrude from our systems the sociocultural and economic toxins that have seeped into our pores and seek to possess us. It is the sustained application of the anti-venom of love to our bodies, minds and souls.

This commitment to loving presence can be derailed by a posture of chronic self-indictment. Sin talk can hinder rather than help if it keeps us bound to self-negation. The returning is the key. Regardless of the harms I have done to others and myself, what can I do to live this moment and the next, and the next well?

Repentance is the labor of returning to ourselves, returning to our created goodness, and returning to the holy deep. We repent of the injuries that we have caused others but also ourselves. Fundamental to repentance is trust that a fullness of life waits to be born in us. This trust gives us the courage and the strength to refuse any power or way of being in the world that would bind and prevent entry into abundance. When we practice repentance, we seek to be free from captivity to cycles of woundedness and wounding. Reframed in such fashion, the word "repentance" can be emancipated from its narrowly moralistic connotations and can be heard once more as an invitation to joy.