Published March 6, 2014
ATLANTA—The season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, March 5, and Catholics around the world began their yearly observance of this quiet liturgical season with Mass, prayer, fasting and good deeds. The following meditations—for the first three days of Lent—were written by Father Robert Barron, a noted author and speaker, of Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.
Day 1 (Almsgiving): Ash Wednesday, March 5
“Judged According to Love”
The Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross said that in the evening of life we shall be judged according to our love. In Matthew 25, the nature of love is specified. It is not primarily a feeling, an attitude or a conviction but rather a concrete act on behalf of those in need—the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the imprisoned, the forgotten. It is the bearing of another’s burden.
Over the next 47 days, resolve to perform a particular and sustained act of love.
Make several visits to your relative in the nursing home. Converse regularly with a lonely person on your block. Tutor and befriend a kid who might be in danger of losing his way. Repair a broken friendship. Bring together bickering factions at your place of work. Make a number of financial contributions to a worthy organization that needs help.
Numerous spiritual masters have witnessed to something odd: Belief in God is confirmed and strengthened not so much from intellectual effort as from moral action.
When a man asked the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins what he must do in order to believe, Hopkins replied, “Give alms.”
As you love through tangible acts, you will come to believe more deeply and to enter more fully into friendship with God.
Day 2 (Repentance): Thursday, March 6
“No Way Up But Down”
G. K. Chesterton once said that the saint is the one who knows he’s a sinner. Another way to state the same thing: The holy person has no illusions about himself. It is an extraordinary and surprising phenomenon that the saints seem to be those who are most conscious of their sinfulness. Even a cursory reading of Sts. Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, Augustine or Thérèse of Lisieux reveals that these undoubtedly holy people were painfully aware of how much they fell short of sanctity.
At times we are tempted to think that this is a form of attention getting, a sort of false humility. But then we realize that it is proximity to the light that reveals the smudges and imperfections that otherwise go undetected. A windshield that appears perfectly clean and transparent in the early morning can become opaque when the sun shines directly on it.
Standing close to the luminosity of God, the holy person is more intensely exposed, his beauty and his ugliness more thoroughly unveiled.
There’s no way up but down; no real holiness without awareness. At least part of being a saint is knowing you’re a sinner.
Day 3 (Cross): Friday, March 7
“Polishing the Diamonds”
There is a regrettable interpretation of the cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, and appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath.
But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have life in his name.” John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather God is a parent who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered into danger.
Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right.
St. Anselm, the great medieval theologian, who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck; made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven. But this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death and brought the diamonds up and polished them off. In so doing of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion.
Jesus said that any disciple of his must be willing to take up his cross and follow the master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts from others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Father Robert Barron is an author, speaker and theologian and the founder of the global media ministry Word on Fire (www.WordOnFire.org). He created and hosted “Catholicism,” a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary series about the Catholic faith. Father Barron currently serves as the rector and president of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois.