The Gospel of Mark: 1:4, 14-15:
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins………… After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
The gospel of Mark begins with a call to Penance. In just the fourth verse, we hear the message of John the Baptist defined as “a baptism of repentance.” And then, in the first words that Jesus speaks in this gospel, He repeats and reinforces John’s message: “Repent and believe the good news.” The first words of his public ministry in the gospel of Matthew are nearly identical: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Jesus’ first act as He reveals Himself is to reinforce John’s call to repentance. The Father, in His Mercy, has sent His Son to show us the path to redemption and salvation and the Son makes it immediately clear with His first public words that participation in the Kingdom requires an embrace of Penance.
If we are to obey His teaching, we must have a clear understanding of what the word Penance means. This is especially true in the modern world. The farther we get from the time of Jesus and the birth of the Church, the more our culture wants to evolve toward the primacy of man. Man seeks more and more to supplant God and to make himself the ruler of himself and all he perceives.
As the culture evolves, it follows directly that the definition of Penance becomes watered down. This is because the traditional definition of Penance directly challenges the course that modern man wishes to pursue. Penance wants to be a restraint on man. It wants to call him to discipline, obedience, and submission to the teaching of Jesus and the Will of God. Many modern men do not want their freedom restricted by such considerations. They do not want to accept that the responsibility associated with freedom can, in many ways, be determined by the traditional definition of Penance and its consequences. Instead, they want to define responsibility and freedom entirely on their own terms.
Technology has caused this change in our culture to accelerate. The more connected we are, the faster impiety becomes acceptable and customary. It becomes harder and harder to escape the messaging that calls us to these attitudes of sinfulness, and the outcome is a degradation of unity that already seems irreversible. On one hand, many have embraced the secular rise of man. On the other, many are doing everything they can to hold on to the Christian teachings that they believe are fundamental to living a moral life. This division, which the traditionalist sees as the clear work of the enemy, is tearing the fabric of our culture apart.
The tension between a traditional understanding of Jesus’ call to Penance and the desire of modern man to push the limits of his ascendancy is well established. The genie may not go back in the bottle. It seems theoretically possible for technology to be used to spread the teaching of Jesus, but it also seems that the negative influences are quickening and that the damage already done is extensive.
This is reflected in the tragedies (particularly the violence) that our culture experiences on a regular basis. It would seem obvious that a change in course is required and that the current path is untenable. It would seem obvious that traditional values must be part of the answer. But it also seemed obvious that the people of Jesus’ hometown should not have taken offense at Him, or that the Pharisees should have embraced Him instead of plotting to kill Him.
I do not have the power to control the destiny of our culture. I do not have the power to control the decision making of others.
I only have the power to control my personal choices and the example I set.
Once again, I have found that the Scripture I encounter in Mass speaks directly to the writing I have undertaken. Today is the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The second reading comes from chapter thirteen of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. It is one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament. In part, it reads:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
As a Christian, the current culture likes to accuse me of intolerance, even of hate. It is “a resounding gong, a clashing cymbal,” in my ears, but not in a good way. It seems as if it is entirely bereft of the kind of Love that is spoken about here. It often amounts to nothing, and if I were to conform myself to it, I would gain and become nothing.
I must choose to answer the culture in the true spirit of the above passage. I must not brood over the injuries, real or perceived, that the culture brings to me. I must bear with the culture and endure it. I must not be jealous, pompous, or rude. I must not seek my own interests or be quick-tempered. In response to it, I must be patient and kind. I must be a hopeful messenger about the true nature of Love.
The reading in Mass ended with these words: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the greatest because it is, to hearken back to chapter two, “both the fuel and the product of an engine of Life and Light” that God put into place to govern Creation. Love is also the motivation which caused God to send His Son into the World to secure my salvation. Love is God and God is Love, and this is what makes Love the primary, paramount, unassailable force in the Cosmos.
Faith. Hope. Love. These, with the addition of joy, are what form the expanded beginning of this journey that I defined at the close of the last reflection. The pertinence of this Scripture to my writing is prescient and revelatory. That my writing is at the stage where this Scripture speaks to it directly is not accidental. I find it to be a part of the plan and a direct expression of the Will of God. It demands that my sense of gratitude be expanded even further.
