2nd Sunday of Lent
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 internal, spiritual renewal? It’s much like temporal springtime which renews the external beauty and fertility of the earth. But Lent is the springtime of the soul, renewing its inner beauty and fertility. This holy season is a time of great grace and divine mercy, a time of drawing near to God who is our final destiny and happiness. So yes, we too must say with the Apostles, “it is good, Lord, that we are here.”
Lent is truly a special time for those who have their heart set on the things of God, though not yet perfectly, but nonetheless they are still set however imperfectly on those higher things that feed the soul. We know that we are not perfectly attuned to those higher things simply because, as the 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 real problem is it not? Our hearts are fickle because we are too much attached to this passing world and its attractions, not simply its evil attractions but its good attractions as well. Because our hearts are still disordered, they too distract us from the permanent, higher things, from God.
The world, or worldliness, is a real problem even for us Christians. Of course, the world that is a problem is not so much 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 somehow evil, and they teach that salvation or human fulfillment can only be accomplished by escaping from it in some way. But we Christians, knowing that God became flesh, also know that this view of the natural world is simply not compatible with the truth of God’s creation and the truth about how man’s salvation took place.
On the other hand, we also have been taught the truth that the world in the broader, human sense, the world that man creates, the whole man-made system of human relationships and institutions, the world constituted by human culture, science, economics, politics, social relations, etc., is not simply good in itself like nature. This “world” as designated by the Gospels, and especially by the epistles of st. John, is a very ambiguous reality, a terrible mixture of good and evil, and thus a very real threat to man’s salvation.
To see this ambiguity of man’s created world, we might think of the internet, the great modern means of human interaction. Certainly it provides a lot of good information and communication, but also provides a whole world of evil, the evil of pornography, the evil of hatred and revolutionary propaganda, the information for making weapons of mass destruction and the ways toi use them to slaughter people, etc. Here we can see the ambiguity and the meaning of the “world” in St. John’s Epistles, where he says that we must hate the “world,” if we are to love God. It is the world created by man that we must be on guard against, since this man made world will often and almost inevitably become hostile to God. It becomes evil and the source of evil simply because it’s not formed or structured by faith, but by that deadly mixture of human virtue and human vices, where the vices often are in the ascendency, given the power of evil in a world lacking faith and thus God’s grace.
This man made, inhuman world, fallen and unredeemed, has its attractions for us because we live in this world, and we depend upon it for many of the necessities of life. This world of ambiguous good and evil will be a temptation for us only because, while we have access to God’s grace, we also still have disordered hearts as a result of sin. If this godless world attracts us, or distracts us from God, if our hearts become too set upon the attractions of this man made world, where good and evil are so intertwined and which claims to be the very purpose for which we exist, it will become a false god for us. Again the problem it poses for us has its roots deep in our own hearts.
That’s why 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, becoming too attached to the things of the world, no matter how much good they may possess. Indeed, that spiritual rule could even apply to God’s good world of nature. It too could become a false God. Thus, if any of these attractions, even those that are good in themselves, leads us away from God as the primary object of our love, then they become dangerous, even evil, for us.
Still, we Christians who necessarily 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. Fleeing the world has always been essential to their unique vocation, nut not to 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, who are the vast majority to be sure, must attain their salvation by using the world as God wills and by “fleeing” from the evil one, who always tries to make the world a trap for us. We are called to conquer the world, as Jesus says of Himself. And we do this conquering 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.
So then the question is 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 of Jesus 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.
Our lenten discipline, then, must be challenging enough to grow our faith. It must be strong enough to hurt. It must our pocketbooks by our generosity in alms which shows that we will not make money our god. It must hurt our appetites to show that we do not make the stomach our 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 of our precious time than we do other infinitely less important expenditures of our time.
Lent, then, will not be 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, recalled today, was such an encouragement to his apostles who would shortly have to 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 forevermore. It is this faith that makes Lent so 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 another 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 inevitably 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 from 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. That’s the paradox of our faith; only by keeping our hearts fixed on Heaven, will we learn never to despise this earth and how to properly enjoy it as a part of our journey to God