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A Positive Penitential Disposition

On the Gospel of Mark 1:12-15

1st Sunday of Lent

The readings for the first Sunday of Lent introduce some key themes to help us prepare for Easter. Temptation, sin, repentance, penance, cleansing waters, mercy, faith, love and mission are just a few of the signposts we believers meet as we journey along life’s road. At various times in our lives however, some of them are more prominent than others. The delicate interplay between such concepts and the varying successes they enjoy in each person’s life can be very indicative of how that person relates to the world, others and ultimately to God. Saint John teaches us that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8). This is the sort of reassurance which should hopefully come to the fore when we struggle internally, propelling us onwards when we lose our way. Too often though, we allow this love to be usurped by the despair, the hopelessness and the shame of our shortcomings. The only remedy this sorry state seems to offer is further self – abasement in a misconstrued logic believed to lead back to God. Our Lenten offering, if it is to be pleasing to God, needs to be founded on something a little more substantial than a self-centred sort of self-discipline.

Of course this awareness of our own limitations and our rightful acknowledgement of ourselves as creatures entirely dependent on the Creator is crucial in our reconciliation with God but we are being challenged to move beyond that. Giving up chocolate and coffee or whatever other penitential offerings we undertake this Lent most certainly have their place. They are but a first step though on the journey inward. We need to keep reminding ourselves of why we take on these challenges during Lent. Ideally we want to be rid of the things that captivate us. It is about making space for God in our lives. Jesus’ strength of character in the desert nourished His interior life which in turn fed His public ministry. Both His interior and exterior life complement each other in what is an example of a complete and unreserved ‘Yes’ to His Father’s will. We too must go in so as to be better prepared to go out.

‘The Kingdom of God is close at hand’ Jesus proclaimed. This is the Good News. His command to ‘repent’ is but the first step towards the realisation of that goal and is not the goal itself. Our penitential character needs to be shaped by this liberating insight. Alas though, our ideas of reparation or making amends are often coloured by our ideas of justice. When an offender has served his time in prison we say ‘he has paid his debt to society’. Perhaps we bring this to our relationship with God. The only problem is that by ourselves we could never have ‘paid our debt’ in that sense. All the burnt offerings in the world could not have achieved that. The otherwise insurmountable gulf between what was owed and what could realistically be given would in itself have been a cause for despair. Thankfully, our loving Saviour cancelled that debt on Calvary, making reparation for us with the perfect sacrifice of His blood.

So then, what sort of sacrifice is expected of us?  ‘You have already been told what is right and what Yahweh wants of you. Only this, to do what is right, to love loyalty and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8). Again Samuel speaks of the type of sacrifice the Lord seeks when he reprimands Saul. ‘Is Yahweh pleased by burnt offerings and sacrifices or by obedience to Yahweh’s voice? Truly, obedience is better than sacrifice, submissiveness than the fat of rams’ (1 Sam 15:22). The Prophet Hosea says as much when he relays the Lord’s intentions to his audience. ‘What I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts’ (Hosea 6:6). The Psalmist reiterates the same sentiments on numerous occasions; (Ps 4:6), (Ps 50:18-19) and (Ps 116:17) but to name a few. The false image of a cold, exacting, vindictive god is rightly eclipsed by the understanding, loving God we often lose sight of.

After all, slimming is more than passively abstaining from food isn’t it? Sure, that is part of it but progress is primarily something active demanding physical exercise and the intake of the right kind of food. So it is with the spiritual life. Perhaps this Lent, rather than just ‘giving up the wrong stuff’ we might also consider ‘taking in the right stuff’. God – centred sacrifices like making an extra effort to be present to the Lord at prayer, a few minutes of spiritual reading each day or a helpful, cheerful attitude at home or in the workplace are a far more effective preparation than any individual ascetic heroics. Still though, neither is easy! Thus, it is imperative that we bring our hearts and our minds to our Lenten penances, whatever they may be, lest we offer lip service with our bodies to a God who is intent on lifting us up, not on keeping us down. Armed with this knowledge we can follow Jesus out to the desert confident that with His help we too can follow Him back again, strengthened for the mission.


At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being temptedby Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. 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 has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

– Mark 1:12-15


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