If I believe, as the Scripture indicates, that “Love never fails,” how can I make anything other than returning God’s Love to Him the primary pursuit of my life? If returning Love is my primary pursuit, does that not require obedience to God in general, and obedience to the opening words of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark in particular?
How can I not rush to understand and embrace Jesus’ call to Penance?
The acceleration of the expansion of technology has happened within my adult life. I can remember when cable TV did not exist, let alone the streaming devices and apps that have made traditional modes of watching TV obsolete. I did not get my first computer until I was a senior in college. When I began my working career, there was no such thing as the Internet or email. My first cell phone came when I was over thirty years old. The pace of change is unprecedented in the course of history.
St. Francis was born about the year 1181. He lived more than a thousand years after the birth of the Christ, but his understanding of Penance would have closely mirrored that of Jesus. The progress of man was slow enough at that point in history, and Francis was committed enough to following the teachings of Jesus precisely, that I can surely glean the original intent of the teaching of Jesus on Penance from the life of St. Francis.
Therefore, to introduce the full and proper definition of Penance, I am comfortable relying on the first chapter of Love’s Reply. Please understand that even though this definition occurs in a Franciscan setting, its application is universal. There is no order within the Catholic Church that would disagree with casting Penance in these terms. Note that even though these words are more than sixty years old, they anticipate the assertion of the primacy of man and the influence of technology in today’s world. These changes were just beginning at the time that Esser and Grau were writing, but they could already intuit the long-term impact they would have.
Here is a what Love’s Reply has to say about the true meaning of Penance:
“Unfortunately, in modern usage the word “penance” has taken on a somewhat narrow meaning. By “penance” we usually understand the practice of works of external mortification, works that we undertake of our own initiative. When penance is mentioned we almost involuntarily think of fasting………As a result, the “life of penance” has acquired a very restricted, not to say even a distorted, meaning.”
“Francis had in mind something greater and deeper since he understood penance primarily in the sense of gospel “Metanoia,” which literally implies a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being.”
What I wish to concentrate on here is the word “Metanoia,” and the idea that Penance calls me to an “unceasing renewal” that requires me to “tend to God with all my being.”
This is the opposite of what current culture calls us to. In terms of Love’s Reply, the distinction sounds like this:
If the Kingdom of God is thus established wherever God is made once more the center of life of the individual and of mankind, that kingdom is destroyed or threatened whenever man by sin puts himself in the place of God, for thereby he seeks to be lord unto himself, and loves himself rather than God.
In terms of the beginning of chapter seven of the gospel of Mark, which is now the subject of my daily Lectio Divina, it sounds like this:
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, But their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain. Their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
Technology and the pace of change seem to cast the desire of man to replace God as a new problem. But in truth, it is age old.
In this passage from Mark, the Pharisees have questioned Jesus about the practices of his disciples. They eat with “unclean” hands, and the Pharisees want to know why they do not follow the tradition of the elders. Jesus informs the Pharisees that many of their traditions are contrary to the commands of God. He talks about how the teachings of the Pharisees inhibit the teaching of Moses and the command of God to “honor your father and your mother.” He summarizes his reply to the Pharisees by stating, “you do many things like that.”
He then calls the crowd to Him, and to emphasize the sinful will of men, He teaches that “nothing outside a man can make him unclean.” Instead, it is “out of men’s hearts” that evil comes.
Metanoia, with its call to “tend to God with all my being,” asks me to live counter to the current culture and to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Instead of “putting myself in the place of God and seeking to be a lord unto myself,” I am to condemn myself and my sinfulness and put Love for God ahead of all other concerns. Instead of following the “rules taught by men,” and thereby locating my heart far from the Love of Jesus, I am called to discern and follow the commands of God, and thereby locate myself in the closest possible proximity to my Creator.
All of this requires the “unceasing renewal” of Metanoia. Again, human frailty and the teaching of article seven of the OFS rule comes to mind:
United by their vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance,” and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.”
The Rule calls me to “conform my thoughts and deeds to those of Christ.” This is tantamount to asking me to “tend to God with all my being.” The “conversion” of the Rule corresponds to the “unceasing renewal” of Love’s Reply.
