For you first, God raised up his servant and sent him to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.
Acts 3: 26
Thus it is written that the Messiah suffers and rises from the dead on the third day, and in his name repentance will be proclaimed to all nations for the forgiveness of sins.
Luke 24: 46-7
Luke begins his account of the public life of Jesus with the ministry of John the Baptist. John, according to Luke, tells those that come to be baptized by him, “Produce therefore deeds appropriate to conversion.” (Luke 3: 8) He concludes his gospel and begins Acts similarly with the call to “turn from our evil ways” and with the Apostles’ core initial preaching that “in his name repentance will be proclaimed to all nations for the forgiveness of sins. In Luke’s narrative, the preparation for Jesus’ coming is John’s call to the people of Israel to conversion, and after the resurrection of Jesus this call extends to all nations.
There is an old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is only one but it has to want to change. Clearly from the point of view of the gospels repentance is required if sins are to be forgiven and if the risen Jesus is to be recognized and known. What is sinful, dissonant, and disturbed in our lives can be changed, but first we have to want to change.
For individual lives, as well as the social fabric of families, communities, and nations to be reformed and transformed, each must first recognize its own need for such a reformation and transformation. We in the United States are currently living through a political campaign whose central themes appear to be the country’s greatness and infallibility and how each prospective leader will once again restore American hegemony in the world. Very seldom do we hear a call to “produce deeds appropriate to conversion.” We hear of an angry electorate that is disgusted with politicians that “make promises and then never deliver,” which leads to a movement toward persons who suggest they “will deliver” no matter how outrageous or illusory their promises. There are many, of course, who recognize the futility of such an understanding, but not often do we reflect on the spiritual heart of the problem. With nations, as with each of us as individuals, it is not easy to face the truth of things.
The prophets were those who held a mirror up to the people, the mirror being the word of God. They were usually scorned and rejected for their efforts because the truth of things always includes the need to recognize what is wrong with ourselves. Several decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that one of the great problems in the United States was our inability to recognize the irony of our history. The republic is founded on aspirations for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all, and yet it was initially created in such a way as to allow for the servitude of an entire people. We understand ourselves to be a refuge and safe haven for immigrants and yet from the early times of immigration we favored northern Europeans over southern, we imprisoned all Japanese Americans during the second world war, and we now resist the immigration of those fleeing the persecutions in the Middle East.
The call to conversion at the personal level is a call to develop a sense of irony in ourselves. We live lives both in fidelity and infidelity to our deepest aspirations. We are always in varying degrees “missing the mark” of our originality and true spiritual life direction. If our human and spiritual formation were merely our own work, this would be a source of discouragement. At the level of ego our sinfulness and weakness is a painful and hopeless frustration. This is precisely the reason we so often attempt to forget or ignore it. Although arrogance looks like strength, it is really the inability and spiritual impotence to face our own reality.
In the gospel, it is repentance and conversion that creates the space in us to recognize the Messiah and to know the risen Lord. As St. Paul, through a painful process, comes to realize: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10) Paradoxically enough, we must first acknowledge and appropriate our own inability to be faithful so that we can then receive the love and mercy of the God who is always faithful. At the point where we truly know, in every dimension of our being, our need for God, we discover that it is, in fact, God’s life, the life of the risen Jesus, in which “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) It is death to our pride, autonomy, and self-sufficiency that is the precursor and necessary condition to our rising with Christ.
In practical terms, this requires of us that we face with honesty throughout the moments of our day our actual experience, not the epic narratives of our thoughts. It asks of us that we accept all the ways we are affected by and respond to the persons, events, and situations of our lives. When we suffer because of a lack of recognition or slights at the hands of others, we accept and offer to God our smallness and infantile reactions. When we are fearful of the task at hand or the person we must face, we go ahead and do what we must, but we acknowledge and accept the struggle and difficulty we are undergoing. When we are angry and envious at the success and good fortune of others, we smile at the irony of our pettiness and our betrayal of own ideals.
Life never eases to offer us new awarenesses of our need for repentance and conversion, of our need for the strength and power of God’s mercy and love if we are to “know, love, and serve God.” Today we pray not to be embarrassed by or ashamed of our need for conversion and repentance but rather to rejoice in it, as it is our potency to receive that mercy and love that God is always offering to us.
If we—all of us—accept the grace of Jesus Christ, he changes our heart and from sinners makes us saints. To become holy we do not need to turn our eyes away and look somewhere else, or have as it were the face on a holy card! No, no, that is not necessary. To become saints only one thing is necessary: to accept the grace that the Father gives us in Jesus Christ. There, this grace changes our heart. We continue to be sinners for we are weak, but with this grace which makes us feel that the Lord is good, that the Lord is merciful, that the Lord waits for us, that the Lord pardons us—this immense grace that changes our heart.
Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy