gospel reflection

What Does it Mean to “Repent”

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Our Gospel this weekend is dominated by the call to repent. Let’s be careful not to regard this call as an example of simple moralism. Yes, its true, that all of us find ourselves involved in a battle with self mastery, with moral conversion, but the call of John is as much an invitation to have hearts that are open to the coming of Jesus as it is to amend our ways. For, it is in the coming of Jesus, that we will be set free from the things that enslave us. So, the words of John the Baptist, “…repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.” is an invitation to undergo a radical inner change. An examination of the original Greek word for ‘repentance’ can help us understand that John the Baptist is indeed calling for an internal change of heart rather than mere sorrow for sin or improvement of behavior. The meaning of the Greek word behind the English “repent” (metanoeo) points us in this direction. Metanoeo has two parts: meta and noeo. The second part (noeo) refers to the mind and its thoughts and perceptions, its dispositions and purposes. The first part (meta) is a prefix that usually means movement or change. So, the basic meaning of repent is to experience a change of the mind’s perceptions, dispositions and purposes. Repentance then is not simply the doing of new deeds, it’s the inward conversion which brings this about. This is the great project of Advent, to be prepared to contemplate the great and beautiful mystery of the birth of Jesus this coming Christmas.

Fr John

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