How You Can Embrace Christ’s Call to Repent and Believe
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.” These words of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of Mark can be said by the priest or minister who distributes the ashes to the faithful on Ash Wednesday. These six words also sum up the entire message of Jesus Christ as he proclaims the kingdom of God. But they remain just six words and leave a lot unsaid in how exactly to live this out in our everyday lives.
There are two concrete things that we can do that will help us to accomplish these two commands to repent and to believe in the Gospel.
Repent: to turn away from sin and to turn towards God
Oftentimes, we think repentance is simply an act of the will, and it begins there, but there is certainly something we can do concretely that will aid in this. When we repent for our sins, we are called to do penance. Penance is a long tradition, stretching long before Jesus Christ and Christianity into the Jewish roots of our religion. When individuals, and even communities, had to repent from their sin they would do penance — both individual and communal. Often this would take the form of wearing ashes and sackcloth —a concrete action to show our decision to turn back to the Lord is a tradition thousands of years old.
Nowadays, we may simply think of penance as the few prayers that the priest gives us at the end of confession that we have to get through. But do we look at these prayers of penance, or whatever other penances the priest may give us, not just as prayers to do and get over with, but as essential to our Christian life? Because they are quite essential.
As human beings we are both spiritual and material. What we do spiritually has an effect on our physicality and what we do physically has an effect on our spirituality. This is why we teach young children Christian actions such as the sign of the cross and genuflecting before they are old enough to know what they mean. By the physical act of doing these prayer actions we are forming their spiritual beings and growth. This is why we continue to do them as adults. Because what we do physically affects us spiritually. This is one key area that penance plays into — by giving us something concrete and physical to do to help us in the spiritual area of turning back to the Lord.
Oftentimes a sin is more than just a simple act of the will. Our sin usually has some physical component to it. It has a physical aspect to it that affects the world and changes it in some way. When we sin we change the world for the worse. This changing of the world requires us, when we repent and turn back to the Lord, to offer something to the world to change it for the better. To become a conduit of grace into the world where before we had introduced sin into the world. Imagine how much better the world would be if we all took our penances seriously? As Cora Evans once wrote “If I cannot find goodness and only seem to be surrounded by darkness, then I need to rise up and become the goodness and light the world needs.” In short, I need to usher into the world light were I once was the cause of the darkness; I need to usher in goodness where once I was the cause of a lack of goodness. This is what penance does, it allows us to usher in this grace into the world.
Prayer: a powerful conduit of grace for the world
But the penances we often are given by a priest in the confessional are just a few prayers. Does this really count as some physical act that changes the world? The simple answer is yes! Even though there are often debates about the efficacy of prayers after some tragedy when people offer prayers, the simple fact is that prayer is a real thing that has a real effect. It is not some simply psychological placebo for the person offering the prayers. Jesus himself prayed frequently. And if Jesus himself prayed, do we really expect that we are not supposed to?
Prayer is where we most often and in a very concrete way begin to fulfill the command to “believe in the Gospel”. The heart of the Gospel is that God has loved us so much that he desires a relationship with us. A relationship not of slave and master, but of loving Father and beloved child. A relationship that is an invitation to an ever-deepening unveiling of one to the other. This can only be done in the context of prayer. This prayer becomes the backbone of our Christian lives. Or as Cora Evans writes, “Prayer is my anchor.” Prayer is what anchors us to Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. But how do we pray? This is a common question—the answer is that we just start. Don’t worry about being good at prayer, just do it. We get good at prayer by being bad at prayer for a long time. Actually praying is more important than how we pray, at least at first. As we develop the habit of prayer, we will find what works for us. Perhaps it is the reading of scripture, perhaps it is the rosary, perhaps it is the reading of the works of Church Fathers and spiritual masters. Maybe it is a combination of all or some of these things. But do it!
One of the best descriptions of prayer comes in a letter St. Augustine wrote to a woman named Proba. In it he goes through the Our Father, describing the meaning of the words that Jesus himself taught us. Then he writes these beautiful words on prayer,
“Excessive talking should be kept out of prayer but that does not mean that one should not spend much time in prayer so long as fervent attitude continues to accompany his prayer. To talk at length in prayer is to perform a necessary action with an excess of words. To spend much time in prayer is to knock with a persistent and holy fervor at the door of the one whom we beseech. This task is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech. He places our tears in his sight, and our sighs are not hidden from him, for he has established all things through his Word and does not seek human words.”
After we have exhausted all our words, our prayers consist of sighs and tears. These are legitimate prayers that further to deepen our relationship with God. Think of the first time you and a close friend cried together and what that did for your relationship. It does the same with your relationship with the Triune God. God himself desires to be in relationship with you. He is not JUST the creator of the world; he is the creator and redeemer of the world. He has redeemed the world because of his love. That same love wants to love you and wants to be loved by you. This love is deepened by prayer. So, rather than worrying about whether we are good at it, we should more concerned about whether or not we actually do it.
Prayer and penance are two concrete ways in which we fulfill that command from the Gospel of Mark and the instructions we get on Ash Wednesday to “Repent and Believe in the Gospel” — the heart of the Christian message.
This post was inspired by Jeannie Ewing’s new book, A Time to Laugh and A Time to Weep, which offers reflections on Servant of God Cora Evans’ selected writings, Refugee from Heaven. To pre-order your copy click here.