A few weeks ago I heard a story that impacted my reflection on the upcoming season of Lent. Told by Fr. Mike Schmitz,* it was a true story of a man in China who was willing to give up his life in order to protect a priest and thus, access to the Eucharist. His home was raided while he was hosting an ‘illegal’ Mass, and unable to escape, he was arrested and tortured terribly. Never revealing information, he was finally set free and managed to flee to America. For the first time he and his family could openly practice their faith by attending Mass daily, a luxury they did not have in China. Soon he found work and could not attend Mass daily, but went on Sunday. Then he discovered that he could make more money working weekends, and therefore stopped going to Mass regularly. Eventually he stopped going altogether, having lost the ‘habit’ of doing so. In fact, this man who had been willing to give his life to protect the Eucharist, no longer believed. Fr. Mike’s final statement was disturbing, yet clear: what the atheistic communist regime in China could not do even through torture, our secular culture did! It is shocking, but important that we recognize the strength of our culture. None of us are immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle influences that work to move us away from our Christian values, tempting us to walk away altogether. Therefore, as we enter into the season of Lent let us take the opportunity to reflect upon the pull of culture and that which we need to do to increase and safeguard our commitment to the Lord.
Perhaps we have never approached Lent this way, given the rightful emphasis on penitence and reflection on the suffering of Jesus. Making a sacrifice and taking the time for prayer and reflection are practices that do strengthen our faith. However, I suggest refocusing the question from ‘What will I give up for Lent?’ to ‘What am I willing to sacrifice during Lent for Jesus?’ This is about more than semantics; after all, we do not sacrifice for a season, but rather, we sacrifice for a person. In this case, that person is Jesus Christ. Thus, Lent implies more than a shift in attitude for 40 days, but rather, an impact that changes us: we leave Lent different than we ‘went in.’ The sacrifices we undertake, the sinful habits we are trying to overcome, and even the renewed prayerful practices we choose, are vehicles to Him. They are the means to an end, which is to know, serve, and love Jesus more deeply. Lent, therefore, involves pondering our lives into the future: Would I be willing to make sacrifices not only to safeguard my faith, but that of my family? Would I be willing to stand up for my faith if… no, when… challenged by the culture? (Truly, the challenges are here now.)
As we traverse the road with Him, what if Jesus asked for a deeper, more challenging commitment? What if He asked: “Would you give your life for me?” It is a question that should give us real pause; even if it is not necessarily about physical death, but instead implies a change of heart (conversion), it is still quite a difficult question. To ‘lay down our life’ by accepting His will (and not ours) is not at all easy because it requires taking up a newer, deeper life in Christ, leaving comfortable ways behind, and living our faith more visibly; it is about trusting Him completely. It is difficult to resist the lures of our culture which lead away from growing in Christian virtue; and it is arduous to recognize and ask forgiveness for our sinful vices, weaknesses, and behaviors so that our hearts might be purified. But we need not fear because the good news is that Jesus is with us always, giving us the graces we need to live such a courageous life.
In order to prepare and then enter into Lent here are some questions to consider: What if we sacrifice some of the time we spend on social media to study our faith and the Scriptures instead? What if we watched shows of value instead of spending time with movies and games filled with sex and violence? What if we became more intentional in defending or spreading the faith by not allowing those we are with to denigrate it? What if we tried something new, such as a new ministry, rather than be too fearful to leave our ‘comfort zone?’ What if we spent more quality time with our children and spouses in order to learn to be present to one another? What if we are called to reach out to someone we usually try to avoid because ‘they take too much of my time?’ All of these small sacrifices can help us to shift our priorities so that we might live for Christ, being as Christ.
Of course, not everything offered by our culture is bad; life is beautiful and we are meant to find joy in it. However, anything that pushes even the slightest wedge into our good practices and our faith will eventually tear us away from God altogether. What is important is that we put things into right perspective, discerning what leads us to God and what leads us away. The truth is that we are not called to undertake ‘heroic’ penances or any type of sacrifice simply because it is Lent. Rather, conversion deepened through our practices should open our hearts wider than they were previously so that we are willing to take the risk of loving as Jesus does.
May we be willing to sacrifice, giving our lives more fully to Jesus! May we become more courageous in visibly and openly living our faith! And may we put our trust in Jesus completely! Let us pray for one another this Lent as we meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I was already inspired to write on the ideas in this entry, and then heard the homily by Fr. Mike Schmitz during which he shared this true story, told to him by the priest who knew the man. Hearing the story 'encouraged' me to develop my reflection. If you have not listened to Fr. Mike, he does some brilliant series' (podcasts): The Bible in a Year and The Catechism in a Year. You can find the links to both of these on my Links page (tab above). Below is the link to the homilies.
1. Photo, priest praying Eucharistic prayer at Mass.
2. Clip art, Ashes.
3. Icon, St. Ignatius and the Passion of the World in the 21st Century, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you would like to obtain a copy you can find this icon at fineartamerica.com/featured/st-ignatius-and-the-passion-of-the-world-in-the-21st-century-194-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Painting, Two Young Peasant Women, by Camille Pissarro (1891-1892)
5. Painting, Divine Mercy, Jesus I Trust in You!
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Heart Speaks to Heart