The repentance that John the Baptist preached had a singular purpose, which was to turn away from sin and prepare to receive the Messiah upon His coming. John’s baptism was life-changing, and undoubtedly had the appearance of being complete unto itself. An explanation was necessary as John’s popularity grew. We read in chapter three of the Gospel of Matthew:
“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
After being baptized himself, Jesus was led into the desert for forty days prior to the beginning of His public ministry. In the next chapter, we see Jesus proclaiming the message of repentance in its fullness:
“When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 4:12-17)
On Ash Wednesday every year, one of the formulations that is said as the ashes are applied contains the wording as recorded in the Gospel of Mark: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). This twofold process, put simply, would involve turning away from sin, and turning toward God for mercy and forgiveness.
The message of repentance, punctuated at the beginning of Lent, is meant to be part of the “daily bread” of prayer operative in our lives throughout the year. Let us pray for the grace to avail ourselves of the fullness of repentance that Christ offers us every day, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.