The same equivalencies are also found in the Earlier Exhortation of St. Francis to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which serves as the Prologue to the OFS Rule. Here is the opening of the first section, Concerning Those Who Do Penance:
All who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with all their strength, and love their neighbors as themselves and hate their bodies with their vices and sins, and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produce worthy fruits of penance.
Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when they do these things and persevere in doing them, ………………………
To “love the Lord with my whole heart, my whole soul and mind, and with all my strength” is to “tend to God with all my being.” To “persevere in doing these things” is to embrace “unceasing renewal.”
Of course, these words by Francis are, in turn, taken directly from the gospel. In the twelfth chapter of Mark, Jesus is asked which is the most important command of all by a teacher of the law. He responds,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
I begin with a gospel passage that shows Jesus instructing the Pharisees that their traditions are often in conflict with the commands of God. I travel from that gospel passage to the OFS Rule, and then to the words of Francis, and then back to the gospel, all to confirm what I have found in the writing in Love’s Reply. In doing so, I embrace article four of the Rule as mentioned in the last reflection, which instructs me to go “from gospel to life and life to gospel.”
This action is an example of Metanoia. I am leaving behind the worries of the world and searching for relationship with God. I am committing myself to placing that relationship with God at the center and core of my being. I am not relying on my judgment, but I am instead seeking the words of my Father Francis, and even more so, the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, to guide me into Truth. As Francis would have me do, I am seeking to become lesser, and in doing so, I am subordinating myself to God and the teachings of Christ.
This is an example of how I can “tend to God with all my being,” at least for a short stretch of time. If my embrace of Penance is going to be complete, then I need to learn to follow this pattern “unceasingly.”
God wants me to be relentless. He wants me to devote myself to Penance unequivocally. Therefore, according to the path to salvation that He has established for me in the gospels, He gives me everything I need to do so. The gospel is full of passages that call me to this way of life.
If I possessed enough energy and was a hundred times smarter, I could spend the rest of my life writing books on this topic. I could read all four gospels from end to end, taking almost every story that Jesus tells and every event in His life, and fit them into the idea of tending to God with all my energy. I could then revisit the Old Testament and the balance of the New Testament and reinforce this idea further. In many ways, all that is in Scripture is an echo or amplification of this need to turn myself unambiguously toward God.
It would be the work of a lifetime. But that is appropriate, because Penance is meant to be the work of a lifetime. It is never complete. It always calls to us. It always seeks to capture our imagination and to direct our action. It is an overarching concept that requires all the attention we can give it. Thus the need for “unceasing renewal” as discussed above and “daily conversion” as called for in article seven of the Rule.
Here are several more examples from the gospels that might help keep both the need and the desire for Penance active in our consciousness.
- In the first chapter of Luke, Mary is visited by an angel. The news that Gabriel brings to Mary is overwhelming. And yet, she responds by surrendering herself to the Will of God. Then, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, she declares, in one of the most beautifully subtle and sensational sentences I have ever encountered in my life, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She is speaking of using her soul as a tool to “tend to God with all her being.” The result of her tending is joy, the same joy that became pervasive in the life of Francis when he learned to focus his entire being on the life and gospel of his Lord Jesus Christ. The same joy that I added to the definition of beginning at the end of the last chapter.
These passages do not appear back-to-back in the gospel, but I began to pray them end-to-end while on my journey. They are slightly tweaked to suit my purpose.
I am the handmaid of the Lord. May the Holy Spirit come upon me, and may the power of the Most High overshadow me. May it be done to me and through me according to your Will and Word. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regard for the humble and lowly estate of his servant.
I invite you to spend time praying with these words in this configuration. Can they be used to express a desire to draw as close to God as I possibly can? Do they express the humility and surrender that is required for such proximity to be developed? Are they words that could be repeated often, not just daily, but multiple times each day, to help reinforce a desire to encounter God regularly in an attitude of unceasing conversion?
- In Luke chapter nine (also Mark chapter eight), Jesus teaches his disciples about the path that He, as the son of Man, must follow. And then He calls them to the same path:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”
If you read these words in the context of this discussion of Penance, is the true and deep meaning of Penance and Metanoia clear? Does Jesus’ call to “deny myself” and to “lose my life for His sake” ring out to me as an invitation to tend toward Him with all my being? Does the instruction to “take up my cross daily and follow Him” remind me of the need for unceasing renewal and constant conversion? When He speaks about “gaining the world but losing my very self,” can I do anything other than think about the distorted state of the current culture I live in and the need to strive against the sinful usurpations it calls me to?
