My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Next Wednesday, Feb. 18, we begin the season of Lent, the time when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Easter Mystery. It is a time of preparation which over the centuries has taken many different forms.
In the Message for Lent that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has issued this year, he has taken the theme: “Make your hearts firm.” (Jas 5:8) The season of Lent is the time when we are asked to firm up our faith, when we are to give special attention to training our will so that we can love God all the more. The phrase “make your hearts firm” has special meaning to me because five-and-a-half years ago I underwent quadruple bypass surgery. One of the wonderful gifts one receives following this surgery is a red heart-shaped pillow which is needed to hold tight to your chest whenever you cough since you do feel that you are coming apart. Quadruple bypass surgery entails breaking the sternum, commonly called the breastbone, for the surgery. It takes many months for that bone to heal and to this day I still feel the wires which were put in place to keep it together.
The pillow has a special meaning, as it is called the “Brave Heart Pillow.” Yes, your heart must be brave to undergo that type of operation. And so it is with Lent, we have that brave heart, for without brave hearts we will have wills that are weak and we will not be allowed to follow the will of God. As Pope Francis says in his Lenten Message, “As a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions of self-sufficiency, I would invite you all to live this Lent as an opportunity for engaging in what Benedict XVI called a formation of the heart (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 31). A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart. Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God. A head which lets itself be pieced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters. And, ultimately, a poor heart, one which realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others.”
Many times we see Lent as a time of mortification and that is good. To mortify means to kill, killing or deadening our wills through a set of good practices such as fasting, doing good works and trying to rein in our disordered appetites which hinder the full integration of our human person and to freely respond to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this entails doing the things we do not want to do, which is the greatest kind of mortification. St. Paul tells us, “So then, my brothers, we have no obligation to human nature to be dominated by it. If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the habits originating in the body, you will have life.” (Rm 8-13) How important it is that we acquire good habits. It is unfortunate that bad habits are much easier to acquire. To change our bad habits into good habits is something that we all can work on during Lent.
The Lenten tradition of 40-days of preparation has its roots in the Old Testament. In the Book of Deuteronomy, 9-18, we hear that Moses falls prostrate before Yahweh and spent 40 days and 40 nights with nothing to eat or drink on account of all the sins which the people of Israel had committed. They had broken His Covenant and Moses tried to restore the Covenant by his personal fasting.
In the First Book of Kings, we hear of the Prophet Elijah who on his journey to Horeb, where he was to encounter God, ate and drank to be strengthened for his walk of 40 days and 40 nights to reach Horeb. And so we see that fasting can be positive or negative in preparing us for the journey of Lent. We can abstain or we can do good works.
Perhaps our greatest example, however, is the Lord, Himself, who we hear on this First Sunday of Lent being tempted in all of the synoptic Gospels. We see that the temptations that the Lord undergoes all have something to do with our human nature, and all of the temptations come from the devil. We know that He is tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, as we are to satisfy our basic human needs and natural desire for pleasure. We see how Jesus was tempted to jump into the pinnacle of the Temple with the promise that God would save Him, testing God’s providence in enhancing the human pride that comes from testing God. And finally, Jesus is tempted to bow down and worship the devil, to make a concession so that Jesus can have the whole world as His Kingdom. Through the course of our lifetime, we experience ourselves all of these temptations in some way.
And so, we return to the practices of Lent and the mortification which I mentioned previously. We must deaden the will to the wrong appetites, enabling us to be active in doing certain good works and passive in accepting the contradictions and the difficulties of our daily life.
At times, we need to mortify our interior senses. Sometimes our intelligence, or imagination, leaves us daydreaming and wasting time and not being able to get rid of a thought which leads us nowhere. Exteriorly, this is fasting which sometimes helps us to be more cognizant of our relationship to God and enables us to be more positive by giving up something and seeking God in our lives.
Mortification has been described as the drawbridge that enables us to enter into the castle of prayer, because prayer is the ultimate goal of mortification. We are not masochists as Christians, yet we know that without mortification we will not find the true happiness which is ours on Earth. Only the person who understands mortification, who can live simply and enjoys the good things of life, will understand how to accept the suffering that is part of every human life. Another spiritual author said that a day without mortification is a day lost because we have not united ourselves to God.
Finally, Jesus came to the cross having prepared Himself for 33 years. His disciples who are most intimate with Him, do not understand the mystery of the cross, not until the Resurrection.
And so it is with us, as we put out into the deep of Lent, we will not understand the meaning of our mortification, our suffering, our good works. Only at the time of the Resurrection, this Easter for us, will we understand the deeper meaning of why we have undergone this period of preparation that is so much part of our faith which at the same time enlivens and challenges our faith.