For the past few weeks I have been suggesting to you that we take an earnest look this Lent at what our underlying religious attitude is, and see if the Lord might be tweaking us into greater spiritual maturity. I have done that by reminding us that many of us may be a secret heretic who thinks that we earn our way to heaven by being good and steering clear of being bad. I further have suggested that we take a look to see what kind of image of God we have. Particularly, do we in our heart of hearts think that God is a demanding parent who takes note of our every misdeed and gets upset with us because of these misdeeds, much like a demanding parent who has little patience with the child’s imperfections?
I further suggested that God already loves us before we do anything, and totally accepts us, even in our sins.
This week I want to look with you at why we do penance. Why do we fast during Lent, pray more, give alms, attend daily Mass, read more Scripture, and give up a legitimate pleasure for Lent?
A little background first.
What does it mean to be an enemy of the cross? It means that a person has no grasp of what Jesus did for us on the cross. So such a person, in Paul’s time, will keep the Kosher food laws (“their God is their stomach”) and will make sure all the males are circumcised (“their glory is in their shame”).
Now, we do not keep our kitchens Kosher and we see no particular value in circumcision. We have other ways of being enemies of the cross. We think, in our heart of hearts, that being good is good enough. We think that God owes us heaven if we have at least been sincere. We think that if we keep the rules, obey the commandments, do our Lenten practices, go to confession occasionally, and on balance are a good person, then we’re fine before God. That, my friends, is being an enemy of the cross of Christ. It’s salvation by self. It’s self-justification. It’s a way of saying that Jesus never had to die on the cross. I really don’t need His death on the cross because I’ve kept the rules as best I can.
Now it’s time for the breakthrough: keeping the rules is staying at the level of a child, with the rules being our babysitter. If we want to go through life simply keeping the rules then we will remain immature and never mature into adult Christianity.
So, when I argue for a different way of thinking, I am not suggesting that we relax and give up any effort on our part in being a Christian and a good Catholic. In fact, I am arguing for an even greater effort. The greater effort is to enter into a meaningful, intense relationship with God, like we’ve never had before. Like Abraham in the Genesis reading who encounters a living God who freely bestows upon Abraham promises that are valid even to this day. Like Peter, John and James who experience Jesus in His glory in such a way that they will wind up being able to survive the scandal of the cross.
Therefore, our Lenten practices, and all of our doing good and avoiding evil, come from a different place. Instead of putting God in our debt, we do these things as water flowing from a fountain. The one who loves God loves in practice as well.
To encounter the living God is to go beyond obeying rules and to move into such an identity with Christ crucified and risen, that we imitate Jesus in everything we do. We also become liberated from thinking “we are doing what we are supposed to do, or not doing what we're not supposed to do” and we move into the realm of being citizens of heaven. As citizens of heaven we are no longer in fear of upsetting a demanding parent. We will have a mature fear of the Lord, meaning that I can say that the Lord is my light and my salvation; before whom should I fear? No, I know that the Lord is my life’s refuge; therefore of whom should I be afraid?