by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
New York/Paris, January 24, 2021. | III Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Jonah 3: 1-5.10; First Letter to the Corinthians 7: 29-31; Saint Mark 1: 14-20.
In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a story is told about a monk who, while lying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples, is seen talking with someone. “Who are you talking to, father?” the disciples ask. “See,” he replies, “the angels have come to take me and I am asking for a little more time – more time to repent.” “You have no need to repent,” say the disciples. “Truly,” the old man replies, “I am not sure whether I have even begun to repent.” This story helps us to see repentance as a never-ending journey. It is a journey that will continue to energize our conversion and spiritual growth. There can be no growth without repentance.
Repentance and conversion are central themes in today’s Readings. The spirit of our age encourages us not to feel bad about ourselves and to “build up our self-esteem”. Yet to become a Christian and then to maintain a healthy Christian life, we must practice repentance acknowledging with sorrow our sin and yearning for holiness and increased obedience to God’s will.
In fact, repentance is one of the situations where one can most clearly see how the work of the Holy Spirit calls for our cooperation, our response. It is a true encounter between what we call the mystical life and the ascetical life.
The following story reminds us that Providence takes advantage of many unexpected situations to provoke repentance and conversion in us:
Robert Robinson (1735–1790) was a Baptist minister and hymn author. He is well known for composing the beautiful song Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing when he was 22 years old.
Sadly, years after, Robinson did wander away from God. As a result, he became deeply troubled in spirit. Hoping to find same peace, he decided to travel.
On one of his trips, he met a young woman and their conversation turned to spiritual matters. She shared that she read a hymn in her daily devotional time. She shared with Robinson the hymn she had read that day and asked what he thought of it. To his astonishment he found it to be none other than his own song. He tried to evade her question, but she pressed him for a response.
Suddenly he began to weep. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, I’m the man who wrote that hymn. I’d give anything to experience again the joy I knew then. Although greatly surprised, she assured him that the “streams of mercy” mentioned in his song were still flowing. Deeply touched, Robinson turned his “wandering heart” to the Lord, confessed his sin, and committed his life to once again serving God. As a result, once again he knew the joy he had known, several years before.
To see what repentance looks like in real life, all we need to do is turn to the story of Zacchaeus, a man who cheated and stole and lived lavishly on his ill-gotten gains…until he met Jesus. At that point he had a radical change of mind: Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount (Lk 19:8). Jesus happily proclaimed that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’s house. That is repentance, coupled with faith in Christ.
To repent does not only mean the firm determination to avoid sin, but it is the decision to radically change the way one sees God, man, the world, history.
We always focused on the moral conversion. But that is only one side of the coin, although of course, indispensable and urgent. Christ tells us so today in a clear way: Repent, and believe in the Good News.
Perhaps the first practical observation about repentance is that we must practice it continuously, first, because the Gospel tells us so. And secondly, because the Holy Spirit also continually urges us to it, through all forms of purification and by sharing with us the divine persons’ feeling and concern for our neighbor, that is, their divine Affliction. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul says: Now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended (2 Cor 7: 9).
This is how our Founder expressed his feelings about repentance and conversion at the age of 16 at the youth camp in Valsain:
Thus came about the first vow I made to my Father, my first religious vow I offered to him. It was a promise, an oath, a word of honor of never separating myself from him. I then made an act of repentance of all my past -something I was practically unaware of because I was not even aware of any ethics and all the future actions that might displease, annoy, hurt or offend Him.
My repentance had to be forever: repentance that would never end, repentance that was not only of faults committed or still to be committed but also of the possibility of committing them. I even asked him to forgive me for having given me the existence. I asked him to forgive me for everything.
I wanted to be, Father, by your side in every moment, always (May 2, 1988).
