Last Sunday after the 10:30am Mass, someone walked up to me seeking clarifications to some questions, which I guess, have been troubling his mind after the announcement of the commencement of Lent. The question began, like many do, with the reminder for the mortification: “Excuse me, padre, for what I am about to say. But tell me, what do we still need a Lent for? Don’t we already have enough suffering to deal with in daily life? Don’t we already have enough penances to face and crosses to carry?”
I remained silent for some seconds, not sure of the adequate response. But thought of some others who might be struggling with such questions within themselves, especially considering how much pain the Coronavirus pandemic has caused many people and the world at large.
I consider questions like the above to be in line with the motto of St. Anselm of Canterbury: fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Yes, we generally have many problems of life to face daily. After all, the Bible says that each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt. 6:34). But, often, they are penances that do not save and crosses that tend to sink us, if not confronted with some spiritual disposition. Pain, both physical and moral, is an unavoidable component of our life. Christianity certainly does not intend to add more pain to what we live every day, in the name and on behalf of God. Not at all.
Lent is not the time to exalt suffering but to learn to avoid it, if possible, and to transfigure it, if inevitable. When Jesus asks us to carry our cross, he does not intend to invite us only to resignation, but to imitate him in the extraordinary gesture of self-giving. Jesus asks us to be determined in our search for God, willing to die rather than abandon that search!
As we have just entered Lent, the Church, in today’s Liturgy of the Word of God, wants to explain the purpose immediately. The life of Jesus is fulfilled on the cross, but at the same time in the resurrection, which is inseparable from the cross. If we want to follow Jesus and undertake this great journey that must lead us to the Father, the first thing to do is to renounce ourselves. In the Gospel of today, Jesus does not tell us right away to take up our cross, because if we took our cross standing on ourselves, this would be unbearable. You cannot even pray well if you are still full of the SELF. Jesus rather asks us to first renounce ourselves, that is, our ego, before taking up our cross to follow him. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
This means that Lent is a beautiful period to learn to grow in the act of self-renunciation. Any house that is built on a weak foundation is bound to collapse. Thus, no Christian can make effective progress in spiritual life without first building a strong foundation of self renunciation. This is where fasting and abstinence come to play in order to discipline the flesh and tame the passions. The flesh can be one of our greatest enemies. In Ephesians 2:1-4 Paul lays out the enemies of the world; the flesh and the devil (the flesh there is referenced in regards to our passions and desires). The Bible says that there is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16). Lent is a time to learn to “die” to these lusts in order to carry our daily cross behind our Master, Jesus.
I wish you a grace-filled Holy Season of Lent. Amen.
[Readings: Dt 30:15-20; Lk 9:22-25]