As the Church moves ever closer to the start of the season of Lent, today she pauses on the threshold of the great fast, to provide an opportunity for recollection and final preparation for the coming penance, and a chance for each of us to ensure that our hearts are truly ready to enter into the forty days and forty nights that help to purify us for the celebration of the Paschal feast.
In a most practical way, these Sundays of Pre-Lent, marking as they do seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter, act (to use an image of Blessed Pope Paul VI) as the bells of a church tower, calling us to the sacred mysteries some thirty, fifteen, and five minutes before the Mass. Today, the same urgency and anticipation that we experience (please God) each time we come to worship the Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is applied to our spiritual preparation for Lent. We have had three weeks to shift from the comfort of our normal pattern of life—our lukewarmness and our hardness of heart—and to be poised, as an athlete at the starting line, to run the race that is set before us (cf. Heb. 12:1).
At the heart of the observance of Lent, and so of our preparation for it in these days, is the conformity of the self to the person of Christ. The passion and death of the Lord, which is the central image and focus of the Lenten season, is the supreme example of obedience: that of God the Son, to God the Father. As Saint Paul writes, “Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Obedience, and thus conformity to the will of God, is then, for us also, the challenge to be faced.
The temptations that beset us, and which we will combat in a renewed and reinvigorated way in the coming weeks, seek to draw us from the covenant established between us and God in the sacramental outpouring of grace in baptism. They seek to persuade us of our own importance and capacity for salvation, and to lead us away from the necessary graces of our relationship with our heavenly Father, as they did to our first parents in the Garden of Eden. The rigours of Lent, which we face armed with the spiritual weapons given us in the sacramental life of the Church and in the moral code, are fundamentally a training ground in the reality that it is with God alone that our salvation rests, and that it is only by bringing our lives into the order and harmony of his perfect life—that of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity—that we might benefit from the gift of the sacrifice of his Only Begotten Son on the altar of the cross. As we hear at the start of the Sacred Triduum, even the Lord subjects himself to this obedience, saying: “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk. 22:42).
It is this principle which the Church, in her wisdom, elucidates in her worship today. In the Epistle traditionally given for this Sunday, Saint Paul speaks of the virtue of charity: “If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” Such charity, such love, is not a nebulous concept or a raw emotion, but a clear and definitive reality which is revealed to us in the person of Christ. As scripture tells us, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). Thus to conform ourselves to the person of Christ, who is Love personified, is to be perfectly filled with the gift of charity, and one with the love that flows from his own Most Sacred Heart. As the well-known hymn puts it: “O dearest Lord, thy sacred heart / with spear was pierced for me: / pour out thy spirit in my heart / that I may live for thee.” To be in accord with Love is to be in accord with the law of charity. To be united to Christ thus demands us to follow his precepts and to walk his way, avoiding the allures that seek to take us down another path.
Life in Christ, then, is life in the law of Christ. Not in the popular sense of law—of curtailing our independence or freedom—but in the truest sense, that it is in the order and ordering of our lives, in conformity with his, that we come to the gift of freedom and begin to live the fullness of life, limited not even by mortality. It is for this reason that Blessed John Henry Newman took the motto Cor ad cor loquitur, because it is only by the union of our heart to the heart of Christ that we come to the union—indeed, the communion—that will overcome sin and, ultimately, death itself. In the season of Lent we seek to reassert the rule of law, of the law of Christ, in our lives; to bring ourselves back from the wayward path of our selfish and self-centered conviction that we can tread the path to heaven without Christ as our guardian and guide, and to become one with him once more. We see this, most vividly, in the renewal of our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil: the ultimate pledge of our renewed conviction that it is only through him, with him, and in him, that we can pass through the Red Sea from the bonds of our slavery to sin, and enter into the Promised Land of our heavenly inheritance.
As we turn now to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice on the altar of Christ himself, this sentiment is reasserted to us—again, by the Church’s own song of praise in the sacred liturgy—in the words of the Offertory: “Blessed art thou, O Lord; O teach me thy statutes: with my lips have I been telling of all the judgements of thy mouth” (Ps 119: 12,13). May his statutes of true charity, written and sealed for us in the covenantal sacrifice of the cross, be our love and our delight; may we seek to be renewed in fidelity to his law of love in these coming days and weeks of the season of Lent, and may we be prepared to acknowledge our fundamental need of his firm but loving correction, that in our penance we may beg of him: “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep [thy] law.”