Let us recall how our Father Founder taught us that the ascetic effort to be made by our unitive faculty begins with the Intellectual Acceptance of the Gospel. Such acceptance does not merely mean an “absence of objections”, but nothing less than welcoming the Good News as the center around which all the issues in my life revolve. That Good News is not only what is written in the New Testament, but all that comes from Christ: His word, His example and His personal inspiration to each of us.
Repentance begins with a change of mind and results in a change of conduct. That change in behavior that follows repentance is what we call conversion.
This explains why when certain self-serving hypocrites came to the Jordan River where John was baptizing, John challenged them to show proof of their repentance: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Mt 3: 8).
Interestingly, today Luke summarizes Jesus’ preaching ministry with a single line: The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
How does conversion work?
God often uses the circumstances of day-to-day life in bestowing upon us the gift of repentance. The gift may come through the generous example of a neighbor, from reading the Bible, or from a chain of events spanning many weeks, months, or even years. Shocking events in the news may be the catalyst that enables a person to receive God’s gift of repentance. On the other hand, positive events, such as people coming together to help relieve others’ suffering, may have an awakening effect through which God can bestow the gift of repentance. God can and does use life events—ordinary and extraordinary—to awaken people to their need for repentance.
We well know that there are people who have been converted without any extraordinary event. Often, the impression of emptiness, of not doing enough, the certainty of being lukewarm or mediocre, is enough to make us aware that God is asking us, once again, to convert.
God had to resort to a spectacular event for Jonah’s true conversion. And yet, a day of preaching and a few words of the rebellious prophet were enough to convert this capital of vice and idolatry.
For our part, a major key to true repentance is confession. Saint John writes: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1: 9).
Unfortunately, our confession is often limited by what we are willing to admit. Humans have the uncanny ability to mentally revise past events, deceiving ourselves into believing that past sins were somehow less than sinful. We dupe ourselves into thinking that deadly sins are mere “weaknesses.” We hide our motives, not only from others but also from ourselves.
Confession means being completely honest with oneself and with God. It means admitting before Christ, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, our true motives, and resolving to never again pretend that those motives are other than what they are.
As Mark continues to narrate in today’s Gospel text, the apostles were able to leave their fishing nets, their family…things that they held dear (Mk 1:16-20). This renunciation was their sign of repentance. And they were able to reach this decision because they encountered God in the person of Jesus. They believed in the Good News! Their belief was not just intellectual assent but a tangible experience of God in Jesus.
To believe in the Gospel is not so much assenting to a number of propositions and statements of faith. To have faith is to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the power of God’s love, to permit Him to reign at all levels of one’s being. Jesus wants us to open our eyes and see Him and what the Father is doing in and through Him.
A story is told of two friends in the old Soviet Russia: an astronaut and a brain surgeon. The astronaut, an atheist, said one day to his friend the brain surgeon: You know, I have been out in space a dozen times, and I have never seen God. His friend, the brain surgeon, a believer in God, replied: Yes, a bit like me, I have operated on dozens of brains and have never seen a thought! Jesus tells us that we must repent to believe the kingdom of God.
The word repent in Greek can be translated as to move beyond your present mind or way of seeing, that is, to see reality in broader terms than just the physical. To see the spiritual all around – to see the Spirit working within one and within groups of open and loving people. Repentance as a process is more than an occasional act of contrition—though that is definitely a part of it. It is also a God-centered state of mind that influences every aspect of one’s life. It is sharpened through paying attention to the nudging of the Holy Spirit, which always directs one along the path established by God’s redemption plan.
Today we see how the first disciples respond immediately to the call. They trust in Jesus and follow Him.
The Ninevites were granted forty days of time to accept or reject the invitation to conversion. Elisha was allowed to “say goodbye to his father and mother” before following Elijah (1K 19:20). But Jesus is telling us today that the answer to his call to conversion must be given immediately. This is the true message of the Second Reading: it is not that all things in the world are despicable, but it is true that they are fleeting and cannot be the center of our existence. As we are in the middle of them, it is necessary to live in a permanent state of conversion.