Today is February 25th, Ash Wednesday. Just two months ago, roughly sixty days ago, we celebrated the Birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. A little more than a month from now, in roughly forty days, we will celebrate the Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. In the space of 100 days we will have commemorated the breadth of the life of God Incarnate from His humble beginning through His ignominious end to His glorious triumph over the world, the flesh, and the devil.
One can not think too much or too often about Christmas. It is folly to forget the profound connections between Our Lord's Nativity and His Passion. The two events are not just related, they are inextricably intertwined. There is not one without the other, no reason for the Crib other than the Cross and no way to Golgotha except through Bethlehem. One life, one will, one love binds the two forever together. Thus, when we think of the one, we should think of the other. Hodie Christus natus est! should never be far from Consummatum est!
Another good Latin phrase provides a thread between the Cave with the manger and the Cave bearing the Bread of Life: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis! None needs object that the liturgical beginning of Lent is hardly the time to give voice to angelic proclamations of divine glory. But at the same time, none should ever disregard the juxtaposition that the Cherubim and Seraphim made so obvious on that first Christmas morning. As Our Savior began so did He also complete His work of filial obedience to His Father, perfect justice rendered through superabundant mercy, and incomprehensible charity toward those whom He calls friends and who call on Him as God.
Christmas is filled with wondrous sights and sounds. There is the vision of the Host come down from Heaven to sing the praises of God made man. There are the hurrying feet and hushed whispers of shepherds privy to divine revelation in the midst of creation. There is the Mother with the Child, seeing no one but each other, and in that common sight seeing all of Heaven and earth absolutely joined as our Heavenly Father wills not only for His only-begotten Son, but for the many sons He will claim through adoption by Water, Blood, and the Holy Spirit.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis! is an anthem not restricted to the reality of God's omnipotence, however, but is also a testimony to the reality for which the Almighty deigned to descend to His creatures in weakness and obscurity. Men of good will, no less today than two thousand years ago, do not strive for worldly wealth. The peace wielded by the Prince of Peace, is utterly different from the mere lack of war which the world would offer as its peace. St. Paul tells us that the men of this world have shame for their glory, thus in the stable at Bethlehem the glory of God takes on what the world would otherwise call shame, for God's ways are not man's ways, His foolishness makes fools of men reckoned wise by men, and what appears to be merely human weakness proves the instrument of the power of the Lord and King of all.
God's glory descended among cattle, into the darkness of a lampless night, amidst the squalor of poverty. He had no welcome until He summoned lowly and ignorant shepherds to stand dumbstruck before His tiny immensity. The tyranny of foreign oppression became the birthright of Him Who is King not only of the Jews, but of the Universe.
Prior to His Birth, that which would serve as His cradle was used to feed beasts. After His Birth, His many brothers in the town of Bethlehem, rather than perhaps being playmates one day, became the first martyrs to bear witness to the saving power of God. As if exile from His Throne in Heaven were not enough, the Son of God, with the Mother of God and His foster-father, went from shelterless wandering in obedience to Caesar to lonely exile in flight from Herod and finally made a holy home in Nazareth, a place whence the Jews were sure no good thing could ever come.
From all eternity God willed that the fullness of revelation would come to man in the context of inhospitality, anonymity, and abject poverty. Life Himself was given a death sentence, wreaked on innocence, on the occasion of His birth. The sinless Mother and her righteous husband were cast out as if they were criminals so that the crime of unjust condemnation would be spared, temporarily, the supreme Judge of creation.
And in response to this, the multitude of the Host of Heaven praised God, saying, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis! And it makes perfect sense for them to have done so. For God's glory outshone sin's glamour. The Creator lent splendor even to the meanest of His creations. And the utter dearth of man in want of God was more than compensated for by the incredible revelation that the Father wanted men to be His sons!
Sentimentality makes modern man too quick to see only the gentle images of Christmas, forgetting the harsh circumstances in which the Providence of God is manifested. The greatest wonder is that God truly Present to His creation as a helpless baby, has not even the most rudimentary of necessities that none but the poorest of men lack. Our Lord reveals Himself not only as humility incarnate, but He exposes Himself to grave dangers from wicked men, the elements of nature, and the hatred of satan. Jesus did not deem the power and majesty of God something to be grasped at, nor did He disdain the worst aspects of humanity as His own participation with us in the human lot.
Without loosing His claim on the best that is His as God Almighty, Jesus yet embraces everything of what it means to be a man beset by the wages of sin, the cruelty of unbelief, and the enmity of the denizens of hell. Jesus faces the world on the world's terms and overcomes the world. It is a real battle, won from the very first by the fact of human weakness confident and trusting in divine omnipotence. Christ's victory is all the more awe-inspiring because it is not merely a touching expression of God's compassion amongst willing creatures, but it is also that compassion and willing obedience offered and received in the midst of many who wish only to destroy whatever is good from God and God's goodness in men.
Which leads us to Lent. If sentimentality threatens to reduce Christmas to nothing more than the sin of emotionalism in league with the devil of consumeristic materialism, then inattentiveness, immaturity, and irresoluteness imperil Lent with the plague of meaningless sacrifices, temporary improvements, and forgetfulness of purpose. The time of Lent is supposed to be an immersion of the faithful in the power of the Cross that saves. As one should not be inured to the destructive forces in play at Christmas which make the advent of the tiny God-Child all the more precious, the Catholic should never lose sight of the flood of graces that come from union with Christ on Calvary which make the pain and suffering He endured all the more desirable to His followers.
