Sunday, February 28, 2016

It's Lent, time to repent

Readings: Exo 3:1-8a.13-15; Ps 103:1-4.6-8.11; 1 Cor 10:1-6.10-12; Luke 13:1-9

It's beyond incomprehensible to me that so many people actively avoid or outright deny the connection between repentance and forsaking sin. The avoidance or denial of this connection strikes me as a peculiarly Catholic or mainstream Protestant stance. In our passage from St. Luke's Gospel, our Lord himself makes this connection quite clearly. Beyond that, it's a connection that is repeatedly made by St. Paul as well as in the Johannine corpus.

In our passage this Sunday from St. Luke's Gospel Jesus comments on two contemporary events: Pontius Pilate's presumably vindictive, or even unjust, killing of an unspecified number of Galileans and eighteen people who were killed in Jerusalem when a tower collapsed. Jesus is eager to point out that those killed in these events were not killed as a punishment from God due to their sins. In making his point the Lord asks his hearers if those killed were "greater sinners" or "more guilty" than other Galileans or Jerusalemites. Lest there be any doubt, his questions are rhetorical and the answer to both is an emphatic "No".

Jesus is quite clear in what he says and then repeats - "But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!" I think it would be stretch to say "as they did" refers to being killed by a cruel occupier or an unforeseen accident. The Lord here is speaking about matters more ultimate, one might even say eternal. After all, whether you're killed in an accident or die comfortably in your own bed, you'll die.

In this context, taking our cue from Jesus' parable concerning the fruitless fig tree, we might see repenting of our sins as cultivating and fertilizing the soil in order that we might bear fruit. Stated simply, we repent in order to bear fruit and in order to believe. Fruit-bearing discipleship is the hallmark, the sure sign, of repentance. Elsewhere in the New Testament, responding to concerns about the delay of Christ's return, the inspired author of 2 Peter noted, "The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard 'delay,' but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (3:9). Nonetheless, the same inspired author insisted that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out" (3:10). In other words, despite the Lord's patience, the time to repent is short and is always now. Or, as St. Paul, in the passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians that is our epistle reading, wrote, "whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall" (10:12).

As Moses experienced on Mount Horeb, God is holy and we are not. In response to the message of today's readings, which are about the necessity of repenting, we must not engage in superficial abstractions to avoid our need to repent. What do I mean by superficial abstractions? Something like avoiding the matter by endlessly theorizing about, oh say, the man in the middle of China who has never heard the Gospel, or other such evasions. If you're reading this, chances are you're not him, but someone who has heard the Good News. Above all, anyone who has ever read the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, especially St. Paul's Letters to the Romans and Galatians, should not lazily stake his life on his own righteousness. Such a move is usually limited to its negative expression: I haven't committed adultery, at least not literally. I haven't committed grand larceny. I haven't killed anyone, etc. God's mercy must never be conflated with our presumption. I can't imagine the smugness of someone standing before the judgment seat, unrepentant, and saying, "Well, aren't you merciful?"

It's possible we've all become far too comfortable with sin, especially our own and/or far too presumptuous about God's mercy. Any genuine experience of God's love expressed as mercy prompts humble gratitude. Speaking from my own experience, I am never more humble, grateful, or certain of God's love for me than when I walk out of the confessional, the door to which is every Church's perpetual door of mercy. In his Inferno, Dante places this inscription over the gate to hell: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate (Canto III, line 9). It means something like, "Abandon hope all who enter." There should be a sign above the door to the confessional, Ricevere speranza tutti coloro che entrano qui, meaning, "Receive hope all who enter here."

Each year we observe this season of repentance that we call Lent, which, at root, means something like Springtime. I don't want to make it sound too trivial, but aren't we all due a spring cleaning each year? It is only by repenting that Lent becomes holy because it is by repenting that we put this season to its intended use. But even repentance is not our own work, it is simply our response to God's grace. Given what is at stake we must take care not to make Lent the time each year during which we remain content to annoy ourselves in frivolous ways. It is the time to examine our lives, to dig deep into our consciences, to make an accounting of ourselves before God, to experience for ourselves God's mercy, and then to bear fruit by loving God. The ripe fruit of loving God is selflessly serving others.

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