The waters of the Flood had destroyed life, the waters of Baptism would offer life; the Flood destroyed earthly, Baptism would offer supernatural, life. In between those two events -- after the Flood and in preparation for Baptism -- God made three covenants with His chosen people; three covenants whereby, from this Chosen People would arise the Promised One -- the Messiah of God, the Lord and Saviour of mankind – Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God, Son of the Father, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born in human flesh of Mary the Virgin. All of that is contained in the opening words of Jesus:
This is the time of fulfilment. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Our Gospel reading told us how Jesus had been driven by the Spirit of God into the desert where He was:
For forty days, tempted by Satan.
We are told elsewhere in the Gospel how Satan, in the course of that encounter, tried and failed to tempt Jesus by offering Him the satisfactions of worldly sustenance and pleasure, human presumption and personal vanity, overweening pride and self-satisfaction. That is the background to those words of Jesus which Mother Church still proclaims in His name:
Repent, and believe in the Gospel;
words, she continually recalls because the need for such repentance is abiding.
Repentance is, indeed, required, in order to initially believe and accept the Gospel message; abiding and ever-developing repentance is to be desired and aspired to if we are more deeply to appreciate and fruitfully embrace the Gospel’s offer of salvation and eternal life.
It is sometimes thought that repentance is only needed in order to convert to Catholicism or Christianity and after that only when sin has been committed. Such a view, however, is too superficial, since repentance and life in Jesus are two sides of but one and the same coin, so to speak; for turning from the world has no religious significance or supernatural value unless it is done to enable one to turn to Jesus:
(Jesus) went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, "Follow Me." So he left all, rose up, and followed Him. (Luke 5:27-28)
All the Apostles likewise, as Peter testifies, left everything to follow Jesus.
On the other hand, however, the rich young man who directly approached Jesus professing a desire to become perfect, could not follow Jesus’ advice when He said:
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)
It is abundantly clear that, though he was living a good life – sincere, he thought, in his aspiration to perfection – nevertheless, love of riches would not allow him to grow sufficiently in repentance: for he could not turn ever-anew to Jesus under the motivation of a deepening awareness of and response to the beauty of Gospel truth, nor out of greater love for and trust in the Person of Jesus, because he was held back by the silky comfort and security of wealth.
Jesus made this most absolutely clear when He told His disciples:
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through (the) eye of (a) needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” (Mk. 10:24-27)
Very often, in order to promote or to popularise the Faith, it is presented as being an addition, so to speak, that will make our present experience of life better. However, that can, very easily, be wrongly understood, because Christian faith is not given to top up our present life so much as to change it altogether; indeed, perhaps even to consign it to the rubbish bin so that we can start anew, afresh, on a life replete with heavenly aspirations, as St. Paul tells us:
I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
St. Paul is there speaking in a very emphatic manner in order to get over a most important aspect of Christian discipleship. He did not, literally, count the advantages and blessings that had been his in Judaism, the blessings of his careful upbringing, as so much rubbish in themselves; but, out of love for Christ, he regarded those things as if they were rubbish, in so far as he turned away, preferentially, from them in order to give himself ever more completely to Jesus; and in so doing Paul was continually repenting of all things past.
Today, repenting is generally thought of as regret for having done something wrong, for having sinned; indeed, there are some who consider repentance as necessarily involving an attitude of abiding regret, penance, and sorrow, and imagine a life of penance as involving constant sackcloth and ashes, fasting and flagellation. Perhaps such images can be applied to the experiences and external practices of some few people, but generally, and indeed normally, they are only to be found in the very early stages of repentance; for repentance, essentially, is not just a cutting-off, a rejection, of what is past: it is rather a constant aspiration towards, and preparing for, what is better. As St. Paul expressly said:
I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.
He remained always proud and grateful for having been brought up a Jew and he would have given his life to help his former Jewish brethren; but when he glimpsed something of the glory of Christ, he turned away from his past -- thereby repenting of it -- and he never looked back again because he was always, henceforth, striving to give himself ever more perfectly to Christ:
I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; I live by faith in the Son of God Who has loved me and given Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
And so, dear People of God, “repent and believe the Gospel” are words for all time, words to be realized throughout our lives as we seek to grow in the love of the Lord. We repent of our pride when we are slowly or suddenly allowed to see the truth, or see further truth, about ourselves -- our weakness, our ignorance, our folly, our pretence -- and are thereby enabled to recognize, long and pray for, humility and love of Jesus. We likewise repent of our slothfulness and little faith when, for example, calmly appreciating more deeply those other words of Jesus in our Gospel passage:
This is the time of fulfilment, the kingdom of God is at hand,
we seriously acknowledge that it is at hand for us only if we will prevail upon ourselves to make the necessary effort to take up God’s offer and work at it. Again, we repent when -- under the Gospel’s influence -- we change our minds about what is of supreme worth, when we learn ever anew what is truly admirable and beautiful, and when, under the special influence of God’s grace, we come to shed silent heart-felt, if not eye-drop, tears at our own ever-repeated failure to acknowledge and sufficiently respond to the beauty and goodness of the gifts which God has already Personally bestowed upon us.
Repentance is an ever-growing sensitivity and responsiveness to the call of God’s grace, a call that would lead us ever higher and further, thereby requiring that we be always prepared and ready to turn away from what is behind and below and look to what is upward and to come.
However, repentance is only to be found in all its grandeur when it fills us with gratitude: when we find that, as it enables us to see more clearly our past sins and present failings, it also allows and indeed compels us to appreciate more fully what a debt of gratitude we owe to God for so many past blessings, so long ignored. Yes, repentance is indeed a great gift of God: for the gratitude it generates is a virtue both beautiful in itself and delightful in the joy with which it fills our heart and mind; while the goodness it reveals is an awesome and a humbling presage of the fulfilment to which it inspires us.