Circles of Repentance (Jonah 3; Mk 1:14-15)
At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus issues a no-holds-barred directive: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” It’s worthwhile noting that his command does not mean asking forgiveness for this or that sin. More fundamentally he’s asking his disciples to make a “180-degree turn,” to do an about face to God, to leave their former ways behind and start out on a new road following The Lord Jesus.
All of us in the Vincentian Family have set out to serve God’s poor ones in Jesus’ name and so it would seem we’ve already taken that turn. At one time in our adult lives we asked, “Do I think all this is real, do I believe there’s substance to the claim that God is present in the sacraments and in each other and especially in the disadvantaged of the world?” Affirming that, we stepped out on the way of discipleship and took up Jesus’ challenge to repentance and belief in the Gospel.
But we know it can’t be that simple, a once-and-for-all change of direction with no looking back, no wandering away. For one, that kind of constancy doesn’t match most people’s experience (for sure not mine!). And for another, it doesn’t square up with the faith biographies of so many recognized disciples.
Jonah in the Old Testament is a good instance. If you read selected snippets of his career, they can sound as if he immediately jumped at God’s call to drop everything and head out to Nineveh to preach repentance. But seen against his whole story, Jonah’s path was anything but straight and constant. Initially when Yahweh asked him to bring the divine message to that city, his immediate reaction was to get on boat and head the other way. It took a shipwreck and an obliging whale to get him turned in God’s direction. And after his successful appeal to the citizens of Nineveh, we find him again falling off the trail as he scolds The Lord for accepting their repentance and bestowing forgiveness. Yahweh once more must pick him up and point him rightly. Jonah is a three-time penitent (better, re-penitent)! He turns to God’s way but many more times than once.
A second instance of this patchy repentance comes in the behavior of Jesus’ apostles. These fishermen go for broke when at a first invite they drop their sea-going careers to follow The Lord. Wasn’t that a “180,” a walking away from everything they knew, a noble and definitive turnaround? But we all know how their stories play out. In Mark’s Gospel especially, these followers over and over miss Jesus’ point and eventually walk away from him – and then are brought back. And then there’s Peter publicly declaring he’d follow his Master anywhere but at one point outright denying him – and later at that seashore so lovingly brought back.
We could easily include St. Vincent on this list, a man who in his conferences is constantly repenting of his faults and failings and just as frequently resolving to start out again on the path of God’s will.
Repentance is not a one-time thing. It’s more the case that this turn-around happens over and over all through a disciple’s life. For the truth is that the word conversion most always needs the adjective “continual” in front of it — occurring again and again, a one-time turnaround that needs successive turn-arounds, continual conversion. The road of repentance is a winding road – better, a circling road. What counts is that a person keeps setting out on it, keeps being redirected to it, keeps hearing God’s welcome back onto it.
Most faith stories are not shining ones hitting the mark every time. But isn’t this more consoling than discouraging. The plot line of repentance runs up and down rather than just up. A recent book title, “Falling Upwards” (Richard Rohr), catches the sense of this as it lays out paths by which someone’s fall downwards can contribute so much to his or hers climb upwards.
Ash Wednesday is a special day for hearing this message personally. “Repent and Believe in the Gospel,” says the minister as he smudges our foreheads with the ashes. The clear invitation to repentance is there, the call to “turn around” and walk again on God’s Way. But its stark sound is softened when heard against the stories of so many of our ancestors in the faith who in their own back-and-forth ways “fell upwards” into God’s arms. The God who is beside me as I promise my repentance (“the 180”) is the God who will meet me at those future times when conversion is once again in order. The summons to turn is not just for that opening day of Lent, but perhaps more so for all the turns in the days ahead (“turn, turn, turn”), all those invitations to go on heeding the call of Jesus to “Come and follow Me.”