Opening the Word: Call to repentance

The theme of repentance is deeply woven throughout Scripture; it usually describes the act of sinful men turning from evil to holiness, accompanied by a deep sorrow. It is a free act of the will, and it often has to do with rejecting the worship of false gods and returning to the worship of the one, true God. As St. John of Damascus put it in his classic work, “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” “Repentance is the returning from the unnatural to the natural state, from the devil to God, through discipline and effort.”

Repentance is a theme quite proper to Lent, of course, and is front and center in today’s Gospel. The passage from Luke begins with a unique reference to an atrocity committed by Pilate. However, the specifics of Pilate’s actions are not the key issue. Rather, it was the question, “Does a sudden death indicate some unknown and great sin on the part of the victim?”Jesus left no doubt as to the answer: “By no means!” His point is quite clear: Since each of us will face the end of our lives on this earth, each of us must repent. After all, the Kingdom of God was not announced with the directive to “Be nice!” or “Avoid negative thoughts!” but “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (see Mt 3:2). Some people will live long lives, but others will die suddenly, tragically, unexpectedly. This is all the more reason to be in a state of grace and growing daily in the divine life.

How does this relate to the first two readings? The essential connection can be described by the words “humility” and “perseverance.” The story of Moses before the burning bush describes two forms of humility. The first is rather obvious, for “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” This is the proper response of the creature before the Creator. As the Catechism says, “Faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance” (No. 208). Is it any wonder so many men and women today refuse to really seek God? It is not because they completely reject the possibility of his existence, but because they know that he will rightly ask everything of them. He asks everything of us, beginning with true humility and worship.

The second act of humility is the divine humility, the willingness of God to reveal himself as personal, loving and faithful. “He has made known his ways to Moses,” as today’s responsorial Psalm proclaims. God desires to save his people, and he is willing to entrust his word and law to men like Moses. Moses may have been raised in the court of the Pharaoh, but he was a simple shepherd when he received his call. King David was a young, ruddy shepherd when he was called by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel. Peter was an ordinary fisherman, and so forth. Each of those men would fail in various ways, and each would have to repent, and in doing so would grow in both humility and faith.

St. Paul made an important, sacramental connection between Moses and Jesus Christ. The Israelites had undergone a type of baptism when they were liberated by passing through the Red Sea, and they received a type of Eucharist in the miraculous manna and water. These prefigured the sacraments established by the New Moses. St. Paul’s exhortation is to persevere, mindful of how quickly we can fall and aware of how the destroyer seeks to bring us to ruin. Lent is a time for repentance, humility and perseverance, orienting us toward Easter, the kingdom of heaven, and God.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.

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