In the Gospel reading today we have the account given us by St. Mark of Our Blessed Lord’s proclamation to Israel at the beginning of His public ministry, and we can expect that this, His first call to Israel, might well contain something absolutely central to His future teaching:
This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
Thus He declared the imminent proximity of that which had been foretold by the prophets and longed for by the faithful for over a thousand years:
“The time is fulfilled" He said, "The kingdom of God is at hand”.
What joy! God has been mindful of His People, and, having seen their distress, is now at hand to bring them salvation! What then should they do to welcome Him and embrace the salvation He offers?
Repent …… and believe in the Gospel!
Notice the order of the words. “Repent”; then, “believe in the Gospel”. For those Jews of old, for us Christians, and all salvation-seekers of today, repentance must come first in order to believe aright in the Gospel, the good news of Salvation.
In order to follow and better understand Jesus’ gospel proclamation we must appreciate something of the wonder of the Jewish people of those times. Having been specially prepared by God over a thousand years through charismatic leaders (Abraham, David …) and great prophets (Moses, Elijah, Isaiah …), they alone among mankind were in a position -- spiritually, intellectually, and even socially -- to be able to hear Jesus with sufficient understanding and sympathetic appreciation that would allow them hopefully to embrace His proclamation, or at the very least -- would they reject it -- never be able to forget His Person or quite ignore His message.
Of course, if Jesus had presented Himself as a charismatic leader come to drive the Romans out of the Promised Land, then there would not have been any call to repentance; the first thing would have been a call to arms: “Aux armes, citoyens”, as the French cry in their national anthem, and Jesus would have become merely a bigger and better, even more popular, version of their folk-hero king David. Jesus, however, was the only-begotten Son of God made flesh, and He came with a message not of liberation from the Romans but of salvation from sin; and in order to appreciate such an offer it was, and still is, necessary to accept the truth of God’s charge of corporate and personal sinfulness. None can appreciate God’s offer of salvation who are not humble enough to listen to His telling them of their need to be saved from sin: their own and that of the world. And oh, the wisdom of God! He gave them a Law through Moses which they came to take pride in and even for some of them, to love … despite the fact that that Law was to teach and convict them of what mankind then and still today denies and ridicules, their own human, national, and personal sinfulness. O yes indeed, a disciple of Jesus must first of all learn to repent of personal sin and reject that of the world in order to be able to embrace the Good News, the Gospel’s offer of salvation to humankind!
John the Baptist had required of those coming forward for his immersing something that modern society can appreciate, namely works:
You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
And when the crowds questioned him, saying, ‘what shall we do?’, he would answer them with words such as:
The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise. (Luke 3: 7-8, 10-11)
John’s immersion with its acknowledgment of sin was a direct preparation for Jesus; its lustration, on the other hand, was administered with a view to the ritual requirements of the Jewish Law, for which bodily purity was essential.
Jesus, however, made no such ritual demands; His first words were quite simply:
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
The fact is, of course, that people can do works from all sorts of motives, not all of them admirable: they can do such works to impress others, to avoid something else more difficult, to prove their own personal worth, indeed, demonstrate their own holiness. Now Jesus wanted all to be done with sincerity and humility, for love of God and to serve His purposes, and therefore He said Repent, and believe in the Gospel. It was to be from the depth of their faith in and commitment to Himself and His Good News that Jesus’ disciples would bring forth the necessary fruit of good works.
The ancient scriptures had long proclaimed that mankind is not -- as Buddhists like to think -- on a level with earthly things, part of, intimately and essentially bound up with, creation around us; for Moses and the prophets told God’s Chosen People ages ago that human nature is uniquely made in the very image and likeness of God Himself and destined, again uniquely, to find fulfilment in and before Him alone. And Jesus was now come to proclaim and to offer, that in Him -- the Son of God made flesh – our sin-tarnished likeness to God could be restored to its original beauty through faith in Him and obedience to His Gospel; whereupon we would receive His Spirit, the Gift of God, not only to free us from our sins but much, much more, to form us spiritually as true children of the heavenly Father -- lift us up to become His very adopted sons and daughters -- in Him Who is the only-begotten and eternally-beloved Son made flesh for our sakes.
