Third Sunday of Easter

Apr 14, 2024

The word “repent” is one of the first words out of the mouth of Jesus at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel.  It is also a word appearing several times in today’s scripture readings, both in the Acts of the Apostles and in the gospel reading from Luke.  In English, the word “repent” is often misunderstood. It seems to imply that we have already done something wrong, regret it, and now commit ourselves to live in a new way. Repentance, understood in this way, means to live beyond a sinful past. Biblically, this is not quite what it means. In the gospels, the Greek word used for repentance is metanoia. Literally this means to do an about-face, to turn around, to look in an entirely new direction.  That sense of “repentance” has a wider dimension to it.

This is a story I saved from The Washington Post a while back. Thirteen years ago, Tracy Grant’s husband of nineteen years was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Tracy became Bill’s faithful caregiver. Over the course of seven months, her husband Bill “went from beating me silly at tennis to needing my help to go to the bathroom.” It was a difficult, stressful and exhausting time, but Tracy, a deputy managing editor at The Washington Post at the timewrote that those seven months were the time in her life when she felt most alive. “I was 42 years old. I had become a respected professional, a responsible and, I hope, loving parent. But I had to discover the reason I was on this earth. During those seven months, I came to understand that whatever else I did in my life, nothing mattered more.”

I discovered that the petty grievances of an irksome co-worker, a child with the sniffles, or a flat tire pales in comparison with the beauty of spontaneous laughter, the night sky, the smells of a bakery. There were moments of joy, laughter, and tenderness everyday– if I was willing to look hard enough. I found I could train myself to set my internal barometer to be more compassionate than callous. In the days following Bill’s diagnosis and brain surgery, being his caregiver required me to be the best reporter I knew how to be. I found clinical trials and talked to oncologists in Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York. It gave me a sense of purpose, and it gave Bill comfort– and a few chuckles– to overhear me reading the riot act to some insurance rep who’d told me that a treatment wouldn’t be covered.

 And now, 13 years after Bill’s death, Tracy looks at those last seven months with gratitude. “I haven’t started a foundation to cure cancer. I haven’t left the news business to get a medical degree. I work. I try to be there for my sons. I will never again have that high a purpose. But every day, I try again to be the person I became during those seven months. I try to be a little less judgmental, a little more forgiving and generous, a little more grateful for the small moments in my life. I am a better person for having been Bill’s caregiver. It was his last, his best gift to me.”

Bishop Robert Barron offers a simple, yet profound, understanding that I think is helpful in this regard. In his view, within each of us there are two souls, a little soul (in Latin, a pusilla anima) and a great soul (a magna anima). On any given day we tend to identify more with one or the other of these and we are a very different person depending upon which soul is reigning within us. For instance, if I take my identity from my “little soul” I will inevitably feel bitter and angry. It is here (in the pusilla anima) where I am petty, afraid, aware of my hurts, and constantly nursing the sense of having been cheated and short-changed. In my little soul, I am paranoid and defensive. When I relate to life through it, I am short-sighted, impatient, despairing, and constantly looking for compensation.

But I also have within me a great soul. When I let it reign, I become a different person altogether. I am relating out of my great soul at those moments when I am overcome by compassion, when everyone is brother or sister to me, when I want to give of myself without concern of cost, when I would willingly die for others, and when my arms and my heart would want nothing other than to embrace the whole world and everyone in it.

All of us, I am sure, have had experience of both, identifying with the great soul and with the petty soul within us. Sometimes we operate out of one, sometimes out of the other. When Jesus asks us to “repent,” to do metanoia, I think he is asking that we face in a new direction—that we cease identifying ourselves with the little soul (which we do too often) and instead begin to live out of our other soul, the magna anima. The very etymology of the word metanoia implies this. It takes its root in two Greek words: meta (meaning “beyond”), and nous (meaning “mind.”) Literally, metanoia means to move beyond our present mindset, beyond our present way of seeing things.

When one looks at the miracles of Jesus, it is interesting to see that so many of them are connected to opening up or otherwise healing someone’s eyes, ears, or tongue. These miracles, of course, always have more than a physical significance. Eyes are opened in order to see more deeply and spiritually; ears are opened in order to hear things more compassionately; and tongues are loosened in order to praise God more freely and to speak words of reconciliation and love to each other. To put it metaphorically, what Jesus is doing in these miracles is attaching the eyes, ears, and tongue to the great soul so that what a person is now seeing, hearing, and speaking is not bitterness, hurt, and pettiness but rather compassion, gratitude, and praise.

In the gospel reading today, the disciples are asked to do a metanoia.  They still think that when you are dead, you are dead; that death is the final and irrevocable end of all humankind.  And they are so sure of this, they cannot absorb the shattering reality that Jesus is risen from the dead.  But the disciples gradually make that about-face and begin to embrace the presence of the risen Christ living among them.  Jesus knew that he could not just keep showing up for a personal appearance to every person throughout the world, and across the centuries, in order to convince them of his resurrection.  And so, Jesus relies on us, who have come to know him through baptism into the community of faith, to be powerful witnesses of his resurrected life to others.  We do this by allowing our great soul—the presence of Christ within us, our divine side—to reign over our small soul—our more human side.  Sometimes that take a metanoia on our part.

We come into union with that presence of Christ, and are nourished by it, in the Eucharist we are about to share.  (Many children are coming into that presence for the fist time this spring.) We share in the Eucharist week after week to allow that metanoia to occur, so that our great soul may, in fact, reign over our small soul.   We should be so grateful to God for having this wonderful opportunity!

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