Unconditional Repentance

Homily, Wednesday of the 1st Week of Lent

Studying here in Italy for ten months out of the year comes with many blessings and many challenges. One of the most interesting things about it is to see how much has changed when I return home each summer. During my years here, many of my friends from high school and college have gotten married and started having children, and I’m always kind of amazed to see young parents, and especially mothers, dealing with their new babies. The sacrifices they make are really incredible. And it’s a great training ground for unconditional love because you can’t negotiate with a baby. When the baby cries, someone has to feed him. You can’t sit him down and say, “Look, we’re very tired, but we’re willing to work with you. So three nights out of the week, you can cry and wake us up, and we’ll look after you, but anything beyond that and you’re gonna have to fend for yourself.” Parents learn very quickly who’s really in charge when a baby is in the house, and they don’t have time to stop and wonder what’s in it for them and when it’s finally going to pay off.

In our relationship with God, though, it’s often a very different story. We find it very difficult to love God unconditionally. Like in today’s Gospel, we want certain conditions to be met before we invest too much, we want a sign, a money-back guarantee, some assurance that repenting and following Christ will be worthwhile and will pay off in the end. We want a sign that our Lenten practices will bear fruit. The repentance of Nineveh is really amazing because all that Jonah told them is that the city would be destroyed in forty days. They had no guarantee that there was anything they could do to prevent it, but they could see that what they had been doing was not leading them where they wanted to go. So they were willing to try something, to fast, to wear sackcloth, and to cry out to God and turn from their evil ways. And in the end, they left it up to God, saying, “Who knows, God may relent and forgive.”

But we have someone greater than Jonah here. And we have signs and sacraments greater than the sign of Jonah, and we have every assurance from Christ that God does love us unconditionally, as a mother loves her child, and that God is attentive to our needs, that He does forgive us, heal us, and give us new life with Him as we grow as His children. He never overwhelms us with evidence because He wants us to respond to him freely, to have faith in Him and to trust Him, but He does give us signs if we have the faith to see them. This Eucharist, especially, is His continued assurance that even though following Christ may not be easier than other paths, even though temptations and trials and persecutions may actually increase, we will never go through any of it alone. He will always be with us to strengthen and guide us. We pray that God would renew our spirits today at this Mass and grant us the grace to entrust ourselves to Him unconditionally and to love Him even as He loves us.