Not long ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, we heard these words at Mass: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” What exactly does this mean? Get rid of your bad habits and vices? Accept the teachings of the New Testament? Yes indeed, but first and foremost it means cleaving — heart, mind and soul — to the person of Jesus Christ through faith.
The Gospel is a living person. The Good News is Jesus Christ in person. Being a Christian believer involves not only a renunciation of sin and of self, but first and foremost a personal encounter with Jesus as Lord and Savior — an encounter that blossoms into a lifelong commitment. It’s like climbing a mountain, planting and nurturing a seed, laboring on a building, and yes, carrying a cross, in the sure knowledge that Christ has already accomplished our success and victory. It is a hard road that we walk, but we walk it with Christ. The mystery of His own dying and rising is accomplished in us every day.
For the earliest believers, becoming a Christian meant leaving behind their Jewish or pagan milieu for the sake of Christ and membership in His body, the church. A Jew had to leave the Jewish community and cast his or her lot in the church with those who had been pagans. The first Jewish Christians maintained continuity with their heritage — after all, Christ came to fulfill the law, not abolish it — nevertheless being a Christian represented a departure and a separation for the sake of a new religious fellowship with gentiles.
Listen to what St. Paul has to say about his former life: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…” (Phil 3:7)
St. Paul dared to consider the hallowed life of God’s own people as “loss and rubbish” in comparison to “the supreme good of knowing and gaining Christ.” What are you and I prepared to do this Lent, 2012, for the sake of Christ? Even if we were baptized Catholic as infants, we have to embrace that faith and make our relationship to Christ ever more deeply personal. That means renouncing anything that separates us from Christ.
The way of the world is to say that a little religion is good, but “let’s not get carried away.” Do we really want to be holy? Do we really want Jesus to be our life’s treasure? Maybe we think of Christ as “up there” in heaven, or as a name to call on in trouble, but not as the constant companion at our side in all that we say and do. Perhaps this radical call of the Gospel has never really hit us, because for whatever reason we’ve never really encountered Christ personally or worked at a spiritual relationship with Him despite our religious upbringing.
Then again, having been baptized as infants, and living in a very individualistic world, perhaps we feel justified in whittling down religious beliefs and practices according to our opinions and preferences, or privatizing them. The truth, however, is that the full mystery of Jesus Christ is an objective reality that embraces faith and morals. It is ecclesial and communal. It is liturgical and sacramental. As Catholics we should know these things, but what is our response?
Lent is the season par excellence to hear once again the graced invitation: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus never gives up on us. He is always reaching and calling out to us in and through His church.
St. Paul renounced his whole former way of life for the sake of Jesus Christ. So did the Apostles, who left family, home and occupation behind. So did others — each in his or her particular circumstances — people like the Samaritan woman at the well, Nicodemus and Zacchaeus when Jesus came to them and called them. It even happened to the Good Thief at the 11th hour on the cross. And it happened to all the first believers, who were caught in the loving gaze of the one who revealed Himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” and said, “Come, follow me.”
So by all means, let’s observe our Lenten fast and abstinence, let’s fill up those collection boxes to help the hungry and needy, let’s say our Lenten prayers. But above all let’s not forget who it is calling to us, inviting us to Himself, so that “we may have life, and have it abundantly” both now and for eternity.