The Church Militant during the Season of Lent is not a craven conglomeration of fearful refugees from the world going through the motions of pious habits and rituals. Lent is a clarion calling God's own to rush into the arms of Our Savior opened wide to receive the hearts, bodies, souls, minds - the contrition, the faith, and the love - of sinners insistent on becoming saints. Lent is the imitation in men of the Son of Man divesting Himself of what is rightly His in order to enrich the paupers He has chosen to make His brothers. Thus, the faithful observing Lent jettison everything and anything that, while licit, is unnecessary in the project of loving the Lord God with the whole of heart, the whole of mind, the whole of soul, and the whole of strength. Lent is not simply the rejection of sin, oh no; Lent is obedience to the grave and wonderful command, "Take up thy cross each day and follow Me!"
Lent should be lived in a state of grace. The first act of Lent should be the Sacrament of Penance. Jesus came among us sinless that He could offer sinners salvation. His work is the work of grace, utterly unsullied by the stain of sin, but willingly accepting of an unjust death sentence. In the same way, the Catholic is called in Lent to reject sin in order to join Christ in the work of salvation, making up in the individual soul what is lacking in the Cross of Christ for the sake of His Body the Church. Lenten sacrifices, penances, mortification are taken on in a loving desire to accept the Cross with Jesus, having rejected sin for ourselves and inviting our fellows to join us in union with the Crucified One, whose death will give us life. We, too, are called to die - to sin, to attachments to the world, to our very selves - that the Life of the living God might find room to dwell in us.
Fasting, abstinence, prayer, silence, and the diminishment of the haste and hurry of everyday life should be engaged without the gloomy faces and disingenuous words of protestation that trumpet to the world that we are a people in mourning for this time of self-denial. Our reception of forgiveness and absolution in the Sacrament of Penance that begins our Lenten devotions should foster a sense of profound gratitude that already the power of the Cross is at work in us. A quiet yet intense joy should pervade us as we enter more deeply into the mystery of the Cross through our sacrifices brought to bear on our daily life in an effort to make the graces of Calvary the driving force for ourselves, to allow those graces to work to good effect on the people around us, and to wield grace as the potent weapon that rends this world from the clutches of its evil prince, the devil, in the Name of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
Humility is the hallmark of the Incarnation. The glorified Body of Christ in Heaven retains all the good that He possessed and revealed while in His earthly life. Christ remains humble even in Heaven, submitting the creation that He won at the price of His Most Precious Blood as an offering in infinite love to His Father, sharing with those creatures the dignity and glory of the reign that is His as sovereign King of the Universe, and accepting the task of being the Mediator by which the exchange between God and man is made for all eternity. As on earth so in Heaven Jesus serves God and in so doing renders man the incredible service of eternal Life.
Humility informs the life of the Catholic in Lent. We do not stand on ceremony and demand our rights, but instead engage the humility of love wherein rights are relinquished in favor of the charity that seeks and offers forgiveness, the charity that relieves poverty in body and restores health to the soul, and the charity that craves the good of the other even and especially at the expense of the self. But even as Christ's humility perdures beyond the confines of the life of this world, the humility of the Catholic in Lent must transcend this blessed forty-day period.
Self-sacrifice, eager service to God and neighbor, and the quest for the perfection of sanctity demands far more than a six-week effort. The purpose of Lent is to increase the ongoing transformation of the soul in keeping with the image impressed upon it at Baptism, sealed in Confirmation, renewed in Penance, and consummated in the commemoration of Calvary in the Mass and worthy reception of the Blessed Sacrament in Holy Communion. Lent spurs us on to take the gifts given by God in this holy season and to make good use of them thenceforward, to receive the seeds of faith in the good soil of a contrite heart and a spirit of obedience to render a harvest of righteousness, to spend ourselves prodigally confident that God will outdo us in the generosity which offers divine life in exchange for the gift of human life given to and for Him.
At the Blessed Virgin Mary's magnificent profession of faith, Fiat mihi secundum verbum Tuum! Be it done to me according to Thy word! she opened herself to the fullness of the implications involved in perfect submission to Our Father's will. This meant that she sang in joy at the blessedness bestowed upon her lowliness by God. It also meant that she would be spared nothing of the Chalice from which her divine Son would drink to its bitterest dregs. And in His fulfillment of all righteousness, she would come to participate in the Kingdom won by His crowning victory on the Cross, herself crowned Queen of Heaven and earth, of angels and men, Mother of God and the Mother of all the living redeemed in Christ Jesus.
Lent must be not only the profession of our faith, but the expression of our faith. As Our Lady begged Our Lord to do with her whatever His will desired, we, too, submit ourselves wholeheartedly to whatever is demanded of us in faith. And in so doing, we do not ignore the tragedy of sin that can obscure the most exquisite of heavenly gifts, nor do we dismiss the immensity of heavenly glory that shines the brighter when grace is received for the honor of God and the salvation of man.
We can not forget the bleak impoverishment of fallen man that brought on the necessity of the lowly Crib at Bethlehem, even while rejoicing that such humility expresses an incredible divine largesse. While facing the travails that await those who will not refuse the Cross, we do not lose sight of the glory of God as the Son of Man is lifted up. The depths of the Cross are indeed the revelation that Jesus sunk lower than any man ever conceived possible, and in that Act of infinite love He makes it possible for man to rise higher than he can imagine, or obtain on his own, or ever in the least merit.
Now is the time of suffering and sacrifice, yet not as abject slaves to sin. We in our rebirth in Baptism and our ongoing renewal through Penance are made the free sons of God by adoption. We therefore now take on with the only-begotten Son of God the tremendous, the terrible, and the glorious task of bearing the Cross by true poverty, conquering our appetites, and doing battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. If Christ's Cross is our cross, then His victory will be our victory. Living His poor, humble, and loving life here on earth, we are assured that we will share with Him glorious, exalted, and eternal life in Heaven.