As many Christians in the world celebrated Easter this week, I think of the long, self-reflective days of Lent drawing to their exciting fulfillment. In my church, Lent is a period of intentional reflection and repentant prayer, hemmed together with the hope of forgiveness and deliverance from those things we find in ourselves that we wish weren’t there. Moving toward Easter in that mindset has helped me reflect on the nature of repentance.
Repentance begins in the true and beautiful, humble self-knowledge required of the Christian. This self-knowledge is not hateful, but compassionate; not despairing, but realistic; not lax, but dynamic; not aloof, but developmental. It is Dante’s Purgatory, where the creatures sing as they work on unlearning their sin, and know their sin without self-hatred, but hope.
They sing because opening the palm that clenched sin so long is a relief. They sing because finally (finally!) they get to be free of being what they were. They’re grateful for the momentous and intense gift of forgiveness, and also for the chance to learn how to be holy, to be what they always wished they were.
I can clench my fist tightly around my sin, bury it deep in my palm, and make it as invisible as possible. And I do that because I wish they weren’t there—I wish I wasn’t proud or vain or slothful or timid. Through repentance, God unclenches my fist, and there it is; sin, lying exposed and ugly in my sweaty, tired palm.
To the Christian, it’s clear that repentance is beneficial, but we still anticipate its unpleasantness, like swallowing medicine, getting the oil changed, doing taxes. Actions which must be done, which we choose, and which we drag our feet toward and get through as quickly as possible. But, the sustained effort of Lent occasions its own joy. That unattractive side of my soul that I lie to myself about can’t hide from the ongoing spotlight continual prayers of repentance and reflection cast.
Self-deception covered it, and kept me sick.
Self-knowledge—that revelation God gives me of my own weakness, that surgical blade’s kind and painful prodding—exposes everything I can stand to see.
Without Easter, that self-knowledge would have to melt into the shoulder-shrugging aloofness the world gives to sin, or else mount into hopeless self-loathing. But, Easter will not leave me at self-knowledge. Easter brings a new life. In Dante’s Purgatory, the would-be saints attend the school of repentance with their eyes on heaven: they accomplish their tasks, unlearn their vices, and teach their hands and bodies the habits of virtue. And, of course, they sing.
While he doesn’t get the afterlife correct, Dante understands the Christian life well, especially the fundamental principle that one of the worst punishments for sinning is having to be a sinner. The best thing about repentance and renewal in Christ is getting to be forgiven and holy. The repentant Christian knows the song Dante gives to the would-be saints of purgatory: it is the joyful, still song of thankful relief from burdens of being what we were never made to be.