Faux Lenten penitence can only be followed by faux Easter joy
What is the wisest thing your father ever said to you? Perhaps the wisest thing my father ever said to me was, “Human nature — there’s something wrong with it.” My own familiarity with human history and my own acquaintance with the man who looks at me from the mirror every morning confirm my father’s statement.
Although the Christian tradition speaks of man as “the crown of creation," no one can seriously claim that humans easily and readily fulfill the call of human dignity. This observation brings us to the season of Lent. Lent only makes sense if we keep in the forefront of our mind and heart that human nature has grown up twisted, that is, human nature has developed in a way that God surely did not intend.
Because this understanding of human nature — that is, human nature as wounded and bent — tends to be overlooked, misperceptions of the meaning and purpose of Lent abound. Some think that Lent is simply a season of self-imposed and sullen self-discipline, the purpose of which never seems to be made clear or fruitful. Some view Lent as a kind of theater. That is, we paint on a sulky face for Lent and then we paint on a happy face for Easter. But if we only play at being sinners, then we can only play at being saved. Faux Lenten penitence can only be followed by faux Easter joy.
Here is the challenge we face. The graces of Lent are inextricably linked to the graces of Easter. We need both so that we may live fully our Christian vocation in a world that now clearly suffers violent deprivations — both physical and spiritual — from the lack of credible, consistent and fervent Christian witness. For the love of God and neighbor we have to embrace the full Christian vocation, which will entail a fierce clinging to the cross, even while proclaiming the resurrection. We can live this Christian paradox only if we are clear about human nature — its calling, its falling, and its promised glory. Let’s start with what God intended for human nature.
Our good Creator God can only make a good creation. He crowned that creation with man, made in His own image and likeness as male and female. Like Himself, He made us to be free, rational, and communal, that is, made for love. Even a brief review of human history, or an honest glimpse of one’s own individual history prove that humans rebelled against the divine design. I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a five-year-old boy about what he learned that day in Vacation Bible Study. Jacob said, “Adam sinned, and Eve sinned because they listened to the snake and they didn’t listen to God. And then they got in BIG trouble!” Jacob’s summary has the merits of being both accurate and concise. We made ourselves spiritual orphans when we rejected our Father’s love. Turning away from His light, our minds were darkened. Turning away from His goodness, our wills were corrupted. Turning away from God’s wisdom for His creation, our bodies became subject to pain, sickness and death.
The story of the creation and fall, writ large across human history, is also inscribed in each individual human heart. I know that I am a sinner. I know that before God I am a rebel, a traitor, and a usurper. But that is only half the story. I know that by the grace of God, I am also a loved sinner, one who is defined by the grace of his baptism rather than by the malice of his sin. Because I know that my Heavenly Father would not abandon me to my own wickedness, even at a terrible cost to Himself, I wish the world to know the wonders of grace offered by God through His Christ. As a son adopted and restored, I wish to make known to other self-made orphans like myself, our Father’s plan to reclaim His children and His creation.
I also know how easy it is to become distracted, distorted and ensnared by the illusions and compulsions of daily life. That is why we need Lent as a yearly event. We need to be reminded of the malice of our sin, of the goodness of God, and the vigilant discipline that our spiritual freedom requires. In other words, we must be immersed again and again in the truly awful and awesome truth that we are loved sinners. If we submit ourselves fully to the disciplines of Lent so as to receive true Easter joy, several good results will follow. First, we will have true compassion for other sinners like ourselves. And we will have a righteous indignation on behalf of our loving Father’s heart when we see contempt heaped upon him by evil in this world. Taken together, the power of genuine compassion and righteous indignation can work wonders, if the two are freed and honed by Lenten disciplines. The disciplines of Lent will urge us to seek out the lost and to call them to conversion. The disciplines of Lent will also make us the fit warriors and sharp instruments that the war against evil requires.
As the season of Lent begins in 2015, if we are honest we will admit that we have before us a stark choice. On the one hand, we can pretend to be penitent, pretend to be joyful, and pretend to be grateful sons and heirs of the kingdom of God. Or, we can admit that we are called by God to wage war against the sin which is in our own hearts, hearts made to love God, and at the same time called to wage war against evil in the world, a world made to glorify God — and then we can prepare ourselves accordingly.
Our Heavenly Father deserves loyal sons and daughters. Our Church needs heroes who are bold and strong. The crucible of Lent is where such saints can begin to be made. When I write next, I will speak of using Lenten disciplines to train for Godly goals. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.