A lot has already been said and written about the past year as a year of highly surprising events; two of the most prominent were the Brexit Referendum and the US Presidential elections. Professional pollsters, commentators, clairvoyants and the like had made their predictions, only to be proven wrong when the actual events occurred. Last Friday’s official transition of power in Washington DC marked the beginning of a new era; for some, of great hope and expectation; for others, of doom and gloom. The supporters see a bright future, while the opponents see no future at all – and the visions of both sides are greatly exaggerated. It’s a story that happens over and over again, whenever and wherever an established order is shaken up: most of the time, the extreme predictions turn out to be wrong, and the changes that do happen tend to be beneficial in the long run.
Generally speaking, we have a tendency to settle down and to get used to our little comforts and routines. This tendency usually grows in us imperceptibly, and gives us a sense of predictability which consequently gives a sense of security to our lives. Yes, we may like to have some challenges or adventures from time to time in order to break from routine, but only when we are in control of them, and when we can return eventually to what is familiar. We do not like – and we are afraid of – challenges and adversities that are beyond our control. Last week’s thrilling holiday, high up in a remote mountain hotel in Italy, turned into nightmare for the holidaymakers and hotel staff when the earthquake struck and the subsequent avalanche buried them.
Today’s gospel marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. At the time, it must have seemed an insignificant local event, perhaps not even worthy of a mention in the local newspaper – if there was one! A newcomer, an outsider who’d just settled down in the fishing town of Capernaum, started to proclaim publicly the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom and to call his audience to repent. In a rather politically volatile part of the Roman Empire, people like that were seen as troublemakers and were treated with suspicion. They were regarded as dangerous to the established order, particularly by those whose livelihoods, businesses and powers relied on tranquil co-operation with the Roman authorities. On the other hand, the ideas spread by those mainly itinerant preachers or self-proclaimed champions of the people were attractive to ordinary folk – those who found themselves exploited or left behind, those who didn’t benefit from the established situation, those who held resentment and grudges against the better-off. By definition, Jesus’ public activity would lead to division and to polarised reaction; some would love him, while others would loathe him.
In our own times we have our own problems. In the detail they might be different from those of Palestine 2,000 years ago, but in more general terms they are quite familiar. In the circumstances we live in, Jesus’ call from today’s gospel is still timely: ‘Repent!’ It’s timely when we put the English translation aside, because in English the verb is tainted by too narrow a meaning and is therefore misleading. Honestly, there isn’t just one word on its own that could convey the full meaning of the original Greek word used here. Its translation has to be descriptive: ‘a transformative change of heart; especially, a spiritual conversion’. This change of heart is the result of a mindful process of consideration; a process of fact-finding, a process of weighing up those facts, a process of making one’s own judgment. The Greek word metanoia remains extremely useful for our world and for each of us individually. The attitude described by it has always been important, and it’s even more important now in the so-called ‘post-truth’ world. It’s only twenty days into the new year; it’s only a couple of days into the new US Presidency; it’s only now becoming clearer what Brexit means. Whatever this ‘new era’ we live in means to us personally, it requires our mindful and considered attention in order to avoid being duped and to follow with integrity in our own way.