“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The words may sound familiar this time of the year. This is one of the two expressions used when receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. Ashes mark the beginning of Lent, a time of preparation and penance — preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection at Easter, and penance for our sinfulness.
Jesus opens his public ministry with the same words, but he first announces that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” As his ministry progresses, Jesus will unfold the meaning of these words and introduce His followers to the kingdom of God.
The kingdom will be established through the paschal mystery – his passion, death and resurrection. We become citizens of this kingdom through baptism and the sacraments of initiation. This is one of the reasons why we celebrate the sacraments of initiation for adults at the Easter Vigil, and we renew our own baptismal promises at all the Easter Sunday Masses.
Jesus’ ministry, and his passion, are driven by and sustained in love — love for the Father, expressed through obedience to the Father’s will, and love for humanity, expressed in laying down his life for sinners.
The length of Lent, 40 days, is significant. In fact, some languages refer to this season not as “Lent,” but as “the 40 days.” Rather than getting caught up in calculating an exact 40-day calendar period, we should focus on this season as a time of preparation for Easter.
The gospel passage for today’s liturgy reminds us that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, fasting in preparation for his mission. The 40 days also echo the years that the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants.
Lenten exercises such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving help us in the battle against sin. Prayer helps us develop our relationship with God, who sustains us in life and invites us to love. Through fasting, we grow in our reliance on God, while cultivating the self-restraint that enables us to choose to do good rather than evil.
Charity helps us express our love, concern and care for others. Love consists of emptying ourselves for one another, just as Jesus emptied himself completely on the cross. As the passion approaches, he will tell his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) This is the love we seek to participate in and to emulate in our day-to-day acts of charity.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are acts of penance, as well as preparation. Penance is essential in the struggle against sin. We are freed from sin through baptism, which is the immersion into the death of Jesus, who has destroyed the power of sin and death. Yet we all realize that we are tempted. Perhaps we ourselves are at the core of this temptation; we want to do what we want, when we want. Yet this is not good, because it keeps the focus on ourselves, and not in a good way. Penance helps us to identify this inclination and to choose another way, the way that Jesus shows us. This is the way to life.
Last Thursday, the reading for daily Mass was one of the Passion predictions in the Gospel of St. Luke: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Immediately following this, he says to all: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23).
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” are the words Jesus speaks to us today as we celebrate this First Sunday of Lent. The words are an invitation to life and love. The season of Lent affords us this period of 40 days to enter more fully into the mystery of divine life and love. Our response to the Lord’s invitation during this season is to prepare well for Easter and to do penance for our sins.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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