Repent, Believe, Preach
First Sunday of Lent. Fr Gregory Pearson preaches on the need to conform ourselves to Christ.
On Wednesday, as we began this season of Lent, we might have heard the priest using words from today’s Gospel reading, ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel,’ before sprinkling our heads with ash. They express, as it were, the consequence of the other phrase which might have been used at that point: ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (cf Gen 3:19). It is with this instruction to repent that Jesus begins his preaching ministry in the account we read in St Mark’s Gospel after his forty days in the wilderness, the consequence of his message that the kingdom of God is at hand.
Christ’s forty days in the wilderness are clearly the pattern of the forty days of the Lenten fast. And yet for us in our journey through Lent, this instruction to repent and believe came not at the end of the forty days, but at the beginning. Of course, there’s a very obvious difference in that these words are addressed to us at the beginning of our time in the Lenten wilderness, whereas they were proclaimed by Jesus when he returned to civilisation. Indeed, that difference highlights for us why it makes sense to speak of Lent, and indeed of the whole Christian life, as a journey, because it speaks both of our conformity to Christ and our need for conversion.
We have been baptised; we have been freed from sin and reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Christ, as we heard in our second reading from 1 Peter (3:18). Our life is conformed to his, and we have been commissioned by him to undertake that mission of proclaiming the good news which he began in Galilee (cf Mt 28:19-20). And yet, though called to share the good news with others, we still need to hear it ourselves too. The call to repentance is not about a single moment of conversion which, afterwards, is complete, but rather it is a call to a lifelong process of conversion, of taking to heart more fully and appreciating more deeply the message of the Gospel which has been preached to us.
This is the case even if we do not put up particular obstacles, or allow ourselves to be distracted from the pursuit of God’s will: the good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand, and believing in it means, among other things, playing our part in making its closeness more manifest in our world, a process that transforms the whole world, us included. Making time for God and the things of God in this season of Lent is part of how we recognise and express the truth that his kingdom is at hand; it’s a profession of the fact that we have heard and received the message of the Gospel, and are trying – albeit in a very moderate form, compared to going into the actual desert – to model our lives on that of Jesus himself. His withdrawal into the wilderness before beginning his public ministry cannot be an expression of penance, for he had nothing of which to repent; nonetheless, the temptation Christ experienced witnesses to the battle against evil which human beings seeking to do the will of God must undergo.
For us, however, the process of making time for God in Lent always does involve a turning away from distractions, a repentance, a recognition of our failure to live in accordance with the Gospel in which we profess our faith. We do need to hear Christ’s call to repentance as we begin our Lenten journey, not simply to preach it when we come to its end. Nonetheless, this sorrow for sin is not an end in itself, it is not the purpose of Lent as a penitential season; rather it is the prerequisite for that transformation in Christ which will enable us to be credible and effective witnesses of the good news of his triumph over sin and death of which St Peter spoke and which we will celebrate at Easter.