The original word for repent is not so much lost, as destroyed in translation. Wherever in the New Testament we see the word “repent,” it’s a gross mistranslation of metanoia.
The problem seems to have begun with Jerome, who in 382 translated the Greek New Testament into the Latin Vulgate. When Jerome got to Matthew 3 and the advent of John the Baptist, he read “Metanoia, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jerome rendered the Greek metanoia as, “Do penance.” Thereafter, that translation was picked up in countless Bibles—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Metanoia now meant doing penance, and from there it was a short leap to self-flagellation, thumbs screws and hairshirts. All of that was eventually swept into the trashcan of bad theology, but the word lived on. It still meant self-condemnation, guilt and renunciation of sin.
Yet when John the Baptist and Jesus used the word, they meant something remarkable. Meta (after or beyond) + noia (mind) means literally “going beyond your mind.” It’s shifting into a new mindset, sloughing off your old state of mind and seeing the world from a new vantage point. It’s exactly what Paul means when he urges his readers to undergo a transplant and take on the “mind of Christ.” Far from being a demand to feel lousy about our screw-ups, metanoia invites us to radically transform the way we perceive ourselves, others and the world. When we see with divine eyes, we know exactly who we are, our best and worst selves, and yet we know that, in Christ, we are forever forgiven and blessed. Suddenly, everything is changed, lit from within. We don’t have to worry anymore.
Still not sure what this metanoia actually looks like, feels like? Here’s about the best example I can think of:
“They’re benign,” the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot. *
That is metanoia. Accept no substitutes.
*“Mammogram” by Jo McDougall
Question for Today:
What does it mean to repent?
What daily practices help to keep you in the awesome state of metanoia?
Question #5 “How can I find God?” comes Sunday March 5.