Expand your Mind! The Advent theme of metanoia

Expand your Mind! The Advent theme of metanoia July 11, 2022

Every year in Advent, John the Baptist makes a showing. He’s an interesting character to focus on during this season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We think of John out in the punishing desert, covered in rough-skin shirts, eating bugs and yelling at people, calling them vipers, demanding that they repent. An altogether different vibe than sweet tellings of the Christmas story.

But the fact is, before anything transformative happens, we must prepare; and John the Baptist was all about preparation. He was “preparing the way” for Jesus, pointing to the one who would come after him. Central to his message was this call to “repent!”

Now, the command “repent!” has negative associations for some, as we’ve heard it used in demeaning ways, like we must grovel and shrink and look down on ourselves. But despite anything implied by John’s strident presentation, repentance is actually an expansive concept. In truth, it is enlivening.

{Photo by Brandon Harrell for Scopio}

Indeed, “repentance” is one of my favorite Greek words. The word is meta-noia, and in ancient Greek, “meta” meant “beyond” or “expansive,” while “noia” means “mind.” “Repentance” means “bigger mind” or “expansive mind”; it implies transformation. It is expanding one’s vision, opening to a new way of seeing oneself and the world. To repent is not to shrink in shame and self-hatred. It is instead to make oneself available to grow, to see more, to increase in understanding, to rise to a higher plane. Repentance is freeing. Every great spiritual tradition has a way of talking about this transformation, this increase in spiritual acuity. “Repentance” has been a Christian way of talking about it, but one often misappropriated by shame culture and morality police. I want to reclaim this word “metanoia,” because it is one of the gifts of our tradition. Repentance is not a one-time act of groveling. It is a lifestyle, a commitment to widening one’s mind and growing one’s heart. It is a lifelong process of expanding into our God-given, God-like nature.

One of the debates now happening in the United States has to do with how we look at our national past. While the trajectory of the wider society is toward teaching our history and telling our story in ways that are more truthful, some vociferously resist this, implying that truth-telling about our racist past teaches white children to feel bad about themselves. But in my view, it comes down to how we understand repentance. Do we think repentance is about self-hatred, shame, and shrinking; or do we view metanoia as expanding and growing our minds to embrace more truth and compassion and insight? Does repentance cause us to hide or does it allow us to rise like eagles to a higher plane, able to embrace more complexity, challenge, detail, difference, and possibility? Would we rather stay anchored in limited experience and understanding, or ascend to greater vision and understanding?

I’m also aware that many churches are called to metanoia in this time, to expansive mind, to thinking beyond old paradigms of how we do church. Many mainline churches faced challenges before the pandemic. But since the beginning of the pandemic, those challenges have accelerated. Smaller churches will only survive by undergoing repentance in the sense of expansive mind. This means being transformed in the workings of our minds; becoming visionary and seeing new ways of how to be church; expanding knowledge of how the church has harmed and estranged people; embracing inclusivity; using resources in new ways, for the greater good, while sustaining our communities. Perhaps growing in ways we have never imagined.

Repentance is challenging, which is why so many resist it or turn it into a method of coercion and control. But rightly understood, repentance is exciting; it opens pathways for new possibilities. So let us embrace this Advent theme of metanoia!

WREN: Winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal.

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