Sunday, February 21, 2021

"Be repenting and be believing"

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

As our first two readings for the First Sunday of Lent show, Lent is inextricably linked to baptism. In the Christian Church, observing the forty days before Easter as a time intense preparation began as something for those preparing for baptism at Easter. Eventually, it came to be a season observed even by the baptized. Unlike Advent, which is a shorter but more layered liturgical season, Lent is straightforwardly a penitential.

Even in his brief account of Jesus's sojourn in the desert, the inspired author of Mark's Gospel mentions "forty days" (Mark 1:13). It was in the desert, this first written Gospels noted, that Jesus was "tempted by Satan" (Mark 1:13). The Greek word translated as "tempted" is peirazomenos, which literally means "being tried." The Greek verb peirazo, like many verbs, can take on different meanings and, in given contexts, have various meanings, all related, of course. But the sense in which I think the author of Mark uses it in today's Gospel is something like testing Jesus in a malicious or crafty way, putting his feelings and judgments to the test.

Satanas (i.e., "Satan") means someone who opposes you in purpose and/or act. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who share a source for this other than Mark, Mark's Gospel does not detail the nature of the temptations with which Jesus's adversary confronted him (see Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). What the temptations we read about in Matthew and Luke amount to, generally, is calling into question Jesus's divine Sonship.

In other words, the temptations Matthew and Luke write about were meant to cause Jesus to doubt his identity and, hence, his purpose and mission. There is a reason why Jesus rebukes Peter in Matthew's Gospel, calling him satana- satan. Peter was tempting him to doubt his purpose, which, as he had just expressed, was to go to Jerusalem and be killed (Matthew 16:13-20).

Make no mistake, Jesus was subjected to temptations. For this to mean anything, it must mean there was a possibility that he might give into one or more of them. Otherwise, Jesus simply came down and put on a divine puppet show. As the scriptures teach: "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

Detail from "Temptation of Christ", by Vasily Surikov, 1872 []

"Okay, great," you might say, "but what does that have to with me?" Well, Jesus calls you to die and rise with him. Unless you die, you cannot rise. Each trial in life is a temptation to question your purpose and, therefore, to divert you from following Jesus. Unlike Jesus, we are with sin. What is sin but your failure to love God with your entire being and to love your neighbor as you love yourself, going so far as to make even your enemy your neighbor?

As Christians, we sometimes wander off the path along which Jesus is leading us, the path to God's Kingdom, to what the inspired author of Hebrews dubs our "sabbath rest" (Hebrews 4:9). Sometimes our reason for wandering is that the path isn't easy. Therefore, Jesus's call to repent and believe in the Good News is a loving summons back to the winding, twisting, the often uphill path of selfless love, one that requires you to embrace dying to yourself in order to live for God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, which is fullness of life, the path to joy and true fulfillment.

The order of Jesus's proclamation, I think, matters. He puts repenting before believing. Both Greek verbs (i.e., metanoeite and pisteuete) are in the continuous tense, saying something like "Be repenting and be believing." Repenting, contrary to the popular way of understanding it, does not mean exclusively or even primarily being sorry for past wrongs. Metanoeite means to have a continuous change of mind, a mind transformed into what Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians calls "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Just as repentance is not exclusively or primarily feeling sorry for your wrongs but a positive commitment, having the mind of Christ is not exclusively or primarily adherence to a morality- that is to give in to the constant temptation to turn Christianity into Stoicism. "Good morals" are at best a by-product of true and on-going repentance. Just as repentance is the starting point of belief, it is also the starting point of right living. Because it is a continuous process, having the mind of Christ is infinitely on-going. To be a Christian, therefore, is to commit to an on-going process of conversion.

Each liturgical year we re-live, re-celebrate, re-imagine the Paschal Mystery. We even do this in each Eucharist. The idea is that through our liturgical praxis God graciously draws us more deeply into the mystery of Christ's living/dying/rising. One of the prayers in the Intercessions for Morning Prayer today implores:
Christ, our life, through baptism we were buried with you and rose to life with you,
-may we walk today in newness of life
What Thomas Merton wrote about prayer is true of the entire Christian life: "We do not want to be beginners but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!” (from his book Contemplative Prayer). As Saint Benedict insisted: "Always, we begin again."

Today, on the First Sunday of Lent, after our four-day warm-up- time enough for the shine to wear-off all our plans to use Lent as a time for self-improvement- we are called to repent so that our belief, our pistis, the Greek word used most often in the New Testament for faith/belief, including in our reading Gospel today, may be strengthened.

Pistis either means or carries the connotation of being persuaded. What persuades us to believe, to have faith? Not clever arguments concerning abstruse metaphysical matters, or even arguments about practical matters. According to Jesus, it is by living what he teaches that will persuade you, helping you to believe. It is also how you evangelize or persuade others. Experience is the best teacher and example is the best persuader.

Let's heed Church's scripture reading from Morning Prayer today: "Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).

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