"The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel."
With these two compelling sentences -- as recorded in the Gospel of Mark -- Jesus inaugurates his ministry and sums up what his mission is about: to break the shackles of sin that enslave humanity, to put us on the path of liberation from all oppression, and to teach us how to unconditionally love one another.
But what does it mean to repent?
Striving to avoid sin and living virtuously is certainly part of what it means. But there's more.
In the Gospels, the biblical word used for repentance is the Greek word "metanoia" -- a radical change of mind, heart, soul and action. It happens when one changes course and turns around to walk in the right direction. Metanoia means a life-changing conversion. That's what Jesus is calling us to when he says, "Repent."
Think of some of the great saints who deeply repented, who truly experienced a metanoia.
St. Paul did a complete about-face. He went from persecuting the followers of Christ to championing their cause and suffering with them.
St. Augustine of Hippo turned from fleeting unmarried sexual pleasure and unsatisfying philosophical pursuits to a totally fulfilling surrender to the will of God. In his famous autobiographical Confessions, he sums it all up so well: "You [God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."
When we allow our heart to rest in God, we become a new creation, fully dedicated to advancing his kingdom. But this takes humility, honesty, much prayer and hard work. Not for the faint-hearted.
The respected English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."
And making it even more difficult, a life dedicated to listening to the Holy Spirit concerns itself not only with personal repentance/metanoia, but also with the conversion of the nation.
Sharing the good news that God desires to save all people from sin and all other forms of oppression necessarily includes striving to dismantle what St. John Paul II called the "structures of sin."
And sadly, "structures of sin" abound in every nation.
The murder of unborn babies through legalized abortion. The killing of the sick through assisted suicide. The woefully inadequate response to poverty and hunger suffered by brothers and sisters throughout the world. The insanity of war. The state-sanctioned murder of the death penalty. Environmental degradation. Nations need to repent, change course, and begin walking in the right direction.
Lent is that solemn time of the year when the church invites us to examine our consciences and honestly admit where we have sinned individually and as a nation.
Since Jesus has assured us that with God all things are possible, let us confidently take our petitions to him, trusting that a far better world can be built with loving hearts and hands.
Let us pray.
God of life, inspire us to protect all human life from its beginning at conception to its earthly end at natural death.
God of justice, inspire us to fairly share with all people the resources necessary to adequately sustain life with dignity.
God of creation, inspire us to be good stewards of your wonderful world.
God of peace, inspire us to finally put an end to war.
[Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. He will be the keynote speaker at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church's May 2 social awareness seminar in San Clemente, Calif. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings about Catholic social teaching. His keynote address, "Advancing the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century," has been well received by diocesan gatherings from Salt Lake City to Baltimore. Tony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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