The Law, any binding ‘legal’ prescription, can – of itself – at the very best promote, provoke, regret and a humble acknowledgement of sin against such a Law, but is cannot inspire conversion: which involves, demands, a complementary turning in love to something overwhelmingly better, more beautiful, and supremely lovable. Humility learned from one’s response to the letter of God’s Law, and love inspired by the sublime beauty of God’s very presence in human form, such was the purpose and the substance of Jesus’ first public proclamation:
The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
Today many do not want to hear about human dignity transcending the rest of creation; they hate the very idea of an originally chosen people (for which the Jewish people still suffer today all over the world) or of a present, as St. Peter (1 Peter 2:9–10) puts it:
Chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own, so that you may announce the praises” of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. Once you were “no people” but now you are God’s people; you “had not received mercy” but now you have received mercy.
The majority of people today will not to learn to aspire to higher things, because they do not want to be subject to, or rely on, the power or the promise of One greater than themselves; they refuse to acknowledge or strive for anything other than what they can presently appreciate and hopefully learn to control. Consequently, the idea that human beings might have a greater, higher, dignity than that of the world around us seems a preposterous suggestion to them, because it is, first of all, an unwelcome one. And that God sent His Son to a specially chosen and prepared people from whom He -- a divine Person -- might take on human flesh, and thus from being true and perfect God become also truly, perfect Man and thereby show mankind through His own Church and the Gift of His Spirit both the possibility and the way for man to become one with God …. all that is for so many modern free-thinkers like St. Paul’s Athenians of old, ludicrous of course, but also strangely arresting and even somewhat alarming.
It is of course true that such oneness with God cannot be attained by any human works and that is why Jesus did not call, first of all, for works; rather He demanded faith -- in Himself and in His Gospel, the Word of God -- whereby human beings might be lifted up to a heavenly level by the sheer goodness of God, in Jesus, through the Spirit. Heaven cannot be gained by any human excellence or power because heaven is not a place to be found nor a state to be acquired: heaven is the divine Presence into which only Jesus -- the beloved and only-begotten Son -- can lead those who in faith submit to Him and aspire, by the Spirit, to His promise of heaven as proclaimed by the Gospel:
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
In the face of such a newly acknowledged and eternal destiny man cannot continue living as though nothing had changed, as even the ancient and pagan Ninevites appreciated:
Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
We too have to stop living as if we are simply part of this earth in which all our happiness and fulfilment is to be found. The blessings of life on earth are, indeed, many, because God has made all things good; nevertheless, they were meant for us to use on the way to our eternal destiny and calling, they were not intended to become a drug that would stultify any higher aspirations. Because we have been fashioned by God in His own likeness, we are not meant to be ruled by things or considerations exclusively of earth. Paul was speaking of this in our reading:
I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.
Paul is saying there that marriage may indeed be for us, that is, it can be of help to our salvation, but we are not to think that there is nothing better to come than marriage. Likewise, those who mourn should not fear that their whole life has been totally blighted; their destiny is – still -- to eternal joy and happiness. And those who are happy must not be so foolish as to think that earthly happiness can be compared to the blessedness awaiting those who will sit at the Lord’s Supper in heaven as God’s children, for, as St. Paul elsewhere tells us (1 Corinthians 2:9):
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.
People of God, we live in an affluent society which, on the whole, desires only one thing: to enjoy, even to wallow in, what we have got. There are those who practice the most degrading sex; those who are expert at gaining money hand over fist at others’ expense; those whose life style is outrageous and who pander to the basic instincts of our animal nature; those whose pride allows them to acknowledge no higher authority than that of their own thinking. All these have little or no shame and are frequently, indeed, even admired in our society because they are only giving extreme expression to what is commonly accepted and appreciated by a people with no aspirations other than pleasure, plenty, and pride. Money is worshipped as the supreme goal of human endeavour because it promises alluring pleasure, buys obsequious respect, and provokes envious admiration on all sides. Moreover, since for many today popularity is second only to the power of money, there can be no excellence allowed where popularity is wanting, and so, whatever is popular and exciting is considered to be excellent, no matter how tasteless, futile, or degrading it may be.
Jesus’ call, ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel’, is an invitation -- most serious and pressing -- to help us first of all realise our true worth, our divine calling and eternal dignity. Learn from Jesus, let Him teach you what to hate and avoid, and let Him do that above all by inspiring you to love to the utmost of your God-given being what is worthy of your total gift of self, and show you where to find it: that is the essence of repenting. If you thus repent and believe in the Gospel, that Good News will lead you to joy and peace in this world, and, for the future, give you an inviolable hope transcending all earthly limitations.
Considering these aspects of our world today, surely, People of God, it would be a surprise if Christianity were popular, because the present unpopularity of the Church is proof to us that her teaching and her life style are a condemnation of much evil that is done in our midst. Let us take heart, therefore, from Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospel:
These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. (John 16:33 and Matt 24:35)