(See the readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Feb. 21.)
“Repent and believe in the Gospel” are the words Jesus uses to inaugurate the public ministry. These are also the words commonly used for the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday to begin the season of Lent.
The image of a journey has been used many times to describe our forty days in Lent. The journey through Lent is one that helps us renew our hope, strengthen our faith and bolster our love.
Renew our hope. Jesus’ call to repentance is coupled with the announcement of great hope – “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The renewal of humanity is happening as God’s plan and vision for all creation is made known. Jesus not only inaugurates the call but through his person, teaching and ultimately his passion, death and resurrection will make the kingdom visible. God’s love and mercy is seen in and shared by Jesus. The call to repentance is a call to reorder one’s way of thinking – from the way of the world to the way of God. So the call to repentance is much more than a simple renunciation of particular sins; it is embracing the kingdom of God.
Strengthen our faith. Our faith in God and his way is expressed in the responsorial for today’s psalm: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.” Faith is strengthened as we move away from the world of self-reliance toward God. Jesus spends forty days in the desert preparing for the ministry which will culminate with his passion, death and resurrection.
The desert is a place of solitude, isolation and limited resources. In going to the desert, Jesus places himself – in very concrete and practical ways – into the hands of his Father. There his reliance on the Father grows, accompanied by trust and confidence. He supplicates himself to the One who gives him all he needs – so much so that we he is in the garden before his passion he can say: “not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Lent affords us this opportunity to be strengthened in the same faith. We turn again to the Lord, seeking his way and responding in love.
Bolster our love. God is love. His kingdom is built on love. His love is perfect, in other words, complete. Our ability to love come from him who created us in freedom. He gives us the ability to love. Humility allows us to recognize that we do not love as we have been loved. Thus we are open and invite the opportunity for growth. God is merciful. He forgives our sins no only to heal but to strengthen us for love. His love is seen in the promise to Noah recalled in the first reading. After the flood, he promises never again to inflict such punishment on man rather he enters into a covenant. Man will surely turn away from God but his faithfulness remains because it is rooted in love.
The second reading reminds us of his love in terms of mercy associating the waters of the flood with the waters of baptism. In baptism we are washed clean of sin and freed from the power of death. In his love he cleans our conscience and frees us to love. The journey through Lent affords us the opportunity to grow both in our awareness of his love for us, the need for his love and the ability to love him, ourselves and others.
The forty days of Lent provide us a time to go to the desert. The desert in this case is not a particular location but a state of mind and heart. How do we get there? The means are simple: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three are not ends in themselves, they lead us to something greater, to repentance and consequently, a deeper experience of faith, hope and love. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” for “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
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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