The ying and yang of good works.
Lent is the time that we embrace the discipline that is necessary for success in all aspects of life — study, work, fitness and financial management. There is no free lunch. Lent is when we do the hard work necessary to have Easter, like studying before an exam, or doing spring cleaning to keep the house in good order. We have to suffer first in order to rejoice later.
“In every culture, there are ancient stories and myths that teach that all of us, at times, have to sit in the ashes,” writes Father Ronald Rolheiser in a magnificent book of art and meditations, God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, edited by Gregory Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. “We all know, for example, the story of Cinderella. The name literally means the little girl (puella) who sits in the ashes (cinders). The moral of the story is clear: Before you get to go to the great feast, you must first spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, smudged, tending to duty, unglamorous, waiting.”
God’s grace — the gift of his Son and his redemptive work — is not something we earn or achieve. It is entirely gratuitous.
The “gift” of salvation is not at all like the “transgression” of sin, as we read from St. Paul on the First Sunday of Lent. So the idea of Lent as a sort of necessary period of spiritual training before an athletic competition or artistic performance is not a fully Christian vision.
It remains true, though, that even taking into account the gift of God’s grace, we do need spiritual discipline. That’s the second reason we look forward to Lent. We don’t earn our salvation, but we do have to work it out.
Discipline of our imagination, our appetites and our attachments are all necessary for growth in virtue. We all recognize God’s grace is not some magic that he works upon us as passive objects. We are genuine subjects, who must freely respond to God’s invitation. We don’t earn the invitation to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, but if we accept it, we do have to make the effort to go to the feast and arrive wearing our wedding garments, lest we be found unworthy and cast out.
If there is a danger in thinking we earn salvation, there is also a danger that we simply presume on God’s mercy, treating it as something we are entitled to. Lent corrects that tendency.
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.