Anthony Towey

Happy New Year! In some ways Christians should exchange this greeting at the beginning of Advent, but in terms of common cultural tradition, January 1st marks the turn of the year, often accompanied by attempts to make a new start in some direction or other. I am told there is a 'spike' in gym membership at this time which constitutes some sort of corporeal reaction to Christmas indulgence. Likewise, in the UK at least, the recent fashion to give up alcohol for the month of January rather than in Lent is just the latest iteration of what I would call 'secularized repentance'.

But perhaps this is being unfair. Anyone trying to make a change for the better should surely be encouraged. In any case, while 'repentance' might be a good religious word, it might not be quite the best way to translate the opening lines of Jesus' proclamation: 'The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent [metanoiete] and believe the Good News!' (Mk. 1.15). Readers are probably aware that there is a distinct dynamism to metanoiete and suggestions that it be better translated as 'change of heart' 'change direction' 'turn around' are not uncommon. Indeed I have vivid memories of a penitent filmed at San Giovanni Rotundo, visibly shaken and anxiously drawing on a cigarette after going to confession to Padre Pio. 'That was quick - what did he say to you?' quizzed the reporter. 'Change your life' came the reply!

For me, these sorts of translation are preferable, especially if repent goes no further than an introspective turn. It is always risky to rely too much on etymology, but my own preference is to translate metanoiete via its component parts of meta 'beyond' and noô 'think over' which yields an imperative to 'Think Differently'. It seems to me this translation fits with the way that Jesus tries to teach the Kingdom by using the story puzzles of the parables. All too often we try and solve them, but they are meant to mess with our heads, to get us angry, to get us to discuss whether the first hour vineyard workers were exploited (Mt. 20.1-16), whether the elder son was justifiably aggrieved at his wastrel brother (Lk. 15.11-32) and whether the talent-burying piggy bank tenant quite deserved the roasting he received (Mt. 24.14-30). In Mark 8.18 Jesus yearns for his disciples to 'have eyes to see and ears to hear' - as if an appeal to change in our physical senses might get us to change the mental straitjacket of our common sense.

Even the actions of Jesus defy the kind of pattern that would make predictability the order of the day. The miracles are wonderful, but serial astonishment is hardly the best diet for the tidy mind, even if common cause and twelve baskets did succeed in clearing up the odd hillside. As for predicting that the power of the Messiah would be manifest through the weakness of crucifixion and death - it was literally unthinkable. When I was young, I used to think that the disciples were dim (Mk. 8.32). Now that I'm old I have far more sympathy - they were in the middle of what Thomas Kuhn has famously called a 'paradigm shift' whereby Jesus was not only altering their picture of piety, he was problematizing their prophecy, demagnetizing their moral compass and setting fire to their theological map.

It is hard for us to think differently - God knows! Part of the problem is that the framework or 'mindset' we acquire through our formative years can constrain as well as empower us. In adopting 'Think Different' and a half-bitten apple as slogan and logo, the most successful company on the planet may have been cocking a snook at Judeo-Christianity or it may have been doffing its hat to the passing of Alan Turing. Yet the fact that the entire planet is in thrall to hand-held electronica makes the prediction of an IBM executive in 1958 that there would be only five computers on the planet more ridiculous by the day. Like them or not, the youthful quirky founders of Apple did think differently and they have changed the world.

Yet this, too, is the essential Christian challenge. To think differently in order that we ourselves might change - and in so doing, change the world. As an example, just recently I was praying one day, moaning about work, and the God-thought came to me: 'Do you know your problem? You go to work, to work, and then think about being a witness, while I want you to be a witness and then think about work.' It's a small difference. But it changes the mindset such that I go to work as a witness, and I do some work there. That makes a real difference to my demeanour, my disposition, the way I tackle a problem. OK, so I've been getting things the wrong way round for years, but at least 2018 might be different!

Newman wisely said: 'In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.' Who knows, maybe the contributors to this first edition of The Pastoral Review for 2018 may help us to repent - to think differently. And in God's good providence, may the Spirit lead each of us into metanoia, into our own personal New Year's Revolution.

ad
ad2