“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repent of evil. – Joel 2:12-13
It’s Lent – the 40 days when Jesus personally invites each one of us to come away with Him into the desert. It’s the liturgical season when we enter a time of purification and undertake works of penance: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and good works. Perhaps you felt virtuous on Ash Wednesday as you considered the sacrifices you might make for the Lord’s sake. You could hardly wait (or not!) as you tried to decide whether to give up chocolate, wine, or coffee – things that bring joy to your life. After all, we’re supposed to suffer during Lent, right? But consider the words of the first Preface for the Mass in Lent:
“For by your gracious gift each year
your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts
with the joy of minds made pure,
so that, more eagerly intent on prayer
and on the works of charity,
and participating in the mysteries
by which they have been reborn,
they may be led to the fullness of grace
that you bestow on your sons and daughters.”1
Lent as gift
“Gracious gift … joy … eagerly intent” – these words don’t sound like a call to suffering. In fact, Lent is less about what we would like to offer to God than what He desires to give us. The purpose of Lent is our good, not His. It is a gift meant to give us joy: to help us draw closer to God and lead us to the fullness of grace found in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. We don’t have to accept His gift, of course, and if we do, it doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges and pitfalls along the way. Has there ever been an earthly journey that hasn’t tested us in unexpected ways – or blessed us with equally unexpected delights? God’s gift inspires us with hope, for we know that along with the challenges there will be moments of awe and grace, revelation and joy – and best of all, the promise of eternal life. Whatever the cost, it will be worth it … right?
Fear of the Cross
But here’s the rub. Although we are convinced by faith of the glory that lies beyond the Cross, fear gets in the way. We’d prefer to bypass the Cross altogether and get right to the good part. Few of us are ready to journey with Jesus on the way to Calvary. Like the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 10:17-22), we seek eternal life. But while our eyes may be fixed on heaven, our hearts are gripped by earthly attachments and possessions. Why would God ask us to give up something we enjoy – or feel we need – so that we can draw closer to Him? Wasn’t His sacrifice enough?
“Jesus has always had many who love his heavenly kingdom, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share his table, but few to take part in his fasting. All desire to be happy with him, few wish to suffer anything for him. Many follow him to the breaking of the bread, but few to drinking the chalice of his passion. Many revere his miracles, few the cross.”2 – Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471)
I suppose we could blame the desire to avoid anything that might even vaguely resemble suffering on today’s culture. After all, self-denial and self-discipline aren’t exactly buzz words today, even within the walls of the Church. “Christianity in modern America is, in large part, innocuous,” notes Thomas Reeves. “It tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient, and compatible. It does not require self-sacrifice, discipline, humility, an otherworldly outlook, a zeal for souls, a fear as well as love of God. There is little guilt and no punishment, and the payoff in heaven is virtually certain. The faith has been overwhelmed by the culture, producing what is rightly called cultural Christianity.”3
“Dear Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, it is no wonder You have so few!”4 – St. Teresa of Avila
It’s easy to get complacent about our faith – to subconsciously expect that if we are faithful to God, He will reward us with good things and an easy path. We don’t see difficulties and disappointments as the normal (and very human) experience of saints and sinners alike – things that God uses for our good to help us mature and become better people. We forget that it won’t be until we get to heaven that our tears will be washed away and we will enjoy the beatific vision. The Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once observed, “The great heresy of modernity is to believe that progress, prosperity, health, and happiness are the ordinary, expected conditions of life, and that, thus, frustration, boredom, sickness, pain, setbacks, and struggles are flaws, failures, and glitches that must be avoided and from which we must escape at all costs. And yet, we have a Master who says, ‘He who loves his life will lose it; he who loses it for my sake preserves it to eternity.’”5
Be Not Afraid!
Maybe the thought of ‘losing your life’ for the sake of Christ strikes fear into your heart. Perhaps the idea of penance makes your eyes cross. But God isn’t asking you to die to things that will bring about your eternal good, nor is He urging you to undertake mortifications guaranteed to crush mere mortals. The secret of sanctity doesn’t lie in extraordinary measures, but simply in doing “the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well for the glory of God and love of his people.”6 “The virtue of penance,” writes Cardinal Timothy Dolan, “is an invitation to give [tears, sorrow, sickness, and adversity] meaning, make them redemptive, by interpreting them as opportunities to conform ourselves to our suffering Savior.”7
Fear is the work of the enemy who whispers discouraging words in our ears, suggesting that this kind of stuff is fine for the saints, but not for lowly souls like us. But we can choose how we respond to those lies. Do you remember the words of St. John Paul II as he began his ministry? “‘Do not be afraid!” he said. “Open wide the doors for Christ!’”8 Pope Benedict XVI echoed this invitation, saying, “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope [St. John Paul II] said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”9
The Lord won’t ask something of you that is beyond your strength, provided you unite yourself to Him. All you have to do is be willing to let Him walk the road with you and rely on Him for all the graces you need. Penance can be as simple as giving up something that stands in the way of your relationship with the Lord, accepting the world’s rejection when you stand up for the Gospel, or embracing the adversities and sorrows that come to you in the normal course of daily life.
If you place your trust in the God who knows everything about you – the One who has counted every hair on your head (Mt 10:30) – He will make sure that the cross you carry is the perfect one for you. As St. Francis de Sales taught, “The everlasting God has in his wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that he now presents to you as a gift from his inmost heart. This cross he now sends you he has considered with his all-knowing eyes, understood with his divine mind, tested with his wise justice, warmed with loving arms, and weighed with his own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with his holy Name, anointed it with his grace, perfumed it with his consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.”10
Viewed through the lens of our Saviour, Lent is a journey of love. If your practice of penance springs from the love you have for the Lord, you need never fear ‘losing your life’ for His sake. The beloved apostle, John – the only disciple who had the courage to stand at the foot of Jesus’ Cross – wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
We walk with Jesus on His way to the Cross not because we want to suffer, but because we love Him. We want to be more like this God who loved us so much that He died for us. We’re not in it for the suffering, but for the joy: the joy of being with Jesus today and the promise of spending our lives with Him in eternity. May you have a blessed and fruitful Lent!
Sharon van der Sloot
1 “Prefaces from the Roman Missal”; The Liturgy Archive; available from http://www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/roman_missal/prefaces.htm – lent1; Internet; accessed 13 February 2019. Italics added by author.
2 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 2, #11. Quoted in Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), 130.
3 Thomas Reeves, First Things (October 1996). Quoted in Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium, 137.
4 St. Teresa of Avila Quotes, Carmel, Garden of God; available from https://carmelourladysdovecote.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/st-teresa-of-avila-quotes/; Internet; accessed 15 February 2019.
5 Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium, 139.
6 Ibid., 141.
7 Ibid., 139.
8 “Homily of His Holiness John Paul II for the Inauguration of His Pontificate (October 22, 1978),” Vatican website; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1978/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19781022_inizio-pontificato.html; Internet; accessed 14 February 2019.
9 “Homily of Pope Benedict XVI (April 24, 2005),” Mass for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Vatican website; available from https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20050424_inizio-pontificato.html; Internet; accessed 14 February 2019.
10 Quoted in Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium, 139.
* Available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Israel-2013-Ein_Avdat_02.jpg.