What does it mean to 'repent and believe'?
Are Lent and joy connected?
Most people who grew up Catholic have a natural understanding of the Lenten Season. You are supposed to get ashes on Ash Wednesday at the start and give up something for the weeks that follow. These are fine practices that are worth continuing, but it doesn’t hurt to deepen our motivations or take on some of the Lenten best practices that we find in our tradition. Let’s remember that the ashes of Ash Wednesday are symbols of our Christian call to participate in the mystery of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. During the 40 days of Lent we take on actions of self-denial and penance to accompany Jesus in His final days on earth. We practice good works that bring us closer to the person Christ wants us to be. It’s a time of prayer and deeper reflection, of turning from sin and increasing our faith. Lent is a season of readiness for the joys of the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.
A Biblical approach to the meaning of Lent starts with an embrace of the Gospel mandate of “metanoia,” a Greek word defined as repentance or conversion. In Mark 1:15 we hear the succinct words of Jesus: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Repentance is the process of growth in our relationship with Christ which involves a full turning around. The turning of metanoia is not just a simple or small change of who we are, but a complete about face, what has been called a “change of horizon.” To repent is to take on transformation and remediations that go to the core of who we are. To convert means to go from darkness to light, to turn away from sin and embrace virtue, to move from death to life.
The word repent which is cited above by Mark is just one of the two action words that Jesus is asking of us. The other word is “believe.” This admonition from our Savior, to “repent and believe the gospel” is also, not surprisingly, one of the phrases that accompanies the placing of ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. The other phrase is the more traditional “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Both admonitions get at a Biblical reality which this season invites us to embrace.
So what does it mean to repent and believe? St. Paul’s conversion story (Acts 9:1-19) is the most powerful image of metanoia in the Bible. Saul the persecutor of Christians is confronted on the road to Damascus by Jesus Himself, represented by the Savior’s voice and a flash of light that throws Paul to the ground. We can be sure that Paul had an Earth-shaking conversion experience, the beginning of an intimate personal relationship with God that would turn him into the greatest missionary that ever lived. Nothing would ever be the same in his life again. It was a humbling experience for someone with authority to send Christians to jail to be thrown to the bare ground. Have you ever fallen in public, and it’s only your pride that is hurt? Well not only was Paul’s arrogant and persecutorial spirit humbled and broken, his body was also injured. He was left unable to see. In this blinded state he would have to be helped by Ananias to reintegrate into the community. Paul’s story is an example of how we must empty that unconverted space that we have within ourselves so that we can leave behind our blindness and see the way that God sees.
Besides these motivations for living out the Lenten Season, we should remind ourselves of the time-tested best practices for the 40 days of Lent: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
The spiritual and time-honored actions of fasting and penance are an integral part of Lent. If you grew up as a Roman Catholic you learned to give something up for Lent as a way to carry Jesus’ cross. A similar practice is to do something positive for Lent, such as any action that builds up one’s family, community or Church. I believe that fasting, i.e. the foregoing of food, drink or something we enjoy, does not necessarily mean that you have to create negative experiences or unrealistic crosses for yourself. What matters is that you choose something that will also help you to embrace the cross that is already in your life: the difficulties of a relationship, the discomfort of an illness, problems at work, etc. As such, fasting, abstinence and ascetical practices help us to move forward in our call to holiness.
The giving of alms, or accepting works of charity on behalf of the disadvantaged, are other great Lenten actions. Our good works and acts of love during Lent allow us to make up for those sins which have separated us from Christ and our community. These works of reparation reintegrate us so that we can recover a relationship with the Church and the world that what was lost by our past attitudes or sinful actions. Alms allow us to live as our Baptism has called us. In the doing of good works we both get ready and take part in something new, a re-birth to the pascal mystery which brings us to a new resurrection.
Prayer and meditation are the final part of our traditional Lenten practices. We make more deliberate attempts to unite ourselves with God as we prepare for Easter. Lent is a good time to take part in the Eucharist with frequency, and to find extra time to pray and listen to God’s voice. Why not challenge yourself to reflect on Scripture and spend serious time before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament?
Fasting, almsgiving and prayer are integral parts of the conversion process. They allow us to accompany our crucified Lord during His sacrifice on the cross. They take us from our comfort zones so we can be reborn into something new.
Our Lenten journey towards the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus is also fundamental to the mission of the Church and the making of disciples. Lent should give us more ardor, zeal and passion for our faith and for evangelization. It should awaken in us the desire to go deeper in our support of the missions. Our Lenten practices, symbolic of our repentance and belief, impel us to do something more so that our Easter joy and our celebration of Christ’s resurrection may be lived more fully in our lives and in our Church.
MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by Father Leo Perez, OMI to reflect on questions of mission and faith.