The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Message of Lent: “Repent and Believe in the Gospel”. Dying to Oneself in order to have life in Christ.
Lent is not a time for mere externals, sackcloth and ashes. It is a period of forty days in which to reflect on the Christian mystery, on Christian life in Christ, on the dignity and dangers to the human person and on God’s message through Christ regarding all these truths. All this is done with reference to Christ, the New Man, the New Adam. During his forty days in the wilderness Jesus must have reflected on these truths, and the temptations against accepting his Father’s understanding of the human person and God’s response to this through Christ’s own life, his self-emptying, death and resurrection. The ancient hymn says that although in the form of God, Jesus did not think equality with God as something to be used for human advantage. Instead he humbled himself and willed instead to be found, and recognized, in human form. The reference is probably not to Jesus’ divine form, divine nature. The hymn, rather, is probably making a contrast between Christ and the First Adam in the garden. Eve was told by the serpent, the tempter, that if she and Adam asserted their autonomy by eating from the forbidden fruit, disobeying God’s command, they would become like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:1-5). Adam, in human form, succumbed to the temptation to take on divine form, with disastrous consequences. Christ would have similar temptations but resisted, and became and an example for his followers, and a source of their salvation.
The drama of the first Adam and Christ, the second Adam, has been played out down through history, a drama still being enacted in our own day. Christianity and much of modern life have contrasting views of the human person and what fulfilment of human desires is. There is a tendency in a widespread modern worldview to regard the human person, and humanity, as one dimensional, autonomous, with a requirement to live and develop one’s own personal and social life without any input from outside, from God or Church. This is quite the opposite of the New Testament and biblical teaching. Central to this is that God is love, that God loves the world, and has sent his Son to bring this message of love to humanity. Christ came so believers in him, and humanity, have life and have it abundantly (see John 10:10). Christ is the source of life, but also its model. But Jesus also clearly tells us that finding the life he brings entails dying to self in a number of things; life in him entails taking up one’s cross and following him (Mathew 9:35-47). Jesus stresses the values of the human person. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and forfeit the integrity of one’s own person? What can be given in return for one’s self? (see Matthew 16:26). In its reflection on the role of the Church in the Modern World (paragraphs 40-44) Vatican II has treated of this question very sensitively: on the mutual relationship of Church and world (no. 40), what the Church offers to individuals (no. 41), what the Church offers to society (no. 42), what the Church offers to human activity through its members (no. 43). The text is available on the internet. It merits reading and reflection.
Lent is a call to turn away from false values and turn to the Gospel message. The period calls for reflection and devotion. Faith is nourished by devotion, personal and collective, whether in parish or family. Devotion need not be ostentatious. It can be personal and quiet, for instance reflecting on Fridays on Jesus’ call to follow him, and in honour of his Passion abstaining from meat (by use fish or otherwise) at the main meal. And there are many other ways.
Jesus’ opening words in his public ministry still call on us today: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, have the required change of mind and heart to make the necessary break with any tradition, Jewish, Greek, Roman, or of twenty-first century incompatible with the new message, and believe in the message of the Gospel, as true, as valid and as inspiring today as it was when first preached by Jesus himself.