- If a reminder of my dogged tendency toward sinfulness will help my embrace of Penance, then I can find this in the gospels as well. Peter’s intractable inability to grasp what Jesus was teaching gives me great hope, because I can see by his example that even the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church was fallible. He was in direct contact with Jesus, a part of his inmost circle, and yet he often faced away from Christ, turning inward as he clung to his own very worldly definition of what salvation would entail.
He had to undergo adversity and conversion before he could decipher how to “tend to God with all his being” in a posture of “unceasing renewal.” Only after he figured this out, was he fit to fulfill the role that Jesus selected him for.
Here is Matthew 16:21-23 (also Mark chapter eight), which demonstrates Peter’s inwardness and “human concern” perfectly.
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
And then Matthew 26:31-35, where, in his inwardness and worldliness, he has the audacity to directly contradict what Jesus is telling him:
Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.
Peter’s bravado could be excused, perhaps, if it only happened once and he learned his lesson. But it seems that it was an ongoing problem. The rebuke from Jesus in the first passage is stern. I have a hard time imagining how I would react to Jesus calling me Satan. That would shake me up, and I would hope that if it did happen, it would lead to my permanent conversion.
But, if I am honest, I must admit that He regularly reveals my sinful nature to me. Peter did not get it the first time, nor have I. Even after the rebuke, Peter could not let go of his own view of what the coming of the Messiah meant, so it is not surprising that I struggle to let go of my own sinful need to control everything that happens around me.
Peter and I are like the Pharisees. We hold on to our worldliness even though it is in direct conflict with the commands that God speaks to us directly. Peter may have been physically present, but the gospels make me as present to Christ as I need to be, and I also have recourse to the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Even though we are both right there for the message of Jesus, we often cannot free ourselves sufficiently from our human perspective to accept and adopt His teaching. This is true even though we both confess Jesus to be the Messiah. (Luke 9:20)
Peter’s hubris, which amounts to an instance of the same ascendancy of man that is so prevalent in our modern culture, ultimately leads to a significant mistake. At his lowest point, he denies Jesus outright, and he ends up with the bitter tears that initiate the Penance that will allow him to be reinstated by Jesus at the end of John’s gospel.
Do you, like me, see yourself as more like Peter than you wish you were? Do you often fail to get the message and as a result repeat the sins you swore you would put behind you? Is Peter an example of the need for “unceasing renewal?” And are there times when your remorse is so bitter and you are so anxious to be forgiven that you would metaphorically jump out of the boat and swim to shore because you cannot wait one extra moment to be reunited with Jesus?
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.
Did Peter, in the end, “tend toward God with all his being” despite his sinfulness?
At the beginning of his testament, St. Francis writes, “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way ……. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.” This is the example I wish to follow. I wish to do Penance and to leave the worldly influence behind just as Francis did.
If I embrace Penance as fully as possible, if I turn my full attention to God and do not waver, and if I do so unceasingly, I can hope to be reconciled to Jesus just as Peter was.
To have a genuinely meaningful and successful conversion, I need my gratitude to translate into an embrace of the full and deep meaning of “Penance” as conveyed by the word Metanoia. The Penance I seek is not, as current cultural conventions might suggest, simply the giving up of some relatively trivial and earthly thing. Instead, it is a deep and unwavering commitment to turn toward the Lord and never turn back. If my resolution is to have worth, it must go beyond the merely material and worldly. It must not merely contain the negative but must also embrace the positive. I must not merely give up the sinful, but I must embrace the Holy.
To embrace the Holy, I must embrace virtue, defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a habitual and firm disposition to good.” When Loves Reply defines Penance as “a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being,” it is defining a turn toward virtue. This means that my work must be based at least as much in doing good as in ceasing to do evil. If I seek to not only discontinue the negative, but to also begin the positive, I must replace the negative with its opposite. I must enact the good that corrects and makes restitution for whatever the sinful behavior might be.
In terms of the example of Peter, I must not only not deny Christ, but I must actively and passionately cling to Him as Peter likely did once he made it out of the water.
