Our Lenten Imitation of Christ

Editorial for March, 2014

…Lent is a time of imitating Christ … a plan to follow Christ, led by the Spirit, to wherever he desires to take us. 

 

For the Church’s Season of Lent this year, Pope Francis has invited us all to reflect on the significance of 2 Cor 8:9: “He became poor, so that by his poverty, you might become rich.”  This is what the Church Fathers called “the great exchange” formula—that God became a man so that men and women could become gods!  That is, by taking on the lowly human attributes of mortality, finitude, not-knowing, vulnerability, and possible rejection, the incarnate God invites us to receive him so as to take on his otherwise divine attributes of immortality, love, wisdom, perfection, and joy.  The elect will spend eternity, not only free from sin, but gleefully afire with God’s own life (2 Pt 1:4—partakers of the divine nature).  This is the exchange that begins even now. It is for that purpose that the Spirit leads us all into the desert for the next forty days.

Pope Francis opens his 2014 Lenten Message by likening the next forty days to a “path of conversion” and “an invitation to poverty.”  Since her beginnings, the Church has asked her children to consecrate these next few weeks before Easter as a time of metanoia, and of being stripped of all the distractions that keep us from embracing Christ more ardently.  The conversion and poverty for which Papa Francesco calls us to experience, converge in the emptying of Jesus Christ as revealed in the “kenotic hymn” of St. Paul (Phil 2:7).  It is love that compels Love himself to become human: “a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near; a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar; it creates equality; it breaks down walls and eliminates distances” (Francis’ “Lenten Message” §1).  This is a line worth our constant pondering each day of Lent.

What Francis has been insistent upon (and even criticized for) is trying to wean our eyes away from each of our “works” and focus instead on the person of Christ. Our Holy Father recognizes how subtly each of us can make Christianity into a “self help” program, how we can use the rules of our faith to make ourselves more controlled, disciplined, or collected. While these are not bad, in and of themselves, they can never simply be counted as “virtue” for the Christian. For us, virtue is always relational: it always originates in, is sustained by, and directed toward charity.  Virtue for us is the love of Christ, and the love of his people—the bond of all perfection (Col 3:14).  So, while we should emerge from Easter morning a bit more sober, a bit more abstemious, a bit more comfortable with silence, it is not those qualities that will save our souls.  It is all too easy to reduce Lent to a time of stoic renunciation, and machismo perseverance.  However, as long as my eyes and thoughts are on what I have given up, and on what I  have sacrificed during Lent, the Church’s call to conversion is not yet being really lived out.  We are asked to forego certain goods, and to look at how we pray, fast, and pay alms—not as ends in themselves, but how they turn our hearts more toward Christ’s.

That is why Francis delineates exactly what constitutes love: a desire to grow in union not only with, but as the “other”—love “makes us similar.”  Love transforms lovers into one another. This is why God became a man, so we could become like him.  Is this not how the Ancients defined a friend: “another self”?  This is precisely why philosophers, like Aristotle, denied that gods and men could ever be friends: there was simply too much inequality between the two.  Yet, Christ’s pierced heart beats as a human heart, and as a human heart, rejects such thinking, calling us no longer “slaves” but now “friends” (Jn 15:15).   This is why Lent is a time of imitating Christ in the desert, and not just trying to survive our own self-imposed deserts!  It is, therefore, not a time simply to “give up” something, or to lose weight, or to make myself pray more.  Lent should be a plan to follow Christ, led by the Spirit, to wherever he desires to take us.

Of course, he will take us away from some comfort foods, into some more prayer, as well as into deeper generosity to those in need.  Christ knows that, plans on that, and gives that basic regimen to his Church: fasting, prayer, and alms being the pillars of this Season.  But poverty, time in prayer, and tithing are never for their own sakes, but are to be the means by which the Spirit unites us in greater conformity with Christ, and with one another, as his Body.  As Francis knows, one who does pious deeds “out of a sense of altruism and piety” is missing the point.

The second half of Francis’ brief Lenten letter deals (no surprise) with Christian poverty.  He begins by distinguishing between poverty and destitution.  Those who have jeered his reforms and love of simplicity will be relieved to see that the Holy Father realizes this distinction: “Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope” (Lenten Message §2).  He then even goes on to distinguish three types of destitution.  The first is material: being forced to live in conditions opposed to inherent human dignity.  The second is our moral slavery to sin, singling out here “alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography.”  The third kind of destitution is spiritual, wherein one feels rejected by God, and thinks that he or she has to live utterly on his or her own.

Here is the definitive temptation of Lent. Our Sundays of Lent traditionally begin with the Lord’s temptations. Notice how Satan begins, “If you are the Son of God…” The enemy of our human nature has a fallen angelic intellect; he is smarter than we will ever be.  He knows precisely where to strike: our own belovedness.  This is the ultimate temptation: “Are you really a beloved child of God, are you really his darling daughter, his precious son? ” Until we can answer “Yes, I am God’s beloved!” with conviction and courage (this being precisely what the theological virtue of hope enables the baptized to do), then material and moral destitution, not to mention true poverty, can never be addressed. 

Yet, this is exactly how Francis ends his letter to us: to know that we are loved so infinitely much, that we are all charged to witness to that love everywhere in the world. Pope Francis writes:

We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ, who became poor, and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.  Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.  I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.

Pain and penance are not to be sought for their own sakes, but they are ways to imitate Christ fully.  As C.S. Lewis would have us remember:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world (The Problem of Pain).

Our job as Christians is to rouse this world to know Christ as its only savior.  We are now invited to do this by showing the world that material comforts, selfish living, and lack of prayer can never satisfy those who have been made to become one with God forever.

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Ephrem the Syrian’s (d. 373)
Prayer For Lent

O Lord and Master of my life,
keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter. Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.

_______________

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avatar About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, S.J. is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I found your article a good introduction to the call of Francis, Bishop of Rome, to imitate Christ. Today I visited Mexico, where I met people who daily fear for their lives. Gun battles in the street kill indiscriminately. The guns are often brought into Mexico from the United States. The rest of lent will be for me filled with memories of my brothers and sisters who live with such daily terror. I am also compelled to find ways to respond to the political crisis that exists here on the border between the United States and Mexico. To imitate Christ, I must find ways to to live in solidarity with the poor people here on the border. How can we as a citizens of the United States become more peaceful and work to move away from depending on fences, border patrol, and guns?

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