Yesterday we began the holy season of Lent in the Church. For those who are not Catholic, or are not familiar with the Church calendar, it is often mistakenly assumed that we are "lending" something to God. This is not the case. Lent stems from an old English word which means "to lengthen", and refers to that time of the year when the days are beginning to get longer again. It is during this time that Catholics set aside forty days for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in obedience, and in imitation, of our Lord. In this way we are preparing for the great feast of the Resurrection.
Today's Gospel reading captures the heart of this time like few others. It is from Luke 9:22-25 and reads in part: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me." These words of our Lord give clear direction to all who would be His disciples as to the path of discipleship. It is the way of the cross.
The first step is to deny ourselves. We all know what it means to deny something. It is to say "no". We must say no to our own desires if we will be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is called repentance. It means to turn around. We were born in sin with our backs to God. We are summoned to turn around and face God. We are to cease our old life of sin and begin our new life in Christ.
Secondly, we must take up a cross. This means to bear with sufferings patiently. Whatever sufferings we may encounter, we have the opportunity to use it to imitate Jesus. Living in a world of sin brings many trials. Our own sinful nature is inclined to respond in a certain way. But Jesus calls us to bear these things patiently. In this way we are crucifying our old sinful nature.
Finally, we are told to follow Jesus. This means we are to imitate Him. The simplest definition of a Christian is one who imitates Jesus. We cannot necessarily imitate His miracles, and we often fall too far short of His wisdom. But we can imitate His humility, His love, His compassion, and His servanthood. As we do these things, we are following Jesus. As we ask ourselves how Jesus wants us to respond in the day to day activities of life, we are following Him.
Luke's Gospel adds something that is missing from the others. He notes that this command applies daily. In other words, it is not enough to have begun to walk this road sometime in the past. We must renew our committment each and every day. It is not the one who begins, but "he who endures to the end" who will be saved.
I wish I could say I've been doing this perfectly. It's not true. And that's another wonderful feature of Lent. It offers numerous opportunities to be reconciled to God. He knows that we are mererly dust. He is not shocked by our failures. He compels us to come to Him and freely confess our sins so that we may be forgiven. His love is boundless, and His Grace is greater than our sin.
The Christian knows he is called to this lifestyle at all times and not just at Lent. But this season offers a chance to renew committments and restore things that have been amiss. Thank God for His abundant Grace in providing such a time!