I do this by seeking encounter. I can encounter Christ in the Eucharist, in Scripture, in spiritual reading, in prayer, in Creation, and in my sisters and brothers. Article 5 of the OFS Rule puts it like this:
Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity.
I can actively spend time seeking Him in any of these venues instead of spending my time mired in the sinful actions I wish to set aside.
When St. Clare wrote letters of counsel to St. Agnes of Prague, this was very much the message she spoke to her. The most famous passage from those letters reads like this:
….as a poor virgin, embrace the poor Christ. Look upon Him Who became contemptible for you, and follow Him, making yourself contemptible in this world for Him. Most noble Queen, gaze, consider, contemplate, desiring to imitate Your Spouse,
[Who] though more beautiful than the children of men became, for your salvation, the lowest of men, was despised, struck, scourged untold times throughout His entire body, and then died amid the suffering of the Cross.
If you suffer with Him, you will reign with Him. weeping with Him, you will rejoice with Him; dying on the cross of tribulation with Him, you will possess heavenly mansions with Him among the splendor of the saints and in the Book of Life your name will be called glorious among the peoples.
Because of this you shall share always and forever the glory of the kingdom of heaven in place of what is earthly and passing, and everlasting treasures instead of those that perish, and you shall live forever and ever.
“Embrace the poor Christ. Look upon Him, follow Him, gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate” Him. “Suffer, reign, weep, rejoice, and die with Him.”
All calls for Agnes, but also for me, to encounter Him.
The theme of separating myself from worldly influence shines through here. Clare clearly calls Agnes to exactly the relationship with God that I have been discussing in reference to Penance. Clare wants Agnes to not just tend toward Christ, but to “make herself contemptible in this world for him.” She is to actively seek to suffer, weep, and die with Him on the Cross. To rearrange the quote from Love’s Reply a little, this surely entails a “complete and unceasing change of mind” from the typical outlook of any day or age.
The final goal of my journey is also present. I am seeking eternal encounter with God. Clare promises Agnes that her firm embrace of Penance and Poverty will result in “possessing heavenly mansions with Him among the splendor of the saints” and “sharing always and forever the glory of the kingdom of heaven in place of what is earthly and passing.”
Franciscans use the words gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate to define an approach to prayer that is eminently well suited to the embrace of Penance. An encounter or embrace of Christ begins with gazing, with simply placing myself in His presence. It is fulfilled by my desire to imitate the example He set for me by His Incarnation, His Passion, and His ongoing presence and availability in the world. This example is right in front of me if I sit observing a Crucifix or an Icon, and it is laid out before me in the gospels and elaborated upon in the rest of Scripture.
In this approach to prayer, I place myself in front of an image of Christ and gaze upon it. It is an act of Lectio Divina, where, instead of considering and contemplating Scripture, I consider and contemplate the image as a representation of all the Scriptural passages that inspire that image. If I am gazing at a Crucifix, gospel passages about the Passion of Christ arise in me. If the image is of a different scene, perhaps something like the Garden of Gethsemane, then passages relevant to that scene emerge.
If you are having trouble deciding how to begin a commitment to Penance, resolve yourself to trying this practice. Commit to spending time gazing at Jesus. Let the considering and contemplating take care of themselves. Let gospel passages arise in your thoughts as they will or read them in tandem with your gazing, but maybe not at the same sitting.
However you go about it, simply remind yourself once in a while that Penance is what you seek. Remind yourself that you understand Penance to mean a complete and continuous turning toward God with all your being. As you gaze, remember that this was His Way during His sojourn on earth. Jesus was always and unconditionally focused on His Father during His entire stay. That is how He maintained his steadfastness in the Garden, resolving to do God’s Will despite the horrific hardships that awaited Him.
Imitate Him in this. Pray to the Holy Spirit to help you dwell with God always, the same way that Jesus did.
As His Creation, it is Christ’s Love, Sacrifice and Mercy that make my redemption and salvation possible despite my sinful unworthiness. I will embrace complete and unwavering gratitude, faith, belief
, joy, and hope in response to this.
I will, with an attitude of full commitment to Penance, resolve to give up all worldly concern, as much as possible, permanently, as I seek to return His Love to Him according to the nature and call of my Creation.
I will resolve to give my entire self to Him.