The call to repentance flew from the lips of John the Baptist and into our ears during Advent. Now, after our Christmas trees have been picked up from their inglorious positions on the curb; now, when the confetti of New Year’s Eve has been swept up; now, when we have witnessed an inauguration, we again hear the call to repentance, this time from the lips of Jesus. Is there a difference in those calls? What is God urging us to do? Urging—is there an urgency in these calls?
To begin with, there is a difference. John asks for a change of heart to prepare the way of the Lord. Level the hills! Fill in the valleys! He, the long-awaited one, is coming! Subsequently, Jesus urges repentance because “the kingdom is at hand.” It is here!
Irma Zaleski in The Way of Repentance, tells us that contemporary Christians don’t seem to listen to the call. That unwillingness to listen is basically because we don’t understand the meaning of repentance. I, for one, associate it with turning away from sin. I think of it as doing a 180 in my way of life. I need to change my ways through a painful process and over a long period of time. I need to establish new and better habits. Of course, more discipline is involved. For me, that’s a rather gloomy and painful task.
Zaleski shares that repentance is “a way of love and freedom, of total trust in God’s infinite mercy.” That, indeed, is a complete 180, from a perspective of darkness to one of light! Zaleski brings up a second reason that repentance is misunderstood. “We do not realize the immensity of what we have lost as a result of sin.”
Recently, I watched the movie The 33. It came out in August 2015, recounting the experience of thirty-three miners who were trapped half a mile underground in the San Jose mine near Copiapó, Chile. For over sixty days, the whole world watched this ongoing saga of hope mixed with despair and finally success. On August 5, 2010, these men were cut off from family, friends, food, and water with nothing but the supplies they had with them. Those supplies included a can of tuna that they opened and divided into thirty-three portions with a small spoon. Their previous ways of life had to change drastically in order to survive. Suddenly, they needed a 180 in their way of thinking. No longer was it individual survival, but communal.
The most striking, impressive portion of the film was its climax. Never have I seen such absolute joy! The faces of the men were luminous as they emerged from the rescue capsule, as they came out of the dark cocoon of the earth, into the light! Total, absolute, ecstatic joy! Their brilliant faces reflected the faces of their waiting loved ones so eager to welcome them back from the dead!
This image spoke volumes of the realization of “the immensity of what we have lost as a result of sin” and what we regain in the coming of “the kingdom of heaven.” This is what Jesus was urging. The kingdom is at hand! Hope blossoms into reality! Rejoice and be glad!
The question is, how do I repent in response to Jesus’ message? Over the Christmas holiday, I became convinced that the “joy” our scriptural stories present repeatedly isn’t something that just happens. It is a choice. Yes, I can choose to be joyful.
Who is winning the terrorist war? If we concentrate on the horrible events taking place all over the world, if we are afraid to go anywhere there is a large crowd, if we are afraid to fly or even go to a movie, then the terrorists are winning. But if we can live our lives in peace and hope and the joy of the kingdom of God, then the terrorists do not have the upper hand. God does and we are bringing God’s kingdom into our world. We can choose. That choice is urgent. As terrorist activity seems to become more frequent and come closer to home, we need to repent and be peaceful rather than disturbed and afraid. We need to continue walking with the Lord and spreading the good news. We need to intentionally choose the joy that shone in the faces of the miners as they left the darkness of death and moved into the light of life!
Patricia DeGroot, OblSB
Eternal God, creator and sustainer of life,
bless us with the courage to defend all life
from conception to natural death.
Bless us with the strength to respect all peoples
from east to west, from north to south,
so that we may truly follow the call of Jesus to be neighbor.
We ask this in the name of Jesus,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.
—Prayer for Life and Dignity from Being Neighbor: The Catechism and Social Justice, USCCB, April 1998.