In many ways, the readings for the First Sunday of Lent are a continuation of the readings from Ash Wednesday. The former, like the latter, establish a vision for how we should approach the totality of Lent, giving us the perspective we need to grow as we are called to do during this season. At the heart of this Sunday’s readings is the same message at the heart of lent: repentance.
This message could not be clearer in the Gospel, where we hear the first words Jesus speaks in Mark’s Gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
These words could easily be applied to this season of Lent. This is, in a particular fashion, a time of fulfillment, as we have an opportunity to fulfill our responsibilities to God and God is working to fulfill the divine promises made to us. Repentance provides the pathway to this fulfillment.
The connection is clearer when we think about the ends we are trying to achieve. The Catholic moral tradition describes the ends of the moral life with a variety of images, but they all fundamentally point to the same claim: “all [humans] are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 24).
St. Thomas Aquinas captured this calling by defining charity as the form of the virtues in the Christian moral life. By this he meant that the good Christians do is supposed to be motivated by not just a generic orientation of love, but an all-consuming love that amounts to friendship with God.
All this is to say that the Catholic vision for a good human life emphasizes our relationship with God. The repentance we pursue during Lent points toward a fulfillment of this calling because it allows us to rebuild our relationship with God.
One important way in which we can rebuild—or strengthen, if you prefer an even more positive connotation—our relationship with God is by taking stock of our sin so that we can turn away from it more fully. St. Augustine famously described those who sin as “incurvatus in se” (curved in on oneself), revealing just how sinning can pull us away from our proper relationship with God, and others. This is the point Emily stressed in her lectionary post on the Ash Wednesday readings, highlight how sin is a rupture of relationship.
Recognizing this roadblock to relationship, today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter uses allusions to the experience of Noah in Genesis to emphasize that however far we stray, “God patiently wait[s]” for our return. Furthermore, the reading creates a parallel between the great flood and baptism, explaining that the cleansing “is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience.”
In this way, the second reading reveals that the pathway to return to right relationship with God is through a reformed conscience that helps us live rightly. We move away from sin, which turns is in on ourselves, and toward a morally upright life empowered by the grace of God, which opens us up to a renewed relationship with our Creator.
These two movements—away from sin and toward God—are intimately connected, and explain both sides of repentance. We need both, because if we are used to the ways of sin, as we all are to some extent (Who among us loves perfectly à la Mt 19:21/Veritatis Splendor nos. 16–18? Who among us is not complicit in the scandals of our structures of sin?), then the pathway to right relationship with God often looks unappealing, because it is a significant change from where we are.
This challenge is what the responsorial Psalm highlights when it proclaims, “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.” Just as vigorous exercise can seem excruciating for someone used to a sedentary lifestyle even though it is a great benefit for their body, so the moral norms for right living can seem like a painful imposition when we are used to sin. With the Lenten call to repentance, however, we have a chance to become more fully the people who keep God’s covenant, and in the process we will find a greater desire to abide by those moral norms in much the same way that a marathoner finds a 5k—which can seem daunting to a non-runner—to be an easy run.
The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all designed to help us make the twofold movement of repentance. They prompt us to move beyond ourselves, curing the incurvatus in se and thereby opening us to a stronger relationship with God.
Happily, the first reading, which explores God’s response to Noah after the flood, demonstrates exactly what we can hope to find at the end of our Lenten journey if we take advantage of this opportunity: the peace and contentment of a renewed relationship with the God who loves us. If we set our sights on that end goal, we will have the same joys of covenantal communion with God at the end of our forty days that Noah had at the end of his.