This week we will be celebrating two important moments in the church calendar: Ash Wednesday and Lent. Ash Wednesday starts by focusing the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession. Lent likewise is a 40-day period that centers around a penitential mood preparing us for Christ’s return. This season has always reminded me of a particular incident where I was lovingly taught about having a repentant spirit.
When I was in elementary school, we had something called show and tell. Kids would bring in toys or anything that brought them joy to show others and tell them about it. One child brought a cool looking figure with a skateboard attached. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen! I was so enamored with it that I stole it and hid it in my bookbag. I began to head home, but I had one obstacle in my way. I knew that my mom would wonder where this foreign toy came from. So on my way home, I roughed the toy up, rubbed grass in it so that it would look worn and would appear like I found it on my way home.
With my fabricated story now set, I came into the house and my mom took one look at me and said no. No? What did she mean no? She looked at the toy and asked where I got it. The tightness in my stomach and throat grew and I tried to give my story, but she didn’t buy it. Finally I confessed my sins. My mom was gracious, but she also wanted to teach me something further. The next day she came with me to school where I had to confess my wrongs to the person I stole from as well as the teacher, in public! I felt like my life was over and I was so ashamed and embarrassed.
But my mom was teaching me an important lesson that both Ash Wednesday and Lent teach: preparing me to mortify my flesh and repent. It is a pattern that my mom wanted me to live out, something that God teaches throughout Scripture. I wanted that toy, I was envious of it, so I took it. It wasn’t my toy to take and in the process I wronged God (whether I believed in him or not), my mother and the person whose toy I took.
In the book of Jeremiah, the people of Israel including its priests and leaders have fallen desperately away from God and He is constantly calling His people to return back to Him. This word return means to turn away from and/or to turn back to. It is used in Jeremiah to show that despite their wrongdoing, their blatant sin and rebellion that had become a pattern, God still loved them enough to welcome them back, if they would just repent and turn back to Him.
Was my mother punishing me? Trying to embarrass me? I don’t think so, even if I felt it at the time, instead she was teaching a pattern of life, one derived from her Catholic upbringing. Repentance is a characteristic or cornerstone of the life of a follower of Jesus.
God opposes sin, but He is merciful and just to welcome us back in love through repentance. Repentance is so foundational that Jesus made it part of His opening vision statement as He begins His ministry in Matthew 4:17 saying, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
For Jesus, the kingdom of God coming meant that people couldn’t just stand idly by or remain in their current condition. In order to prepare for the kingdom coming, one must repent. This is what the season of Lent is all about, preparing our hearts, minds and souls for the coming Christ. Jesus has told us that we prepare our hearts by examining what is not in line with His heart, and that we prepare it by turning away from sin and returning back to Him.