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Since the early Middle Ages Lent, the approximately six-week period that precedes Easter, has been observed as a season of repentance. For centuries the faithful have carried out acts of penance, that is, exercises designed to express or cultivate repentance, during this season of the church year. An examination of the origin and development of this biblical concept sheds much light on the historical development of the Lenten season and its customs.

Repentance in the Hebrew Scriptures

In the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, the word used for repentance was shub, a term which expresses the idea of turning around or turning back. For the writers of these texts the concept of repentance meant forsaking wrongdoing in order to return to the upright way of life that is pleasing to God. The ancient Jews cultivated repentance through a variety of religious practices, including wearing clothes made out of sackcloth (a coarse fabric), smearing ashes on their heads and faces, fasting, confessing their errors, and wailing with remorse. These customs served as public admissions of wrongdoing as well as expressions of grief and regret. Some of the Hebrew prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, warned that these practices must not be used as a substitute for the kind of spiritual transformation that results from heart-felt repentance. These prophets called on the nation of Israel to return to the virtues beloved by God. Other prophets, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel, directed the same message at individuals who had fallen into sin, urging them to return to God's teachings.

Repentance in the Christian Scriptures

Writing in ancient Greek the authors of the Christian New Testament translated this concept of spiritual transformation and return to God's ways as metanoia, a word which literally means "change of mind." These writers meant something more profound than what we would call a change of mind, however. Instead they were referring to a total transformation in outlook, affecting the heart, mind, and spirit. Thus in the New Testament the concept of repentance takes on a slightly different shape, one that places less emphasis on guilt and regret and more emphasis on breaking through to a new way of understanding God, oneself, and the world. In other words, the New Testament view of repentance equates it with conversion.

Several passages from Christian scripture link repentance with baptism, the ritual whereby the early Christians confirmed the conversion of newcomers and welcomed them into the faith tradition. Before the advent of Christianity, the ancient Jews used baptism as a cleansing ritual and later employed it as a means of initiating new members into the Jewish faith. In the opening scenes of the New Testament John the Baptist urges the Hebrew people to undergo the ritual of baptism as a means of expressing their repentance and accepting God's forgiveness for their sins. Contemporary Christian theologians still equate baptism with the forgiveness of sin. After being baptized by John, Jesus began his own ministry, repeating John's call to repentance and reform (Mark 1:14-15). Later New Testament passages clearly link baptism into the Christian faith with repentance (Acts 2:38).

Repentance and Lent

By the fourth century many Christian communities had developed a preference for baptizing new members at Easter. In the weeks preceding Easter candidates for baptism prepared for this spiritual rebirth by fasting, praying, and receiving religious instruction. Devout members of the Christian community fasted and prayed alongside these newcomers to set them a good example and to inspire them. As Christianity became the religion of the majority, however, more and more people were baptized as infants and children and so did not undergo these preparations. Nevertheless, the Lenten season continued to be viewed as a time of fasting and prayer in preparation for the greatest feast of the Christian year, Easter.

Although Easter baptisms became less common as the number of Christians grew, Easter preparations continued to develop along much the same lines as before. These Lenten devotional practices, however, once associated with conversion and baptism, became ever more closely associated with repentance and the confession of sin. This change in the Church's observance of the Lenten season coincided with the appearance and spread of a new, Latin translation of the Bible. In the late fourth century Christian authorities in western Europe ordered that the Bible be translated from Greek into Latin, Latin being a more familiar language to the people of western Europe.

The Latin Bible replaced the Greek word metanoia with the Latin word paenitentia. The word paenitentia originally meant "regret." It is related to the Latin word poena, meaning punishment or penalty. Adopted for usage by the Church, the word paenitentia meant "repentance" and came to imply both sorrow for wrongs committed as well as punishment or penalty paid for them. Presumably both the grief and the punishment would steer the penitent towards spiritual transformation. We get our English words "penance" and "repentance" from the Latin word paenitentia. The English word "penitentiary," meaning "prison," also comes from this Latin root.

In western Europe, where Latin was the official language of a united Church for more than 1,000 years, the Latin word paenitentia, with its emphasis on sorrow and punishment, established itself as the theme of the Lenten season by the early Middle Ages. This view of repentance found clear expression in early medieval customs concerning the reconciliation of wrongdoers with the Christian community. This process began at the start of Lent when erring community members publicly confessed their sins (see also Ash Wednesday). Priests assigned penance to those whose sins were deemed severe. These penances often included dressing in sackcloth and ashes, sleeping on the ground, going barefoot, secluding oneself in a remote place such as a monastery, keeping long periods of silence, refraining from bathing and shaving, and engaging in prayer, charitable works, and manual labor. Wrongdoers were expected to persist in these devotional acts throughout Lent before finally gaining re-admittance to church and re-acceptance in the community.

Although western European Christians abandoned most of these Lenten customs long ago, Roman Catholics and some Protestants retained the Lenten fast until recent times. Today Roman Catholics still fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition, they are expected to make a formal confession, a process now referred to as the rite or sacrament of reconciliation, sometime during Lent.

By contrast, Orthodox and other Eastern Christians have preserved their ancient Lenten fasting customs. Nevertheless, the Orthodox understand Lent to be a joyful rather than a sorrowful season. This attitude stems from their understanding of repentance, which is closer to the Greek metanoia than the Latin paenitentia. For Orthodox Christians repentance means turning to God in a process that entails a rigorous search for self-knowledge, the recognition and confession of sin, and a deep desire to change. Orthodox Christians view fasting and other spiritual disciplines observed during Lent as ways of seeking selfcorrection, purification, and enlightenment during this holy season.

Further Reading

Garrett, Linda Oaks. "Repentance." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. Hopko, Thomas. The Lenten Spring. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998. Matera, Frank J., ed. "Repentance." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The Harper- Collins Bible Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Myers, Allen C., ed. "Repentance." In The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987. Porter, T. A. "Repentance." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 12. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Rahner, Karl, and Herbert Vargrimler, eds. "Metanoia." In their Dictionary of Theology. Second edition. New York: Crossroads, 1981. "Repentance." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. "Repentance." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
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