“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus uses this exhortation to inaugurate his public ministry in the Gospel according to Mark. The call to repentance and faith continues to echo in the Church. We hear it anew, now, as we begin the season of Lent.
“Repent” is the translation of the Greek word metanoia, which literally means “change one’s mind.” The call to repentance is not just an exhortation to change a way of behavior but to have an inner transformation occur whereby one’s whole life is reoriented toward God and the life of faith. Jesus exemplifies in his person a life that is totally centered on his relationship with God, his Father. All his actions and teachings are rooted in this relationship. He invites us to share in this life of love.
The call to repentance is all encompassing. Every aspect of our lives is open to transformation: from our life in the family to the workplace; in time of leisure to time of labor; from our relationships with neighbors to our relationships with strangers. Responding in faith to Jesus and his Gospel opens the door for this transformation to take place.
The season of Lent provides an opportunity for us to focus on repentance and faith. The trifold penance of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — are the ways we “keep” Lent. Sometimes the term “discipline” is used to describe our observance of Lent. Discipline because it involves a training; in this case training as disciples of Christ and living the Gospel.
Prayer is described in many ways, one of which is active listening. Listening to the Lord speak to us and inviting us to share in his life. Sometimes he speaks words of consolation, reassurance and an invitation to die to self and live for him. Listening to him who is the Way to life helps us to walk the path to life. The variety and styles of prayer are numerous. Daily Mass, meditation, Stations of the Cross and short daily reflections on the readings of the day are some of the ways in which we might pray during the season.
The dedicated time to prayer also reminds us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy recalls Jesus’ being driven by Satan to the desert where he fasts for 40 days and nights while being tempted by the devil. The symbolism of the “40 days” recalls Israel’s wandering in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. Their penance complete, they receive the reward of the covenant.
Jesus’ 40 days prepared him for the public ministry. He will be tempted and tried many times during these three years but he remains faithful to the Father. Our 40 days of Lent help to strengthen us in living the life that Jesus won for us and prepares us for the celebration of Easter.
Fasting is when we “give up” something for Lent. In the traditional sense it means giving up food. Our communal fast occurs on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we only eat one meal. In a broader sense the fasting includes our communal observance of abstinence on the Fridays of Lent when we do not eat meat. In the broadest and colloquial sense, fasting is the act of “giving up” something for Lent. Usually we give up something we “like” or “enjoy,” in other words something good that we find pleasurable.
In willingly choosing not to partake of that food or drink or activity we recognize that God gives us something much more than that which is pleasurable. We grow in our awareness of God’s presence and our dependence on him alone. Through the discipline of the fast we are strengthened to live the Gospel we profess for “one does not live by bread alone, but every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
In a certain sense prayer and fasting culminate in almsgiving. Giving to the poor and needy is an act of love; love for our neighbor. In almsgiving we recognize that all we have is a gift from God. The love that God has for us, in the very gift of life itself, calls us to share what we have with others, especially the poor and needy.
The opportunities abound for giving alms. Some of these include Operation Rice Bowl, preparing Easter food baskets for the poor, special collections of food or clothing for neighborhood shelters, and giving funds to local charities working with those dealing with hardships or poverty. Almsgiving reminds us that love entails placing the needs of others before our own needs and it helps us to develop the discipline of love in our lives. In doing this we walk the way of Jesus who gave up everything, including life itself, in love for us.
“Believe in the Gospel,” Jesus says after calling for “repentance.” Belief is an act of faith in Jesus and his Gospel. Fundamental to belief is trust. Trusting in the Lord Jesus is an act of faith: Trusting that he truly leads us to life; that he delivers us from all that can harm us; that he forgives our sins.
We see this faith of the early disciples and followers of Jesus. Recall the woman with hemorrhages who comes to Jesus for healing. She says: “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured” (Mk 5:28). Or the leper who said, “If you wish it, you can make me clean” (Mk 1:40). Or the Roman centurion who said, “Lord I am not worthy for you to come under my roof, only say the word and my servant shall be healed” (Mt 8:8).
In the life of the Church we have witnessed the greatness of this faith over and over again in the lives of the saints. Perhaps the story of the father whose son is tormented by demons helps us to understand that there is always room for more faith in our lives; and that the call for belief continues. In that encounter, a father asks Jesus to heal his son. The father explains to Jesus that he had brought the boy to some of the disciples but they were unable to help. Jesus asks to see the child. The son is brought before Jesus and the boy is thrown into convulsions. The father pleas:“If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies “If you can! Everything is possible to the one who has faith.” Then the father replies: “I do believe, help my unbelief.” The discipline of Lent helps us to continue our growth in faith.
The season of Lent also serves as a preparation for the celebration of the Triduum and Easter. The first and second readings for today’s liturgy remind us of this through God’s covenant with Noah. In Christ the story of the flood reaches its fulfillment. The waters of the flood afforded mankind a new beginning.
The First Letter of Peter makes the association between the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism. Through baptism we are immersed in the passion and death of the Lord by which our sins are forgiven. Becoming one with him in death we are promised likewise a share in his resurrection.
At Easter, we respond to his gift of life by our profession of faith and the renewal of our baptismal promises. To celebrate this gift more readily at Easter, we willingly engage the discipline of Lent hearing the Lord’s call anew: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.