Today is a day of penitence, one many of us less than great-souled pilgrims dread more than we ought. Yet, there is something about Ash Wednesday that resonates with us, almost instinctively.
More people attend Mass today than any other day of the year (and it is not a Holy Day of Obligation). We are familiar with sin and sorrow; it is the mystery of the resurrection that befuddles us.
And so we enter into what for many of us often seems like forty days of drudgery, of self-denial, of saying no.
Too often, perhaps, that is our approach to Lent—the one time of year in which we must be resolute in our no: No sweets, no television, no coffee, no sleeping in, or whatever it is we decide to relinquish.
But what if Lent is not as much about saying no as it is an opportunity to say yes?
“Take up your cross and follow me,” Christ says in Matthew 16:24. The Church, in her graciousness, provides a period to prepare our hearts, to embrace the cross, so that we may look forward to the glory that is to come.
We are called to the same fiat as Mary—to say yes in wonder, and in faith.
We are sojourners. And as sojourners we are called to answer our Lord willingly and obediently.
Hebrews 12 calls us to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”
It is in this process of shedding our attachments to this world that we are united to Christ’s suffering and passion and are able to see the road ahead more clearly.
“For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross… Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”
Christ bore our sins so that we might be free, and He calls us to that same freedom, but not without sacrifice. He loves us so deeply that He knows that only as we deny ourselves and turn towards the cross will we know an ounce of His sacrifice and a spark of His love.
For as St. Paul continues in Hebrews 12, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
We resist this refining process, and it is natural to do so.
Yet, in large part, our society has gone far past the point of resistance to even scorning any hint of discomfort. The culture of immediacy has become commonplace: We are hungry, we grab a ready-made meal; we need to recharge, we plug into the latest Netflix series; children are whining, we hand them the iPad. That is not to say any one of these things is inherently bad, it is not, but simply that we have become so accustomed to instant returns on our every want and need that we do not often reflect on the virtue of temperance, of waiting and restraining and recognizing goods in their proper place.
And that mentality might not be unrelated to graver social trends, which are in some circles now considered norms; ones that allow us to escape ourselves or our struggles with no concern for the consequences. From the tragedy of many teens—and adults—thinking it is permissible to gratify their desires with pornography, to millions of mothers treating their unborn children as removable objects, to fathers walking out on their wives and children when things get tough, to physicians assisting in the suicide of patients.
These are modern realities that many consider innocuous, or at least unavoidable. But they speak to a broader rejection of temperance, and accompanying sacrifice of external pleasures for a greater good, that has become a moral norm; it has infected the lifeblood of America—the family and civil society—and it has left us desensitized to the brokenness within so many hurting souls.
Now, that is not to say that our disposition to avoid suffering has resulted in the aforementioned examples, but merely that as we have lost sight of virtue, and of the freedom that it brings, one side effect has been an obsession with pleasure, and a pleasure that is sadly fleeting.
We have wandered, and lost sight of the straight and narrow. And yet what may be most tragic about our waywardness is not as much our numbness to pain, but to true happiness.
For, as Aristotle explains, lasting happiness is rooted in our call to the good life. “The function of man is to live a certain kind of life,” Aristotle proposes. “This activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”
An “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue:” That is a tall order. Happiness is to live temperately, courageously, justly, and prudently. To form a habit of living excellently in all circumstances. To deny ourselves excess pleasures until we no longer desire them.
The ideals of virtue are made manifest in each culture, and Aristotle was one of the first to define them with such clarity.
But the idea is present in the East as well—it was called the Tao, and C.S. Lewis explains, it is “the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”
Once again, we see this same trend of ordering our desires towards an ultimate good.
Rather than morality being any one set of instincts, it is, as Lewis describes “something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”
This “tune” has guided the most heroic warriors, statesmen, and teachers.
In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Alcibiades recalls Socrates’ temperance as they served in the Army, “When we were cut off from our supplies, as often happens in the field, no one else stood up to hunger as well as he did. And yet he was the one man who could really enjoy a feast.”
For, we cannot truly feast without the fast.
It is only because he has known the waiting, known the pangs of hunger, that he can relish the joy of a hearty meal.
It is only after a mother has borne a child for nine long months, and has endured the pain of childbirth, that she can hold a new life in her arms.
It is only after a farmer tills the soil, and wakes morning after morning and tends to the field, that he can enjoy a bountiful harvest.
It is only after the bitter cold of winter, and grey and rain, that spring begins to show her face.
It is only after Christ’s agony on the cross that He sets us free to live in eternity with Him.
So, we enter into a period of austerity; and yet, it is not simply for the sake of self-mastery. It is to draw us into Christ’s suffering. It is sacrifice for the sake of love. And it is a grace beyond any human work that lightens our burden, so none is too great to bear.
It is a yes to both the daily thorns and great trials that we face on this earth. It is a yes to a life beyond our selves. And it is an acknowledgement of our weakness, and our great need for His unending mercy amidst our failings.
What greater season than Lent to pick up our crosses, to turn our gaze upwards, and to seek the everlasting joy of salvation.
Onward we go, on the road less traveled.
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