As part of my Lenten prayer, I took time to reflect on the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, which was the four verses of Mk 1:12-15. What immediately struck me was the last line, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
I’ve heard this admonition often enough over the years, but for the first time it occurred to me to wonder whether Jesus’ audience would have understood the word “gospel.” We Catholics understand “gospel” to mean the four books of the Bible written by the four evangelists. More broadly, we call the gospel the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand. In the verses quoted above, just before he called for repentance Jesus proclaimed the Good News: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The word “gospel” in Greek means “good news,” a concept that the Jews in Jesus’ audience would have interpreted in the context of the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a messenger who brought glad tidings and good news, announced salvation, “who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Is 52:7). So, yes, the Jews to whom Jesus spoke would have understood the word “gospel,” although not in the way that he intended it.
The first part of Jesus’ message was familiar to Jews as well. Repent! Jesus echoed this call of John the Baptist; St. Mark tells us that Jesus began his public ministry “after John had been arrested.” A bit earlier in his gospel, Mark had written of John “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk1:4).
John was the last in a long line of Jewish prophets calling for the Jews to repent; as Christians, during Lent we hear this call over and over again. The word “repent” in Greek means “to turn away from,” but if we turn away from something, we must necessarily turn toward something else. If we turn away from our sins, what are we turning toward? In the Gospel verses above, Jesus in essence calls us to turn away from our sins and to turn toward the good news. For Christians, the “good news” is the salvation that comes through Christ.
This is where Jesus offended the Jews. As the Gospel of Mark progresses, Jesus calls the Jews to believe in him as the Messiah, but the chief priests and scribes refused to believe that he was the Son of Man. They thought he was just a man; they knew his parents and his relatives, knew he was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, so they refused to believe.
Today, we Christians must be careful when we say we believe in Jesus. We acknowledge that he was in fact “a man like us in all things but sin,” as the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer states. But if Jesus were only a man who said the things he did, “He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse,” as C.S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity.
We Christians believe that Jesus was no madman; rather, he is not only fully man but also fully divine. He is the son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, the Messiah who would save the Jewish nation. When he said, “Repent, and believe in the gospel,” he was saying, “Turn away from sin and turn to the message I, as the Son, bring from the Father.”
In his homily at the Cathedral of the Madeleine Sunday, Bishop Oscar A. Solis said that God, through the readings for the day, invites us to renew our faith and our covenant relationship with him, to set our priorities, to recognize our sins in the light of his mercy, and to resolve to reform our lives. We do this through the three Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
During the next five weeks, as we prepare for the coming of Christ at Easter, let us use these three Lenten practices to turn from sin and toward God.