Sunday, March 1, 2009

Year B 1st Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen. 9:8-15; Ps. 25:4-9; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15

"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel"” (Mark 1:15). St. Paul’s words, proclaimed to us last Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation," are an echo of these words with which Jesus began his public ministry (2 Cor. 6:2). These are God’s words for us today, this first Sunday of Lent.

To repent means to have a change of heart, a change in perception, a fundamental change in how we frame our experience. The word used in the original Greek in which the Gospels were written is metanoia. Metanoia is concerned with far more than merely dwelling on our sinfulness, though true repentance always brings us to an awareness of our estrangement from God, each other, and creation. Metanoia results in a fundamental transformation in the way we look at and see the world, others, and ourselves. More importantly, metanoia shows us the hope of overcoming our estrangement. This new way of perceiving enables us to fulfill the Law of God, which enjoins us to love God with our all our heart, might, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The prefix meta refers to something that comes to us from beyond, from outside ourselves. So, at least in the first instance, metanoia is a grace. The ability to truly repent is not something we are capable of on our own. To relate it to Jesus’ last sentence from his initial proclamation, to repent means to acknowledge our estrangement; to believe in the gospel, which is nothing less than having faith in Christ, is the way our estrangement is overcome. Faith, if it is authentic, bears fruit and brings about a change that is real, that has effects of which it is the cause. In the words of the late Rich Mullins, faith without works is "like a song you can’t sing" and is "about as useless as a screen door on a submarine."

It is by means of faith, which is our response to God’s initiative, that we are transformed. As St. Peter tells us in today’s second reading, our transformation begins in the waters of baptism, which "is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ," who "suffered for [our] sins… the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead [us] to God"” (1 Pet. 3:18.21). It is by being baptized, then, that we enter into a covenant relationship with God.

In the Christian tradition, Lent cannot be understood apart from the final stage of preparation for those to be baptized at the great Easter Vigil. Indeed, this weekend all of the catechumens from throughout our diocese are going through the Rite of Election, through which they cease to be catechumens and become the elect. Those who are already baptized, but who are seeking to complete their initiation and come into full communion are called to continuing conversion over these days of Lent, so that they are prepared to make their confession, be confirmed in their baptismal identity as children of God, and to “share the banquet of Christ’s sacrifice, calling God [their] Father in the midst of the Church” (Rite of Baptism for Children, par. 103). For those of us already baptized and fully initiated into the Christian mysteries, this intensified period of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is a time to actively renew our own baptismal covenant, "a very acceptable time" to begin living a life more conformed to Christ, which is always a life for others. The means Christ has given us to be restored to the grace we first received in baptism is the Sacrament of Penance, wherein we confess our sins and so are reconciled to God and to our sisters and brothers.

The heart of God’s covenant with us is concisely set forth in the book of the prophet Ezekiel: "you shall be my people and I will be your God" (Ezk. 36:28). This is the only covenant God has ever sought with humankind, whom He made in His image and likeness, solely for the purpose of communion. This is the relationship God has sought with humanity from the very beginning, even prior to our disobedience. This is the covenant that God seeks with each one of us, calling us by name. This is why God's covenant with Israel is not superseded. Rather, through Christ, as St. Paul points out again and again, we merely come to share in the one covenant, established from before the foundation of the world.

Lent is about conversion. It is not about making ourselves uncomfortable small and trivial ways. God is always seeking to transform us. The transformation God seeks, which always requires our cooperation because God never forces us, is to become who we are, who God, out of love, created, redeemed us, and now sanctifies us to be. Once transformed, God entrusts us with the mission of reconciling the world, of restoring it to the state in which all things were originally created. Lent is the Church's springtime. It is a season when what appears to be dead comes to back to life. This is the way in which God reveals His awesome power: bringing life from death.

Metanoia is how we come to know that "[y]our ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant" (Ps. 25:10).

No comments:

Post a Comment