The first recorded words of Jesus in Scripture occur in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel and fulfill John the Baptist’s message of repentance. At the very beginning of His public ministry, Jesus made this proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) If these words seem familiar, it might be because they are spoken on Ash Wednesday as one of the formulations said as the ashes are placed on our foreheads.
Repentance is essentially acknowledging sin and expressing contrition and was integral to the preaching of John the Baptist. Upon the arrival of Jesus, John immediately “stepped aside”. He made this distinction between his baptism and the one that Jesus came to Earth to accomplish:
“Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (John 1:24-27)
John’s baptism with water was the necessary first step in a process that was to find its completion in the Messiah. The two steps of repentance can be stated this way: Turn away from sin and turn toward God. John prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah and His salvific mission on Earth as described in this passage from the Gospel According to John:
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:29-31)
The importance of repentance is underscored in the Gospel of Luke involving two tragic situations in Jesus’ time, while being applicable across the generations to the present day. The necessity of acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness spans across time and space to all of God’s children regardless of their circumstances:
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Let us pray for the grace to acknowledge our sins, turn to God with contrite hearts, and receive the forgiveness and restoration that is ours for the asking in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.