Is there any other time in our lives when six weeks feels like, well, six weeks? I am in conversations regularly with people who speak about how time passes so quickly. School years and basketball seasons seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, and we wonder where the time went. Yet, not quite halfway into this blessed liturgical season, Lent seems to be moving at the pace of molasses pouring from a jar. Perhaps I am not alone in my question: do we really have three more weeks to go?
Lent seems so long for two reasons. The first is completely objective: Lent is, in fact, the longest season of denial and suffering during the Church’s year. No other season requires sustained fasting from worldly pleasures like Lent. Lent is not for spiritual whimps, like me. It is for spiritual warriors who are willing to fight to express their devotion to God.
The second reason follows directly from the first. I am, in large part, unwilling to endure even the simplest sufferings over an extended period of time. I don’t like to go without a whole meal for a whole day. I don’t even like to go without snacks between meals for a whole day. Further, I don’t like the daunting task of forming a new and good spiritual habit. I ask, “Lord, do you really want me to give up something and try to form a new habit for forty days? Forty?” I jest, but only a little. For these dispositions of mind and heart, I must repent. I must allow Christ to teach me His way instead of mine (see Luke 9:23). I must never forget that my life on this earth is the only chance I have to prove my love for my Lord.
It is about this time each year, about halfway through the spiritual boot camp and marathon, that I have to remind myself of the purpose of Lent. I must recall that Christ never promised that life as His disciple would be full of daily pleasurable experiences. Rather, He taught that the way to abundant life is through the ongoing death to self that one learns by detaching himself from worldly cares and associations like food, money, lust, ego, and laziness.
During these days, I am consoled by several passages of Scripture. These passages remind me that the journey toward communion with Christ is arduous, it requires great discipline and unending work. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly…but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:25-27). Here, the Apostle recognizes that the goal dictates the measures one takes to keep making progress. In the case of Christians, the goal of eternal happiness with God causes us to reject habits that might destroy our souls.
Another Scripture passage is from the letter to the Hebrews. The author writes to exhort his audience: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). In this brief moment, the reader understands that heavy things prevent a runner from running quickly and effectively. In our spiritual lives, sin is the weight that keeps us from progressing toward the finish line. However, the author’s exhortation continues. He provides a capstone of encouragement by stating that we run while “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Indeed, when we see and understand the crown of glory that we will share with Christ, the sufferings and trials endured along the way seem to vanish. We realize that we can endure anything if the reward is so great as heavenly bliss.
So, we must not loose heart during this second half of Lent. We must encourage one another to continue the effort to gain control over our minds and our bodies for God’s glory. Finally, we must never forget that we can do nothing on our own: this process always and only begins with His divine grace. I will never overcome my sourpuss attitude toward sacrificing without lots of His help. Any victory over Lent and over spiritual death is ultimately His victory. To God belongs the glory, now and forever!