During Lent, we learn to die so we can rise to eternal life.
In fasting, we learn to die, even if just a little bit, to our natural needs and desires, however proper they might be. In giving alms, we die to our material possessions. In confession, we die to sin and improper desires. And in prayer we die to our self-centered will, instead praying, “Thy will be done.”
Fasting, giving alms, confessing our sins and praying are rarely easy, and they are often demanding and painful. They involve suffering and they require obedience.
They are concrete ways in which we grow as sons and daughters of the new covenant. When the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the future establishment of a new covenant, he addressed a people so stubborn and practicing such vile sins — including the sacrifice of “their sons and daughters to Molech” — they were soon handed over to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and taken into exile (see Jer 32:27-35). That punishment was indeed harsh, but it was a measure of how given over they were to a culture of death and corruption.
Yet God’s promise of a new covenant was made in love, evident even in the midst of condemnation: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God seeks to restore communion with man. His final goal is not damnation, condemnation, exile or the destruction of anything good and right. The opening paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the reality of the matter with succinct elegance: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man” (No. 1).
But just as man is freely created, he is also a creature gifted with freedom. We sin. We spurn God. We chase after false gods. King David knew this well. As he wrote in the beautiful, aching Psalm 51: “Create a clean heart in me, O God. … Give me back the joy of your salvation.”
But both the new heart and the new covenant required a radical act on the part of God: The Son, the second Person of the Trinity, became man so he could be “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:9). Although equal to the Father in all ways, the Son freely obeyed. As St. Paul explained to the Philippians, the Son “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
Why? Because it is the nature of God, who is love, to give himself beyond measure, beyond reason, beyond all human accounting. Having entered the world, described by Jesus as wheat fields ripe for harvest (Jn 4:35), Jesus suffered, fasted, prayed, and gave his time, teaching and healing touch. He then became a grain of wheat.
Baptized into Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we offer ourselves to the Father. By fasting, we learn to rely upon supernatural food, drawing our nourishment from the Bread of Life. In giving alms, we learn our real and everlasting treasure is in heaven. In confession, we come back into full communion with the Triune God. In prayer, we live in the eternal will of the Father. In sum, during Lent we learn to die to what is temporal and passing — we learn to “hate” our lives in this world — in preparation for the eternal life granted through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.