Every year, the sensitive Catholic conscience finds Lent both a solemn obligation and a source of perplexity.
Sometimes, perhaps, we feel that we ought to be achieving an heroic victory based on our sacrifice. We can inject into Lent a kind of misery for which it was never designed and which threatens to turn our penitential efforts themselves into a kind of idol.
It is not hard to see the deep problem with our method here: it really all begins and ends, mistakenly, in ourselves.
How would God, our Father, see our penitence during this holy season? Perhaps just like he saw the action and sacrifice of his Son: as a blow against the obsessiveness of the world.
Of course, this blow against the obsessiveness of the world is also a blow against my self-absorption, my negativity, my own perfectionism, and my own sin, but it does not stop with me. It is a cosmic action of God in Christ. Cosmic, here, refers to all things that have been, are now, or ever will be. The down payment on a new world is offered, by God, to the believer who has joined himself to Christ, the cosmic Victor. It is a down payment and gift accessed, in this holy season, through simple self-denial and a strong faith in Christ’s victory.
Our acts of devotion and self-denial are, paradoxically, God’s doing before they are ours. The point of them is thoroughly positive: a share in the mercy and abundance of God. If we are not convinced of God’s love for us, a kind of love for us of the sort we cannot even engender for ourselves, then our penances will miss their mark, make us miserable, and functionally deny the victory of Christ.
Of course sometimes during the course of Lent our self-denial seems senseless. One day we arise and cannot even remember the rationale we had in undertaking the devotion and sacrifice of the season. It all seems strangely incomprehensible and horribly artificial.
At times like these we might do well to regard our discipline as a thing done outside of the cave, to use Plato’s analogy; a thing done in the blinding light. The discipline might seem senseless, as if it were part of the darkness of the cave, when, in fact, it is being undertaken in an excess of divine light. Faith is required–nothing more and nothing less–to believe that God will, in fact, work his purposes through the penitence we have pledged to him. This should spur us on in hope and in anticipation of unimaginable graces to come. Our sight will adjust in time.
If the penitence of this season is essentially a positive thing, we should be amazed and thankful that God would afford us the opportunity to perform it.
Penances can pinch, of course. But what are they for? In one sense, they are our humble contribution to the fund of God’s love, justice, and mercy, which is from everlasting. In truth, our penances draw on an inexhaustible fund of mercy, even while they contribute to it. Moreover, as a reward for our efforts, mercy rains down yet again!
So it is with the God who will never be outdone in generosity, whose economy leads from strength to strength, from grace to grace, from glory to glory. It is an eternal economy, unlike anything on earth.
To seal our understanding of his true nature and the meaning of our discipleship in every respect, the living God crowns the passion and perplexity of Lent with an unanswerable triumph: the Resurrection of his Son.