Saint John Henry Newman once observed that men always think of their own day and age as the worst. In every time, he said, “serious and anxious minds, alive to the honour of God and the needs of man, are apt to consider no times so perilous as their own.” Indeed, we see this from Cicero – O tempora! O mores! – to Thomas Paine – These are the times that try men’s souls! – to today’s political hyperboles.
Ironically, Newman made this observation on the way to claiming that the trials of his own day were indeed the worst. They were such that “would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it.”
As we look at the cultural, political, and ecclesiastical wreckage around us, we are tempted to conclude the same. Political division and cultural relativism, simmering religious persecution, widespread infidelity, and ecclesiastical confusion – these make our times arduous and presage more difficulties ahead.
Still, it’s of little use and of frequent distraction to try to pinpoint our time’s exact location on the chart of woeful times. What matters is not how today’s evils compare to yesterday’s, but how we respond to them. In such circumstances, it’s good to go back to basics. And basics are just what today’s Gospel gives us. (Mk 1:14-20)
Last week the world was focused on the presidential inauguration. Today’s Gospel presents another – a very different and more important – inauguration: the beginning of our Lord’s public ministry. “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God.”
Our Lord even gives a brief inaugural address: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Unlike the typical timebound, agenda-laden inaugural address, our Lord’s words focus on eternal truths. They are timeless and thus apt for every moment in history, including our own.
He declares, “This is the time of fulfillment.” For the ancient Israelites, that had a very specific meaning: the realization of all that had been promised and prophesied for centuries. The long-awaited Messiah has come. The kingdom of God is no longer a desire, but at hand.
More broadly, we can take the “time of fulfillment” to indicate that all time and all times have meaning only in relation to Christ and His Kingdom. He relates all of history to Himself and thus sets it in proper perspective. If we try to interpret and respond to our times apart from Him, we tragically misread them.
This is the proper supernatural outlook: to measure our current circumstances not according to the world’s standard and solutions, but according to the reality and power of the Kingdom of God that is at hand no less today than 2000 years ago. And that Kingdom requires two things: repentance and faith.
“Repent” is the foundational Gospel command. It’s always timely. Sin is the construction of my own petty little kingdom. It might be a squalid, selfish, peevish place, but at least it’s mine. Admission into the Kingdom of God requires that I repent and renounce this miserable rival kingdom.
This repentance takes on greater significance as we are called to confront the evils of our day. The greatest danger in war is to adopt the immoral tactics of the enemy. So, in opposing the culture of death, we risk growing bitter, hardened, and resentful. Our response to evil must always be seen in relation to the “time of fulfillment,” and thus preceded by our own repentance. Only a heart set right with Christ can see with clarity and speak with charity.
The prophets of Israel never considered themselves exempt from the sinfulness of their people. “Woe to me! For I am lost,” says Isaiah, “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Is 6:5) The first step in speaking the truth is repentance for our own actions against it. As we have an obligation to bear witness to the truth, so we should understand ourselves as rebellious, sinful, and in need of the truth we proclaim.
Next, “believe in the Gospel.” Repentance cleanses our souls; faith opens them to God’s grace and truth. Again, this takes on greater significance in our trying times. Against increasing darkness, the light of faith enables us to judge wisely, so that the world’s deceits will not mislead us. That faith also makes us stouthearted, able to stand fast and persevere, because we know the one in Whom we have believed. (cf. 2 Tim 1:12)
An exchange between Frodo and Gandalf is helpful for this consideration. The poor hobbit has just learned that the evil Sauron was rising again and menacing Middle Earth. He says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Again, one sympathizes. But Gandalf responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
For us, the first and most fundamental thing to do with the time that is given us is to repent and believe in the Gospel.
*Image: The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew by Caravaggio, c. 1605 [Royal Collection Trust, London]