- Isaiah 11:1-10
- Romans 15:4-9
- Matthew 3:1-12
Et dicens: Poenitentiam agite: appropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.
Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
After my notes on the readings for the 29th where I celebrated a confusing choice on the part of St Jerome and the Douay translators, it’s nice that we have today, another odd choice (in fact, we have the same reading from Isaiah as the OT reading today). Today’s is not one, I think, that I like or agree with, but it’s there. Most translations render Matthew 3:2 as some version of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (RSV), the Douay has John saying “Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It renders the Latin correctly. Jerome said this and in his commentary on Matthew makes no note on this verse only to say that John has the privilege of being the Lord’s forerunner. Although in Mark 1:15, he said poenitemini which is rather better and get’s translated as “repent”. See this article: other Latin writers favored the word resipiscite. The latter gets better into the Greek, which is μετανοέω, metanoeo. It means more like “change your mind” or “change your thinking”.
Change your thinking: the Kingdom of God is here. What is there for us here? How can we find a way around Jerome’s use of “penance”? Do we need to?
In the prayers for the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, the members are asked to pray “For our intellect, that it may be purged of all false beliefs and misunderstandings about human sexuality…” Also members are asked to pray for so many other aspects of our mind to change: our memory, our estimation, our affectivity, our imagination, for our will, and for our conscience. This is only around the area of sexual purity – so very important for us in our world today. Yet how many other parts of our life are, in fact, not so discreet, but rather are spread around our personalities, woven into to so many other parts of our life? My favourite of the 15 intentions in that list is that “no sadness, discouragement, fear, insecurity, or loneliness may afflict us unto sexual sin.” How often are all those items factors in our other, non-sexual sins?
As I noted last week, a key aspect of Advent is our Hope. I find myself constantly praying that I may keep my hope set on God and that nothing of the world, the flesh, or the devil may distract me from that hope. That is the essential temptation, I think: to be distracted from the promises of God, to “turn away from higher, more difficult, and more honorable goods for the sake of sinful self-indulgence.” I’ve recently realized that we can have, as it were, positive hopes, when something lures us, saying, “Place your hope here instead.” Or we can have negative hopes (fears) of things in the world, the White House, or the next Pope’s on a Plane press conference, that invite us to be fearful, or angry. We become negatively attached to hopelessness.
It’s all in your mind. Indeed, “sadness, discouragement, fear, insecurity, or loneliness may afflict us unto” any sort of sin against the hope offered to us in Advent. And we need to move beyond that to get a new mind, then we must repent…
But if that’s how wide the root system is, for sexual sin or for any other sin, how can we destroy it? We may not be able to, fully, in this life, but Jesus gives us a powerful image when he says (In Matthew 5:30) “if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell.”
Jesus says over and over throughout the Gospel that no cost is too high to get this new mind; and “cutting off your hand” even metaphorically, sounds to me a lot like doing penance. How many successful actions of “mental reform” are, in fact, strong-willed penances inflicted on the mind? This is why I’m weak in so many areas: because I cannot perform the simple penance of standing up and praying a decade of the Rosary or the 15 Aves of the Confraternity when I feel certain temptations. Penance is an act of hope: a sign that I can do better.
Getting a new mind – in fact, training a new mind by force if needed – is the process of Getting Saved.
In fact, our modern, merely psychological concept of “say you’re sorry” may be the real error, the part that seriously out of step from the historic Christian tradition where saints, to become healed of their sins, ran into the desert and lived for years on roots, locusts and honey. What level of self abasement, of abandonment of political and social ideas of “justice”, of stern and painful penance is needed for ripping through all the layers of defence in which we wrap ourselves to protect us from God?