Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here!”
– Mark 9:5
What is lent if not a time of renewal, like Springtime which renews the beauty and fertility of the earth. Lent is a time of grace and divine mercy, a time of drawing near to our final destiny, to our God who is that final destiny; and “it is good, Lord, that we are here.” Lent is truly a most special time for those who have their heart set on the things of God, but yet not perfectly set on those higher things because, unfortunately, AS the English poet Wordsworth said so succinctly, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…” That’s our problem is it not? Our hearts are fickle because we are too attached to this world and its attractions. And I’m not talking here about evil attractions so muc as good attractions that are nonetheless worldly attractions.
The world is a real problem for us Christians. Of course, the world that is a problem is not the world of nature, which is good in itself, since it was created by God. Some religions and philosophies have seen even the material world of nature as evil, and they see salvation or human fulfillment as accomplished by in some way escaping from it. But this view of the material world is simply not compatible with Christian faith or the truth about man’s salvation.
But we also are taught that, the world in the human sense, the world that man creates, that whole man-made system of human relationships and institutions, the world constituted by human culture, science, economics, politics, social relations, etc., we know that that world is an ambiguous reality, a terrible mixture of good and evil, and thus a real threat to man’s salvation. To see this ambiguity of man’s world, we might think of the internet, the great modern means of human interaction, and the good it provides but also the evil of pornography, hate and revolutionary sites, bomb-making sites etc. There we see the ambiguity and the meaning of “world” in St. John’s Epistles when he says that we must hate the world, if we are to love God. It is the world of man that we must be on guard against, since this human world, is inevitably hostile to God, simply because it’s not formed or structured by faith, but by that deadly mixture of human virtues and human vices, where the vices always seem to be in the ascendency, given the power of evil in the absence of faith and God’s grace.
This human, fallen and unredeemed world has its attractions for us because we live in the world, and depend upon it for most of the necessities of life. This world of ambiguous good and evil can be a temptation for us, but that is primarily our problem, because, while we have access to God’s grace, we also still have disordered hearts as a result of sin. If the world attracts us away from God, if our hearts become too set upon the attractions of this world, good and evil, as if they were the purpose for which we exist, that is, become a false god for us, the problem has to be found in our hearts.
So each Lent, the Church reminds us that all is not well with us, and that we must discipline ourselves if we are to live in “the world” without becoming “of the world,” that is, too attached to the things of the world, no matter how good they may be, and that could apply as well to God’s good world of nature. If any of these attractions, even if good in themselves, lead us away from God as the primary object of our love, then they become dangerous, even evil, for us.
Still, we Christians who live in the world will not attain our salvation and happiness by escaping from the world as if our vocation was like those of hermits or cloistered religious communities. Escaping is part of their vocation, not ours. Jesus’ prayer for us to His Father makes this clear: I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. So Christians who live in the world, the vast majority to be sure, must attain their salvation by using the world as God wills and staying clear of the evil one, who always converts the world into a trap for us. We conquer the world, as Jesus says, by living in the world with pure hearts, that is, by living in the world and avoiding its evils while making proper use of its goods, thus without making them into a god.
But how do we purify our hearts so as to conquer the world as Jesus did? We begin by acquiring a faith like that of Abraham, a faith that is ready to sacrifice whatever God asks so we can remain faithful to His word. Abraham’s faith was so great, that he was ready to sacrifice his only son, the son of his old age, if God demanded it. His faith enabled him to be like the Father who one day would do what he did not require Abraham to do, offer up his only-Begotten for the salvation of the world. And God blessed Abraham’s faith by making him the father in faith of all who would belong to the Kingdom of that Son of God, who was also his distant offspring.
The Lenten discipline must be challenging enough to grow our faith. It must hurt, hurt our pocketbooks by alms which shows that we do not make money our god; hurts our appetites to show that we do not make the stomach a god, or any other object of our appetites. Lent must hurt our free time, so that prayer can take the place of so much idle and useless expenditure of time, time that is so valuable since it is so limited. We must use Lent to give God more time than we do other infinitely less important expenditures of our precious time.
Lent’s not easy if it’s worthwhile; nothing ever is. But the Lord encourages us in so many ways by holding up to us the blessed future that awaits us in heaven. His Transfiguration was such an encouragement to his apostles who would shortly face their own terrible Lent during his Passion and death. He gave three of His chosen disciples this special gift of seeing him ahead of time in his Glory, so they could survive the horror of his passion. And they pass on to us this glorious vision on Mt. Tabor. Through their witness, the glorious transfiguration becomes a gift to the whole Church down through the ages, as this memory of the Apostles sustains us as we pass through the trials of this life to the glory of the Life to come. We believe that the glory of God, which transfigured the humanity of Jesus on the mountain, is likewise the same glory that will raise and transfigure our lowly bodies, and make us His Heavenly companions for evermore. It is this faith that makes Lent great for us, a time of testing, a time of trial, a time to prove and increase our faith, and decrease our attachment to this world in favor of the world to come.
Think of Lent, then, as a great gift from God, and you are on your way to a proper understanding of how to live in this world, so that it remains always the blessing God intends it to be for us, leading us to God rather than away from God. Deny your appetites and your self-will during this season each year, and you will in fact be happier in this world, because it will be less and less a temptation, and more and more a blessing from God, and will help you find your true happiness in the world to come. Learn by Lent to hate this world in so far as it is a temptation, and you will be able to love this world in so far at is a blessing and a gift from God. Keep your heart fixed on Heaven, and you will never despise this earth.