“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” All over the Church, those words will be repeated
countless times as Christ’s faithful people are marked on the forehead with ashes. This is an external sign to signal a desire for interior renewal. We seek, individually and together, to deepen our awareness of God’s presence in our lives and our world.
To repent – in Mark’s Gospel, it is the first recorded word of Jesus. In the original Greek, the word is metanoiete –literally to” change your minds,” or it can also be translated as change your thinking, or even change your perception, insight, awareness.
Since we are a body-soul unity, to repent is not simply external changes of behavior, important as that might be – to fast, to pray more, to give alms. The idea here is to have those exterior actions arise consciously from an interior conversion, and that conversion to bear fruit in how we actually live. This is the collaboration of each person with the gifts of God’s grace.
God eternally gives; we open ourselves anew to receive, in each moment and season granted to us.
But the second part of the phrase when we receive the ashes is essential. We are not trying to change our minds and behavior for self-improvement or just as a seasonal custom of our faith. This change has a specific purpose: so that we come to believe ever more deeply and personally in the Gospel.
The Gospel – back to Greek again, the euangelion or “good message” – is the proclamation of the mercy and love of God. The Church is asking us to return to the beginning of our lives of faith, when Jesus claimed us as members of his Body in Baptism and gave us the life of grace. Baptism is not something any of us can achieve on our own. It is a gift we receive, a life we are granted, a promise God makes to us to welcome us and love us as the Persons of the Trinity love one another.
To believe in the Gospel is to believe that God loves me, in spite of my weakness and imperfections; and then inspired by this unfailing love, to respond with love of our own to God and all that God desires for the world he has redeemed in the dying and rising of Jesus.
The Eucharist is the perpetual sign and guarantee of this divine love, given to us over and over. We come to the Eucharist one by one, but together, just as we receive the ashes, one by one, but together.
This year, we invite you to a Lent of Presence – to recognize the Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and in the lives of every person made in God’s image; to be present to your family, friends, and those in particular needs; to be present in our common liturgical life at Mass, Stations, and other spiritual opportunities; to be present with whomever you are with, rather than the electronic device in your hands or pocket.
At Christmas, we acknowledge Jesus as Emmanuel – God with us. But that Presence of Christ is constant. Lent is our focused effort to be present to him, grateful for his promise: “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”