Lent, the Season of Repentance
"As God's co-workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. For he says,
'At the acceptable time I have listened to you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.'
Behold, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation."
-2 Corinthians 6:1-2
These verses from Saint Paul remind us that there is no better time to repent of our sins than the present moment. Newman makes a similar point in his sermon "Neglect of Divine Calls and Warnings." Specifically, he warns his listeners against the sin of presumption, or committing a willful sin with the thought in mind that one will be able to confess it and do penance at a later date.
There are two serious problems with this way of thinking. First, vices (like virtues) are habits, such that the more we sin the more difficult it becomes to turn away from sin. As Newman puts it, "Every sin has a history: it is not an accident; it is the fruit of former sins in thought or in deed; it is the token of a habit deeply seated and widely spread …" (DA, 27). We deceive ourselves, then, if we think that walking with Christ will be easier in the future. If anything, the weight of sin is likely to weigh heavier upon us the longer we delay repentance.
Second, no one knows the day or the hour when he will be called into the presence of God to give an account of his life. The fact that death comes to many as a surprise is clear both from the pages of Scripture as well as from our experience of the world. In Newman's words: "No one can say how it will happen in his own case; no one can promise himself that he shall have time for repentance; or, if he have time, that he shall have any supernatural movement of the heart towards God; or, even then, that a Priest will be at hand to give him absolution" (DA, 32). Confess now, Newman insists, while the opportunity is readily before you.
These are not easy words to hear, but they are timely reminders as we begin this holy season of Lent. The flip-side of being confronted with our own sinfulness, of course, is the good news of God's loving mercy. As the book of Lamentations says,
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22–23)
In reading Newman's letters and diaries, it's clear that he knew of divine mercy not as an abstract theological idea, but at a deeply personal level as a core part of his spiritual journey. Because he himself had experienced the grace of God in many profound ways, Newman was eager to encourage others to cast themselves before the mercy seat.
At the start of this holy season, it's worth returning to this facet of Newman's preaching. And so, as we begin the journey towards Easter, I pray that you and I will heed his call to repentance, expressed powerfully in another sermon he preached:
"And for those who have in any grievous way sinned or neglected God, I recommend such persons never to forget they have sinned; if they forget it not, God in mercy will forget it. I recommend them every day, morning and evening, to fall on their knees, and say, 'Lord, forgive me my past sins.' I recommend them to pray God to visit their sins in this world rather than in the next … Let them not cease to pray, under all circumstances, that God will pardon them, and give them back what they have lost. And thus, by God's grace, it shall be restored to them, and Esau's great and bitter cry [Gen. 27:34] never shall be theirs." (PPS, 6:25)
Wishing you all a fruitful and spiritually rewarding Lent!