In our Gospel, we hear the story of John the Baptizer calling for all to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He was that voice crying out in the wilderness.
In our own times, we too need to take a fresh look at our lives to see how we are living out the faith in the modern world. In preparing for the council, Blessed John XXIII begins his encyclical,
Doing penance for one's sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation. That is the clear and explicit teaching of Christ, and no one can fail to see how justified and how right the Catholic Church has always been in constantly insisting on this. She is the spokesman for her divine Redeemer. No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance.
After making a few remarks about praying for the council and our need to do penance for the success of the council he continues by talking about the calls to penance in the bible.
5. Now we have only to open the sacred books of the Old and New Testament to be assured of one thing: it was never God's will to reveal Himself in any solemn encounter with mortal men—to speak in human terms—without first calling them to prayer and penance. Indeed, Moses refused to give the Hebrews the tablets of the Law until they had expiated their crime of idolatry and ingratitude.(5)
6. So too the Prophets; they never wearied of exhorting the Israelites to make their prayers acceptable to God, their supreme Overlord, by offering them in a penitential spirit. Otherwise they would bring about their own exclusion from the plan of divine Providence, according to which God Himself was to be the King of His chosen people.
7. The most deeply impressive of these prophetic utterances is surely that warning of Joel which is constantly ringing in our ears in the course of the Lenten liturgy: "Now therefore, says the Lord, Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts and not your garments... Between the porch and the altar the priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep and say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them."(6)
8. Nor did these calls to penance cease when the Son of God became incarnate. On the contrary, they became even more insistent. At the very outset of his preaching, John the Baptist proclaimed: "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."(7) And Jesus inaugurated His saving mission in the same way. He did not begin by revealing the principal truths of the faith. First He insisted that the soul must repent of every trace of sin that could render it impervious to the message of eternal salvation: "From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."(8)
9. He was even more vehement than were the Prophets in His demands that those who listened to Him should undergo a complete change of heart and submit in perfect sincerity to all the laws of the Supreme God. "For behold," He said "the kingdom of God is within you."(9)
10. Indeed, penance is that counterforce which keeps the forces of concupiscence in check and repels them. In the words of Christ Himself, "the kingdom of heaven has been enduring violent assault, and the violent have been seizing it by force."(10)
11. The Apostles held undeviatingly to the principles of their divine Master. When the Holy Spirit had descended on them in the form of fiery tongues, Peter expressed his invitation to the multitudes to seek rebirth in Christ and to accept the gifts of the most holy Paraclete in these words: "Do penance and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."(11) Paul too, the teacher of the Gentiles, announced to the Romans in no uncertain terms that the kingdom of God did not consist in an attitude of intellectual superiority or in indulging the pleasures of sense. It consisted in the triumph of justice and in peace of mind. "For the kingdom of God does not consist in food and drink, but in justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."(12)
Penance and Baptismal Innocence
12. However, a rude awakening is in store for the person who thinks that penance is necessary only for those aspiring to membership in the kingdom of God. He who is already a member of Christ must learn of necessity to keep a rein upon himself. Only so will he be able to drive away the enemy of his soul and keep his baptismal innocence unsullied, or regain God's grace when it is lost by sin.
13. To become a member of Holy Church by baptism is to be clothed in the beauty with which Christ adorns His beloved Bride. "Christ loved the Church and delivered Himself up for her; that he might sanctify her, cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word of life; in order that he might present to himself the Church in all her glory, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she might be holy and without blemish."(13)
14. This being so, well may those sinners who have stained the white robe of their sacred baptism fear the just punishments of God. Their remedy is "to wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb"(14)—to restore themselves to their former splendor in the sacrament of Penance—and to school themselves in the practice of Christian virtue. Hence the Apostle Paul's severe warning: "A man making void the law of Moses dies without any mercy on the word of two or three witnesses; how much worse punishments do you think he deserves, who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant through which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?... It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."(15)
As we hear these words from Blessed John XXIII, it is a call to us to sincerely look into our own lives. Many times it is easy for us to look at others and see them as the scribes and pharisees. Yet, sometimes we too take on those same tendencies. We are like the ones who attempt to remove the splinter from the eye of a brother while having a beam in our own eye. I know that in some of my homilies I have preached the message that I need to hear almost as much as those gathered in the congregation. I speak from my own experience of being a fallen human being, recognizing that I am far from perfect. Because of our attachment to the things of this world caused by the sin of Adam, Blessed John XXIII went on to remind us,
17. The very frequency with which this call to penance is reiterated [throughout her history] makes it imperative for Christians to recognize it as coming from the divine Redeemer for the purpose of bringing about their spiritual renewal. It is transmitted to us by the Church, in her sacred liturgy, in the teaching of the Fathers and the precepts of the Councils. "Make our souls to glow in Thy sight with desire of Thee."(17) "Help us to repress our worldly appetites, that we may the more easily obtain the blessings of heaven."(18) That is how the Catholic Church prays to God's Supreme Majesty in these ancient prayers from the Lenten liturgy.Hearing the end of today’s Gospel reminds us all the more why personal penance is important for each one of us here today.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”