by Helen Hull Hitchcock
Have you ever wondered why the most joyous celebrations of the Christian faith are preceded by a period of penitence? Why are fasting and penance, self-deprivation and mortification necessary before we celebrate the sublime joy of Easter? Is sorrow for our sins (penitence) actually needed to prepare us to receive joy and gladness? Do our acts of penance to show our repentance “prepare the way of the Lord”? Doesn’t this seem like a contradiction?
The Year of Faith and of the “new evangelization” should surely move us to examine our own lives and to use the time we’ve been given here on earth to bring the great message of true love and true freedom to all people. We repent our sins, fast, and do penance in union with the sacrifice of Christ. We do this so that we might receive the fullness of truth of joy and salvation in Christ Jesus and bring this liberating truth to others, even (or perhaps especially) to those most in darkness and alienation.
What, if anything, do the significant anniversaries we observe have to do with the faith and our duty to evangelize? Pope Benedict XVI called for this Year of Faith to begin on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII; and on the 20th of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. To begin this Year of Faith (which will end on the Solemnity of Christ the King), the pope called for a synod of the world’s bishops on the new evangelization. Another momentous anniversary this year: January 22 marked the 40th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision that declared abortion to be a constitutional right a day that will live in infamy and mournful remembrance of the 55 million children killed in these four decades. But this day is also celebrated by many Americans as a historic victory in achieving women’s freedom. Another profound contradiction. Abortion is the defining and dividing social issue of our time.
We are in the midst a grave moral crisis, as Pope Benedict has repeatedly pointed out. In an address to the Vatican curia last December 21, he said, “While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being of what being human really means is being called into question.”
How can we hope to respond? Can we ever overcome such grave evil? Even to contemplate such a task is overwhelming. Perhaps our greatest temptation is to do nothing. But we know in our hearts that to choose to do nothing to stop evil would be to choose evil itself. So where to begin?
First we must ourselves “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” as Jesus says (Mt 6:33). This will require prayer. Fasting. Listening to God’s Word. Confession. Penance. For how can we take up the burdens of others if we are pressed down by the weight of our own sins, both direct and indirect our errors in what we have done, and omissions of things we ought to have done?
We cannot give to others what we do not have ourselves. So in order to bring light into the darkness of our world, we must receive it ourselves from the only Source: the love of God in Jesus, His Son, who alone redeems us from sin and death.
In Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict highlights the ultimate contradiction:
What proves Jesus to be the true sign of God is that He takes upon Himself the contradiction of God, He draws it to Himself all the way to the contradiction of the cross.
We are not talking about the past here. We all know to what extent Christ remains a sign of contradiction today, a contradiction that in the final analysis is directed at God. God Himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself. God, with His truth, stands in opposition to man’s manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride.
God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic “good feeling.” Redemption is not “wellness,” it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together. (p 85, 86)
Love can be hated. The most profound contradiction. And Jesus is the sign of that contradiction: the evil and shame of Love crucified on Friday is utterly canceled by the joyous triumph of Love risen from the dead on Easter day and living forever. The Triumph of the Cross. The Light of the World.
Herein lies our hope, our joy and the only source of our strength and courage to overcome evil in our “culture of death.”
May we prepare ourselves, this Lent in the Year of Faith, to receive and to transmit this truth, this light, this liberation, within the darkness of our fallen world.
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