Currently, repentance is a word little used and little understood. To repent does not mean to be sorry for your sins. Contrition is our theological word for that. This is why in the Sacrament of Penance, before imparting absolution, the priest asks the penitent to make an act of contrition. This vocal prayer is meant to be an outward sign of the penitent’s inner sorrow for his sins.
Repentance means to change your behavior. In a Christian context, it means to have a change of mind, a conversion, which causes you to turn from sin and start acting rightly. Indeed, repentance is the fruit of genuine contrition. It is addressed in the formal Act of Contrition, when we say to God- “I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”
Note, too, that penance, while related, is also distinct from repentance. Penance consists of those good and pious acts we undertake to help reverse the effects of our bad and impious actions. As the doctrine of indulgences teaches, it is something like the Christian way of balancing karma. Hence, a truly Christian life is a repentant life, that is, a life filled with the good fruits grown and nurtured in the life of the Christian by the grace of God. The main source of this grace is the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.
Far from a dismal gray existence, living in a repentant manner does not mean playing life so as not to lose, sitting on the sidelines, or endeavoring to stay out of “the world.” A repentant life is a vibrant, happy, joyful life. It is a life played to win; a life prepared to take risks for God’s kingdom. It is a life of gratitude lived in response to God’s love given us in Christ; a Spirit-filled life. Repentance is the theme of our readings today from Ezekiel and Matthew.
Our reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians consists of what is often called the “Kenotic Hymn.” “Kenotic” is an English adjective of the Greek verb kenosis. Kenosis, in Greek, even in modern Greek, simply means “to empty,” as in Paul’s phrase translated as “he emptied himself.”1
The passage that comprises our second reading consists of the first eleven verses of the second chapter of the apostle’s letter to the Church in ancient Philippi. New Testament scholars insist that verses seven through eleven were not originally composed by Paul. Rather, he used the words of an ancient Christian hymn sung in the Church and known to his correspondents to make his point about what it means for Christians to be Christ-like.
This hymn gets to the very nature of God and is vital for us to grasp: It is the very nature of the tri-personal God to be self-emptying for the Other. This is the only way to understand the revelation “God is love.”2 It has been noted that the Incarnation of the Son of God is an event “so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the world.3 The Incarnation is the most profound instance of God-being-God. During the Creed, we bow as we profess our belief that “by the Holy Spirit [He] was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
It is because “he was in the form of God” that Jesus “did not regard” his divinity “as something to be grasped,” or, more literally to be made use of in a debased manner, or even to steal. Getting to the point, the Son’s self-emptying was not despite his divinity but precisely because of it. Too often when dealing with this critical New Testament passage, it is understood and communicated in such a way that it is made to seem as if Christ’s self-emptying is somehow at odds with his divinity rather than the surest sign that he is “true God from true God.”
It has been noted that “Jesus’ disclosure shows that in his very nature God is self-effacing.” This observation stands in direct contrast to what is often taken for traditional Christian orthodoxy, which “has thought of [God] as the opposite; majestic, glorious and triumphal,” or even as angry, easily offended, and vengeful.4 Thinking of God as anything other than self-emptying/self-effacing is a remnant of the paganism that seems inherent to fallen humanity.
A kenotic, or self-emptying, life is a repentant life. It is repentant because it requires you, according to the apostle, not to look out first and foremost for yourself but to “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”5
Not only is a repentant life the only life worth living, in the end, it proves to be life itself. Elsewhere in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus clearly teaches- “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”6 This paradox is the beating heart of Christian faith.
In his song “Paper and Fire,” John Mellencamp captured this powerfully:
He wanted love with no involvement
So he chased the wind, that's all his silly life required
And the days of vanity went on forever
And he saw his days burn up like paper in fire7
1 Philippians 2:7.↩
2 1 John 4:8.16.↩
3 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7.↩
4 Hugh Montefiore, “Jesus and the Revelation of God,” 111.↩
5 Philippians 2:3-4.↩
6 Matthew 16:25.↩
7 John Mellencamp, “Paper and Fire.”↩