19 February 2024, The Tablet

The grace of repentance, the gift of forgiveness


LENT 1B | 17 FEBRUARY 20214 | MARK 1:12-15

Mark 1:12-15
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

 

When our foreheads were daubed with ashes on Ash Wednesday, the words uttered reminded us of both our mortality - “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return” - and of our resolve to repent - “Repent and believe the Gospel”, words taken from today’s gospel. Traditionally, that resolve is affirmed and expressed by ‘giving up’ something for Lent, a Christian practice that persists even in secular society, albeit for different motives. But along with whatever we contrive as a token sacrifice or penitential abstinence for the forty days of Lent, what we must ‘give up’ first and foremost is our sins, especially those that have become so much part of our everyday existence that we no longer notice them. Tellingly, the injunction to “repent and believe the Gospel” implies that our sins arise at root from our failure fully and seriously to believe the Gospel. They arise from our failure to believe that in God alone is our happiness to be found. Our sins, in other words, are a flight from reality into fantasy, fantasy about how true happiness can be ours, which was precisely the threefold temptation that Satan put before Jesus in the wilderness. To repent, on the other hand, is to return to reality by setting aside fantasy in favour true and lasting happiness, the fulfilment of that desire which is at the very core of our nature, created by God in his own image and likeness. How could we not want what we desire most? Therein lies the irrationality of sin, which is, according to Aquinas, to act against right reason. “Past reason hunted; and no sooner had, past reason hated…”, as Shakespeare has it about one particular sin, but applicable equally to all.

The conventional concept of repentance carries, of course, an almost entirely negative connotation, more often associated with fear and dread than desire and happiness. But St Thomas Aquinas, for one, could never have agreed that genuine repentance is ever motivated by fear, especially not fear of divine punishment. For one thing, he believed that we’re not punished for our sins but by them. For another, he was clear that God can be said to be ‘displeased’ by our sins only because, by them, we do ourselves harm, harm that can be repaired only by his grace, rather than our effort. Of course, guilt and fear figure universally in human experience, but they never were and never can be motives for true repentance, repentance, that is, from the heart. After all, over time, fear can be dulled, and guilt can be cloaked; and anyway, guilt and remorse are very different. St John Climacus, the 6th century Syrian monk, says that to define repentance in terms of guilt alone is to empty it of meaning entirely. No: what spurs us to genuine repentance is the realisation that our sins are, in the end, futile, that they never yield what they promise. Repentance is the realisation that our real needs and real desires are not served by our sins, the realisation that we’re not where and what we really want to be, that we’ve fallen into fantasy. To repent is to wake up from fantasy and recognise that our sins are as much regression as transgression. So Lent affords us an important opportunity because, though liturgically it recurs but once a year, it brings into relief our whole life’s quest: namely, to set our hearts on God, not in obedience to command or response to fear, but as an answer to desire and need - our deepest desire and our greatest need. It’s significant that in the Bible, rejection of God is said to be ‘hardness of heart’, while the faithful heart is said to be ‘set’ on God.

It's in the heart that all the real battles in this life are won or lost, and, of course, there’s much to distract our hearts from what we really want and really need. So the first step in repentance is to acknowledge that our hearts need ‘resetting’. But that is easier said than done. Emptiness in the heart is both harder to bear and harder to admit than anything else; and so, crazily, we fill our hearts with all kinds of things that we know will never satisfy them. We gratify other, superficial needs - our need of material security, our need of praise, our need of approval, our need to feel we’re getting somewhere and, of course, our need to be needed – while neglecting our deepest need. Little wonder that, when we’re distracted from our real needs and deepest desires, we’re inevitably restless and unhappy; we experience what Augustine famously described a cor inquietum: an unquiet heart.

The reason is simple, so simple that it’s easy to miss. There’s a space within us all that can be filled only by God, and we must, at all costs, keep that space free for God. Lenten penance, when done in the right spirit, is meant to help us to do just that. In the same way that we weed the garden so as to make space for the things we want to grow, so we deny ourselves some undeniably good things during Lent in order to make space for what we really want: the truth, goodness and beauty that is God: our true happiness, in other words. And, finally: too often, we think of Lent as a time for increased effort, for strenuous spiritual exercise. But that exposes us to the risk of becoming Pharisees, especially if our efforts are successful. God doesn’t want either the best or the worst of our endeavour: he wants us. As Herbert McCabe has it, God’s love doesn’t depend on what we do or don’t do, or what we’re like or not like, on whether we’re nice or nasty. This is not to say that our sins don’t matter: they most certainly do. For one thing, though our sins cannot alter God’s attitude to us, they can over time alter our attitude to him.

But God never changes his mind about us: rather, he constantly offers us the possibility of changing our minds about Him (and about ourselves and each other). Therein lies the grace of repentance and the gift of forgiveness

 

 




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