1st Sunday in Lent
Years ago, I saw a little cartoon showing a classic long-bearded, robed prophet with a big sign reading “REPENT!*” The asterisk referred to a note at the bottom of the sign: “*If you have already repented, please disregard this notice.”
John the Baptist, we were told earlier in this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, preached a “gospel of repentance.” Now that John is out of the picture, Jesus appears, almost like an understudy filling in for an absent performer. The message is the same: “Repent!” And yet there is a difference. Not only do we usually visualize John and Jesus as in some way quite unlike each other, but we sense, at least, a certain dissimilarity in their message.
John’s call to repentance was in view of preparing for Jesus, whose coming was imminent. Jesus’ call to repentance is in view of preparing for the Kingdom of God, which is “at hand.”
The word “repent” implies two elements. One is regret. For example, we repent behaviors by which we have hurt someone we care about, whether we did so deliberately or thoughtlessly. The other element is change, taking the form at least of a firm resolve to avoid such behaviors for the future. Neither one alone is repentance. Regret without resolve changes nothing; resolve without regret lacks motivation.
The goal is expressed in an odd turn of phrase in our second reading, from the first Letter of St. Peter. Speaking of baptism, the ritual sign of repentance, he writes that it is “an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” Can we actually ask God to give us a clear conscience, if we don’t already have one?
One way of understanding this is that we can ask God, “Could we start again, please?” That is the point of the rainbow, after all. God and humanity and creation are all starting over. That is also the point of Lent—a new beginning or, better, another (or: yet another) new beginning; a truly new beginning, since we ourselves are different each year, and we need this Lent in a way we have not needed Lent before.
Let’s look at repentance from six points of view: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?
The Who of repentance is you (that includes me). You need to change, though maybe not entirely. What in yourself do you need to turn away from, what image of yourself do you need to turn toward?
The What is whatever behaviors or attitudes you know you need to avoid, or cultivate.
The When involves our use of time, turning away from wasting time, turning toward the “time of fulfillment.”
The Where concerns circumstances, often called “occasions of sin,” which we turn away from. At the same time we can turn towards what we might call “occasions of grace,” or “occasions of life.”
How? That’s up to you. You know better than I do what might best help you along the path of repentance. But do not neglect the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Why? St. Peter gives an excellent reason: “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.” If we are not led to God, then Christ suffered for us in vain. What would be the point?
Jesus also gives a reason: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” In that context “repent” still means “regret and resolve,” but we may add one more element: “in hope.” There is something wonderful to hope for if our repentance is genuine. The kingdom of God is a beautiful prospect, well worth repenting for.