March 1, 2009
First Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 1st, 2009
“When they said repent, I wondered what they meant,” so sings Leonard Cohen so prophetically in his song “The Future.” But this was the essence of the preaching of Jesus, and his very first words in the very first Gospel to be written: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1: 15).
Do we even hear these words anymore? Perhaps if we re-phrase them, we will wake up and realize God is talking to us, saying, “The time is right. (Now is the day of salvation!) God is near. (On your lips and in your heart) Repent –change your life, and believe in the Good News of God’s love.”
There are a few different words in the Gospels that the Holy Spirit uses to refer to change. One is the word in today’s Gospel, “metanoia” which means repent, be converted – all change includes a turning away from sin. In another place, Jesus tells us, “unless you turn/change (strepho) and become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 18:3) – all change requires childlike trust in God.
A Christian should have an unlimited readiness to change. So writes the great Catholic philosopher Deitrich Von Hildebrand in his classic work Transformation in Christ: “(an) unlimited readiness to change is not only necessary for (our) transformation in Christ . . .it represents the basic . . . response to God” (9).
I noticed this readiness to change last weekend among the twenty youth on the Challenge retreat. We see it among our own youth, and it is more or less natural for young people to have this readiness to change. Their bodies and minds are changing anyway, so they seem more open to spiritual transformation as well. Von Hildebrand comments that on a natural level, older people tend to settle down into their own peculiarities and eccentricities and become resistant to change, “cast into a rigid mold” (14). But in the supernatural life, it’s the opposite: “The readiness to change, the waxlike receptiveness towards Christ will tend not to vanish but to increase as man grows into a state of maturity” (15) and “this attainment of full maturity . . . implies eternal youth in a supernatural sense” (15).
This is why recent popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI and even our own archbishop have such a bond with the youth – because they are eternally young in a supernatural sense; they have an unlimited readiness to change, a necessary virtue for every Christian. Without this virtue, when hearing the preaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will only be able to muster a shrug of the shoulders and say, “when he said repent, I wondered what he meant.”
This is perhaps the great temptation of our times. To no longer hear the call to repentance, to lose all sense of sin, to live as if God does not exist, to live only for the unholy trinity of me, myself and I. One all-too-common manifestation of this self-centeredness is the tendency to live for money and material things. As the Catholic speaker Matthew Kelly puts it: in our culture we love things and use people; we have to be converted, and change, to start loving people and using things.
One of the causes of the current economic crisis is this idolatry: to love money and things more than God and people. The average ratio of people’s debt to annual income is currently an unprecedented 133.9% and increasing every year. That means that for every dollar a person makes, he or she owes $1.33. It is understandable to go into debt to buy a house or car. But too many people have taken on unsustainable debt out of greed for unnecessary luxuries and material things.
Everyone is concerned about the economy: will it grow at all in 2009, or will it shrink in recession? In the U.S., the economy shrank 6.2% in the last quarter ; the Canadian numbers will be released Monday. (But don’t worry. Remember what Jesus said: do not worry about your life. Seek first the kingdom of God and everything you need will be given to you (Lk 12:22, 31). So everyone is concerned about the economy. What about the human person? What about you? Are you going to grow or shrink in 2009 (spiritually, not in body size). In the spiritual life, there is actually no such thing as 0% growth. It’s either forward or backward, growth or shrinking.
The most important growth for a human being is in love – continual growth. As Pope Benedict puts it in his letter Deus Caritas Est: “love (is) a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” (#6).
As I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, in our times we are so obsessed with self: self-determination, self-help, self-improvement, self-actualization, self-absorption, self-love – self-this, self-that, so much self that we lose sight of God, living as if He does not exist. We begin to lose our love of God and neighbour, when we are so wrapped up in ourselves. It deeply grieves me when I see how people will allow love to shrivel up and die inside their hearts: their love for their spouse, parent, child, brother or sister, a friend. Why? Why do we allow this to happen? Don’t we realize how much God has loved us to the end, to the Cross? Why do we not heed his command to love Him and one another?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus preaches, “repent, and believe the good news.” Have you ever considered why He didn’t say, “believe in the good news, then repent?” Essential to the good news is God’s love for us revealed in Jesus Christ. Don’t we first have to believe in God’s love before we have the courage to change? In part, yes: to change and become like children who trust in their heavenly Father.
But Jesus says, “repent first, then you will be given the grace to believe the good news, to receive God’s love.” So we can’t expect to sit at home and watch TV and suddenly tongues of fire will descend upon us and we’ll be so filled with the Holy Spirit that we are driven to repent and confess our sins. We have to make an effort first, to honestly acknowledge our failure to love God and others as we should, to get up and go and confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (6 priests here on March 10th). Then, after we have repented, and confessed our sins, then we will believe the good news like never before; we will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s love to overflowing.
We need the power of the Holy Spirit to help us change. In today’s Gospel, we read that Jesus was “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness where He was tempted by Satan. We also need to be driven, or at least guided, inspired and filled with the Holy Spirit (raise the “sail” – does anyone recognize this? It’s my prop from Ash Wednesday. Let’s not forget to raise our sails through prayer, to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit).
The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism, (just before his time in the desert). We too received the Holy Spirit at baptism (and confirmation), the baptism that saves us, as St. Peter writes in today’s second reading, not through “a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
But this gift of the Spirit does not sanctify once and for all. We face a lifetime of temptation and struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. We constantly need to be “re-baptized,” as it were, by continually repenting, changing, confessing our sins, and trying to grow daily in love of God and neighbour, especially in Lent, with the extra graces God offers us through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
The Holy Father, during the last World Youth Day, spoke beautifully about the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives (speaking not only to young people but to all those who are eternally young in the supernatural sense). He said: “. . . the grace of the Spirit, is not something we can merit or achieve, but only receive as pure gift. God’s love (italics mine) can only unleash its power when it is allowed to change (italics mine) us from within. We have to let it break through the hard crust of our indifference, our spiritual weariness, our blind conformity to the spirit of this age. Only then can we let it ignite our imagination and shape our deepest desires. That is why prayer (italics mine) is so important: daily prayer, private prayer in the quiet of our hearts and before the Blessed Sacrament, and liturgical prayer in the heart of the Church” (World Youth Day homily, Sunday, July 20th, 2008).
The same Holy Spirit that inspired the preaching of Jesus (“repent and believe the good news”) is the same Spirit that will help us understand what He meant – that He is talking to you and me, and offering us, this Lent, an extraordinary opportunity to change, to love, to become a new creation.