Lent begins with the pleading of the Prophet Joel, “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole hear.” (JL 2:12-18) echoed by St. Paul, “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold now is a very acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor 5:20-6:2) …two Beautiful calls to the actions of self-sacrifice commanded by Christ: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)
And these all correspond to the first in a progression of graces (II Pt 1:5-7) from St. Peter: faith and virtue. Faith and virtue are actions taken in response to the love of God. Faith is a lived response to God, virtue, a disposition to do the good and avoid the evil. As we take on these actions, Christ commands his faithful to do so joyfully. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6:1-6,16-18) So right off the bat, Lent, which is a microcosm for the Christian life, is a period of joyful self-giving. We need only look to our great saints as examples. The early martyrs gave their lives as a response to God and did so while singing hymns in the arenas. St. Philip Neri, an ascetic of the 16th century was never seen without a smile on his face… Bl. Teresa of Calcutta faced the most horrifying conditions known to man and did so with a smile because she was on pilgrimage to heaven with those for whom she cared.
From these actions of faith and virtue, first undertaken with a sense of pedagogy or instruction the faithful begin to find enlightenment, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” (Rm 10:8-13) We walk with God’s people through the deserts of self-giving and we learn how to relate to him an ongoing relationship/friendship develops (cf. Dt 26:4-10). This is the same enlightenment Christ experiences in the desert. He himself fasts and prays and by total dependence on the Father begins to realize – at the start of his public ministry – that rooted in the Father’s love, he can face any challenge. And so he rejects the devil’s threefold appeals to human hunger, vanity and fear (Lk 4:1-13). The light of the Father’s love shines brighter than the goods of this world. Here our great example among the saints is Francis of Assisi.
Our faith and virtue grow through enlightenment from a matter of mere instructionalism to a self-propelling dynamic of growth… they become motivated from within as -like Christ- we rejoice in our new relationship with the Father. And this is our next grace for a Lent: joy. We need to pray for a joy… not an easy comfortable joy but a foundational joy that keeps us rolling through the hardest times. It’s the joy of Abraham hearing from God… at the end of your journey I will make your descendants numerous…(Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18) …of Paul who proclaims “our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await the Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Phill. 3:20-4:1) It’s the deep foundational joy of Peter a James and John who – terrified at the prospect of the crucifixion – were reassured by the Transfiguration on Tabor (Lk 9:28-36)… Each of these is a joy rooted in the future, rooted in the end of the pilgrimage, rooted ultimately in heavenly communion with God. Such was the joy of St. Agnes.
Joy gives us the oomph… the boost… as it were, to move on to a higher plane of holiness and pray for the grace of continence. Spiritual continence is, to be colloquial, the right ordering of all our spiritual insides. The proper balancing of our desires, our needs, obligations… when it’s a choice between good and evil… and harder still when we have to choose between multiple goods. It’s living out the justification we receive by faith (Rm 5:1-2, 5-8). Justification: being set in “right-relationship” with God. Continence is perfected in endurance, living out our newfound integration over a lifetime. This is often where comfort begins to fade and the hard gritty work of growth sets in. As St. Paul tells us, “now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness” (Eph. 5:8-14). It’s the movement of Moses from the early heady excitement of the burning bush, up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence. It can be dark, the path can seem obscure… we may be afraid of losing ourselves but the balancing of continence is the only way forward. Here our example is St. Pio of Pietraclina (Padre Pio)
Finally, we come at the end of Lent to the entry into the Promised Land… the Passion of the Christ as he enters his heavenly kingdom… we come to the grace of holiness. Holiness is that quality which is most properly of God. Our self-giving at first an act of simple obedience became and experience of enlightenment… filled with joy… prompting us to an enduring spiritual continence… now we reach our great goal of our striving. Emptied of ourselves, we are filled with Christ, “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” (Rm 8:8-11). Here we take as our example a saint who canonized many saints, John Paul II. John Paul picked up the invitation of the Second Vatican Council calling all men and women to holiness. This Universal Call to Holiness, outlined in the epic teaching documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes reminded the Catholic world that entry into heaven is God’s desire for all people and that it cannot be achieved by riding on the coat tails of the vowed religious (priests, nuns, et al.)… The call to holiness must find its response in each Christian souls intentional discipleship (to use a contemporary term). And this intentional discipleship requires intimate contemplative prayer with the Father, after the model of Jesus himself who raised Lazarus by prayer to the Father.
In closing, I hope this romp through the Lenten readings, as well as a series of saintly examples can dispel from our consciousness the culturally conditioned image of Lent as a time of blind misery. It’s a pilgrimage… and pilgrimages are not easy, but even their challenges are couched in Gospel joy, the joy of being loved by the Father, inspired to self gift with the Son all offered up in the Holy Spirit. Amen.