Learning how to live forgiven, as loved sinners
How do you know if you are doing Lent right? You can’t really answer that question unless you know what Lent is for.
You know that you are doing Lent right if your Lenten practices help you to fulfill Lent’s purposes. That’s an important point to remember. Lent is not an end in itself. We don’t want to become people who say, “I love Lent—because it feels so good when it’s over!” No, we want to find meaning in the demands of Lenten disciplines as we see that they are the tools that allow us to train for a goal. Anyone serious about training for fitness will tell you that you are much more likely to be faithful to your commitments if you train for a goal. Whether it is to run a 5k race or a marathon, knowing that you have a goal, a date and a measure to face will keep you on course when you are tempted to give up or cut corners. What is your goal for this Lent? Where would you like to be by this Easter? We can find good answers to those questions, if we first consider what Lent is really for.
In my last column, I noted that Lent involved confronting the evil within us and the evil around us. How do we do that with zeal, perseverance, integrity and humility? How do we confront evil within us and around us without becoming neurotic, arrogant, self-righteous or despairing? To answer those questions, let’s begin at the beginning.
We read in Genesis 1:31 that “…God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.” Sadly, we read soon after that man rebelled, injected disorder into creation, and that he imposed upon himself an unhappy state from which he could not rescue himself. Since the Fall, human history has been the saga of God striving to rescue us from ourselves, as we alternate between embracing and rejecting our rescuer.
The story of our salvation is a marvel. It is recalled poetically and succinctly in the chanting of the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil Mass. It is a story of God’s stubborn love for us. By the Incarnation, human flesh was given an identity, destiny and dignity that the Pagans could not imagine and the Moderns could not understand. By His Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ won for us forgiveness for our infinite transgression against God, but also won for us so much more. In God’s Providence, God offers to us through His Christ forgiveness beyond mere restoration. We are offered to be elevated to a share, in our body and soul, in the divine life and glory. These sublime truths must not be lost sight of as we make our way through the dark valleys of Lent. From our salvation comes the human vocation to love as God loves, and the human destiny to live eternally as God does in glory. Sin would rob us of all of that. The Church knows this to be true — which is why the Church calls us, year after year, to the Holy Season of Lent.
The marvels of our salvation, the wild generosity of God’s love — these can astound us every day, including each day of Lent. Consider this: God trusts us with His friendship; He also trusts us with His friends (that is, our neighbors, whom we are commanded to love as ourselves Mark 12:31). More than that: God trusts us with His love; He also trusts us with His beloved (that is, His bride, the Church He founded). We must live Lent knowing that we are offered freedom from our sins, a present vocation of loving at the levels of the highest heroism, and a future glory beyond imagining. Sin would rob us of all that —the disciplines of Lent would preserve us from that sin.
That’s why Lent as just another self-help program of self-improvement is thoroughly inadequate. Lent is an opportunity to learn how to live forgiven, that is, to live as loved sinners who have a great work in this life and a great victory to enjoy in the next. In this life, we are called to fight for creation, to strip it from the hands of Satan-the-usurper and restore it to the sovereignty of the Divine order. We must fight for our neighbor, made in the image and likeness of God, who like ourselves is constantly being bombarded by the lies of Satan. We must fight for the honor of the Bride of Christ that is the Church — she who is assaulted daily by those who hate the purity of her truth and calling. We must fight to protect the heart of our Heavenly Father from the indignities heaped upon Him by blasphemy and rejection. To join with Christ in this fight, to fight at His side and to share in both His Cross and His Victory — that is our goal, that is what we train for. That is why we need Lent.