Reflecting on John the Baptizer’s historical ministry in his classic work, The Cultural World of Jesus, John Pilch states, "The heart of (his) message is the need for repentance . . . a change of mind . . . a broadening of horizons, transformation of experience, reform of life. We commonly use the word conversion." The well-known author then mentions, "Turning to God will obtain forgiveness of sins." Anyone who makes such a drastic about-face ends up becoming a new person, no longer responsible for the debts contracted by the old person.
That's why Luke makes certain we don't miss the meaning of John's baptism. "John went about the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins . . . ."
Accustomed to receiving God's forgiveness by participating in the sacrament of reconciliation, it's difficult for some of us to return to the earliest days of our faith when that ritual wasn't the normal way Jesus' followers obtained forgiveness, the days people sought a transformation of personality instead of sacramental absolution.
We especially see this quest for transformation in today's Philippians pericope. "My prayer," Paul writes, "is that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discover what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ."
For the Apostle, following Jesus is a continual process of repentance, an ongoing discovery of "what is of value" in our lives. Only such a conversion achieves the forgiveness of our sins, making us "pure and blameless."
This process of becoming new persons didn't begin with Christianity. Four or five centuries before Jesus' birth, those who collected the prophetic oracles which we today call the Book of the Prophet Baruch demanded the same characteristic be part of the personality of those who follow Yahweh.
Listen carefully to the "transformation of experience" which the prophet expects in the Chosen People after the Babylonian Exile. "Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever . . . for God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God's worship."
Not only does this "broadening of horizons" transform us into new people, it also helps convince others a new life could be just around the corner for them. "Up, Jerusalem!" the prophet commands, "stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God."
Because most of us were introduced to the sacrament of reconciliation as children, it's hard for some of us to appreciate biblical repentance. When told that we had to repent as part of our confessional process, we presumed it simply meant we'd have to agree never again to commit the sins we'd just confessed. Little was said, or could be understood, about becoming a new person, forming a new relationship with God and those around us.
Though we matured in other areas, many of us still look at the forgiveness of our sins through the eyes of children. We recite a list of sins, say we're sorry and go away relieved of our burden - until the next time.
Back in the mid-70s, when the Vatican promulgated a new ritual for sacramental reconciliation, there was hope we might again begin to approach the sacrament as repentant adults. But few confessors or penitents ever employed the new format. Except for the opportunity of face to face confessions, the reformed ritual has almost disappeared. Maybe we're too insecure in the transformation dimension of our faith to actually repent.