"Repent" was not an afterthought
Remember when Jesus gave the Apostles their marching orders to go make friends and be inclusive and encounter and accompany the folks?
So they went out and preached that men should repent. (Mk 6:12)
Wait, what? Repent?
Well, that’s weird! Church leaders preaching repentance, and even leading with it? What’s that all about! That would “drive people away from Christ”! Didn’t the Apostles—and Christ for that matter!—know that preaching repentance is imprudent, unloving, mean, and judgmental?
What about first discovering folks’ “true gifts” and affirming their “lived experience”? In fact, maybe the folks could have taught the Apostles a thing or two! After all (as some of today’s “progressive” and enlightened priests and prelates tell us incessantly), the Magisterium “has a lot to learn” from grave sinners and secular thinkers! If only Holy Mother Church would pipe down her doctrine and listen to earthly wisdom, learning at the world’s feet!
Obviously, I’m being sarcastic. But in all seriousness—please beware of any Catholic bishop, priest, religious, or layman who speaks only and often of “encounter” and never of “repentance.” One obvious example, although he has many models and disciples, is Fr. James Martin, the well-known and feted “LGBTQ” activist. His terribly misleading and incessantly repeated claim is that “For John the Baptist, the model was to convert first and then be welcomed into the community. For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second.”
But is that true?
Not at all.
Here are John the Baptist’s very first words of active ministry:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt 3:2)
Now compare that to Jesus’ very first words of active ministry:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt 4:17)
Well, look at that! They are identical. Both John and Jesus lead with repentance/conversion.
I’ll let you speculate as to why Fr. Martin so badly misrepresents Jesus on that issue.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We know and understand, obviously, that Christ encountered and accompanied souls. But it’s interesting to note what these souls did when they encountered Christ. Whether the people encountering Christ were the Apostles, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, or anyone of goodwill, they “dropped their nets” (or came down from the tree, or left water jar behind…) and they followed Him. Following Him means that they put their previous lives behind them, pretty much immediately. They repented of their sins with true contrition, turned (converted) their hearts to God, and gave up their own wills to follow the Lord. (When the Lord encountered people of bad will, they did not repent, did not convert their hearts, but rather kept clinging to their sins.)
The Savior of the World came to save us from something (that’s why He’s called Savior!), and He was not here on earth to mess around, especially when it came to sin. His followers knew that then, and His followers know it now. Our sins—nothing more or less—put Our Lord through an unthinkable torture chamber of events, culminating in a death too painful and cruel for us to imagine. No authentic follower of Christ plays around with sin and repentance. Ask the saints. Read their words. Ask yourself what Christ thinks of us staying in our sins indefinitely:
”If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matt 5:29-30)
Nothing there about taking our sweet time to repent, letting a few months or years pass while we all encounter and accompany.
God is Love and He is infinitely merciful, but we are warned never to presume on His mercy. Presumption is a great sin in itself:
Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin. Say not: “Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger alike are with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed. (Sirach 5:1-8)
The urgency to repent, convert, and do God’s will from today forward is not just the mean ol’ Old Testament talking; St. Peter gives it to us straight, in the New:
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
Do we believe that the devil, tempting us to sin, was more real in his day than in ours? Do we believe that God was more offended by sin back then, and that the era of soberness and watchfulness—for the eternal fate of our own souls!—has passed? I think we like to believe that, but it’s not true. We in the 21st century are not “special,” with a new set of rules. If anything, we are more spiritually blind than any generation that has come before.
We are all conditioned now to chafe and recoil when we hear talk of sin and its risk to our salvation. We’d rather swallow lies covered in “niceness” and “tolerance” and “inclusivity” than hear the truth that will save us. Even if we hear that truth in love (Christ and the Apostles surely spoke of the urgency of repentance out of love for souls), too many of us still hear it as “hateful judgement,” which is why so many priests and bishops don’t preach it. That’s how effective the evil one has been, that the Lord’s words, “be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:19),” would today be seen as insensitive or even embarrassing.
Lent is a time to splash cold water on our faces, stop listening to the pretty whispers of “you be you….God wants you to do what makes you happy!” and meditate on our call to repentance of personal sin, the kind found on a traditional examination of conscience. To “repent” means to turn from our sin, to change our heart and mind, to die to our old self and conform ourselves completely to Christ. From there flows a life of virtue, an embracing of the cross, and our ultimate sanctification that makes us fit for Heaven. Who talks about that anymore? We must.
Contrary to what Fr. Martin and his many confrères would have us believe, repentance is not an option to be left for later down the line (perhaps years, if at all); rather, it is the urgent call of the Lord this very day. We are not promised tomorrow, and the imperative to repent and turn from our sins was hammered home to us by Christ’s Himself, many times:
“…God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Lk 12:20)
“ …if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have been awake and would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Lk 12:39-40)
So, please, beware, be discerning, and learn about spiritual warfare. If someone, or some group, or some “ministry” tells you there is life in Christ without repentance—in other words, if you do not hear the word “repent!” from them nor hear of its need—run the other way. Do not read their works, do not promote their “ministries,” and please do not believe for one second that they actually care about your soul. Without a call to repentance, they care nothing for your soul and its fate.
Jesus Christ loves you beyond any measure, and He cares about your soul’s eternal destiny. And that is precisely why He chose to lead with what is most important and urgent: “REPENT!”
May God bless this Lent for you and make it a fruitful one!