First Sunday of Lent
My dear Friends,
St Paul once again sets the tone for this first Sunday of Lent with another amazing list for our contemplation. Two weeks ago, he enumerated all the trials he suffered for the preaching of the Gospel (it’s good to remind ourselves: the labours, the imprisonments, the floggings, the stoning, the shipwreck, the perils on all sides, the false brethren, the hunger, thirst and nakedness.)… Last week, he described for us the qualities of true love of God which is borne out in long-suffering patience with those we live and work with: charity is patient and endureth all things. Today, he shows in his inimitable way how the truly Christian soul must be as wide as the sea in its acceptance of all sorts of setbacks. There really is no limit to it: endurance, afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, vigils, fasts, etc. Through it all, we are to make use of the spiritual weapons of prayer and fight the good fight, never failing, never giving up, never placing any limits whatsoever on how much we can take or how much we want to suffer.
The program is immense. It is certainly beyond our strength. And that is precisely the point. Marked with the grace of holy Baptism and Confirmation, every Christian soul should be ready to wage war against the devil, the world, the flesh. Every Christian soul is called upon to accept the ways of God, and that way is one of being emptied of self, letting oneself be, as it were, crucified by trials, in order to let the grace of God work marvels. Such is the Christian paradox initiated by the Saviour Himself, realised in the holy apostles and which remains for every age the immutable paradigm for salvation and Christian perfection.
Thanks to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Himself, St Paul seems to push to its extreme limits the capacity of literary expression, and he attains here a summit in rendering the marvellous paradox of Christian life. The last lines of today’s epistle should leave us breathless as they open for us perspectives into – a divine insight we might say – the way God has decided to save the world and the way He continues to renew it through His saints. We are treated as deceivers and yet we are truthful; as unrecognised and yet acknowledged; as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things.
Never has the contrast been sharper, never has the truth been so provocative. The old man, our fallen nature repines, and says “no, that cannot be!” And yet it is. Those who follow Christ must always be truthful, for our Master is the Truth itself, but like Him we will be accounted as deceivers. For the truth is a two-edged sword that cuts to the very marrow of the soul, and those who refuse that incision have no other option but to decry the one whose hand opened it. This explains why true followers of Christ will always be treated as deceivers even though they are truthful.
Our mission, of its very essence, puts us in the limelight, for we must be the light of the world, as our Saviour has commanded us, but the world will always go on pretending that no one pays any attention to us. In reality, they all pay attention to us, for they know who we are, and they know we have the truth, and all they can do is go on about how out of touch with reality we are, but the reality we know far better than any, for like our Blessed Lord, we know what is in man and no one need teach us that. We are as treated as unknown, and yet known to all and know all.
We live, we live! We live because our Master is life, and in Him we find an intensity of life totally unknown to the world, for the world does not know what life it, for it has never even tasted it. And so they say that we do not enjoy life and so are as good as dead. Oh, if only they knew the degree of intensity of true life present in the soul of the most simple and humble of true believers, they would be beating the doors down to get in and have a share. They chastise us, they beat us, they revile us, they heap upon us countless insults, and yet they do not put us to death. They cannot kill us, for they cannot kill true life, that of the soul, the grace of God. They can kill our bodies, yes, but no one can ever take away that life given to us by Christ Himself. We have within us that joy, that overweening joy which comes from knowing that we are in Christ’s hand and that no one can snatch us away from there, and yet for the world we are men of sorrow because we refuse to take part in its shameful thrills; we are pursued by our enemies and weighed down, and yet at every moment we feel in our hearts that abiding, unperturbed peaceful joy, certain as we are that God Himself is our Father and He is in control, and He is calling us to Himself. We are as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
The world considers us to be poor because we do not have the abundance of perishable goods it holds in esteem. And yet so many are enriched by our poverty, because we are disciples of the One who, though infinitely and eternally rich, became poor so that we could be enriched by His poverty. And so we can sometimes enrich the very ones who impoverish us, for what we have to give is of another order, and when material goods are taken from us we ourselves grow richer in God and therefore have more to give. Yes, we are considered as having nothing, nothing at all, precisely because we renounce all for Christ’s sake, and yet, through Him and in Him we possess all things. There is literally nothing that is beyond our grasp, because in the Son we have access to the eternal treasures of God. We are as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things.
How do we learn all this? How do we become proficient in this art? It all begins with the temptation of Jesus portrayed in today’s Gospel. He teaches us how to to take the first steps, how to oppose with the dynamism of the Word of God all the cunning, evil allurements of the enemy. The first temptation is to sensuality, the second to vain glory, the third to the thirst for power. All three are resisted by the same blessing: the invocation of the holy Name of God and His word. The enemy too uses Scripture but he does not pronounce the Name which is unbearable to him. If we imitate the Saviour, and in whatever temptation we encounter turn to God for His grace, if we accept our poverty and the need for God’s grace, that grace will always be given. It will start with defence and resisting temptations but it will end with attack and victory over the enemy.
The great prayer we are given by Holy Church during this season of Lent is Psalm 90. You will have noticed how the monks took their time singing this long psalm. It is as it were a summary of monastic life, nay of any truly Christian life. We pray to God with the words of God and we are in no rush, for it is good to be with God. With the Word of God on our lips day and night, we are mighty to resist all the wiles of the enemy. Then, we can become, like St Paul and all the great saints, a prodigy for the world; we can become souls who in their very persons are an enigma and can only inspire reflection and thought. Make Psalm 90 your preferred prayer this Lent.
Yes, the enemies of God know who we are and what we stand for. That is why they pretend that we are nothing. That’s alright. Let them think we are nothing. We know that we possess everything, and we pray that one day the Mother of Divine Grace will open for them a path to God, and then we will share our riches with them, if only they are willing. Then they too will discover how good it is to dwell under the protection of the God of Heaven, who delivers us from the snare of the hunters and from the sharp word of condemnation. He will protect us because we know His Name. He will deliver us and glorify us and fill us with length of days in His eternal kingdom.