Always growing up at this time was the familiar question, “what will be your Lenten Sacrifice?” We children would then pause and consider what we would be giving up for Lent. Would I forgo watching television? Would I skip all desserts, or just give up chocolate? Often there was impurity in my intention as I would consider what sacrifice would look good to others and make me in turn look like a good Christian, while also weighing how painful or difficult would such a sacrifice be. Seldom if ever did I intentionally ask, “what Lenten sacrifice would make me holy?” Though I knew the purpose was to become holy, I think, like going to Mass, I never thought ‘why’ but just focused on ‘what’ and ‘how’.
Sacrifice is often understood as ‘to kill a victim for God (or a god)’ or less gruesome, ‘to destroy something for God’. But I recall being told in school that sacrifice was ‘to set something apart as holy.’ It is this later definition that is more true to the roots of the word, coming as it does from the Latin ‘sacer’ which translated means ‘holy’ and ‘facere’ which is the verb, ‘to do or to make’.
K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet, and novelist of the early 20th century. In his book, As I was Saying, he has a chapter ‘About Sacrifice’ in which he penned, “But a huge part of human history will remain permanently unintelligible to those who cannot even entertain this idea: the idea of giving up a thing not because it is bad, but because it is good.” To many in our society, the idea of Lent has become ‘how do I make myself holy?” To this end, we decide ‘what do I need to give up?’ and think of sinful attachments which we know have no place in the life of a holy Child of God. From this, it is easy to make the transition from giving things up to adding what should be there, for nature abhors a vacuum. So we consider what Lenten practices we can add such as stations of the cross, or going to Holy Mass twice a week instead of just on Sundays, or spending 15 minutes a day pondering the Sacred Scripture of the Bible. The world understands that we are trying to get more religious and become more moral men and women.
But we Christians must never forget that God is the great initiator. God, the origin and source of all that is good, is He “in Whom we live and move and have our being” (Cf Acts 17:28). When we consider what happens in sacrifice, we can recall the admonition of the great prophet Isaiah. In the first chapter he reminds the people that God does not need us to give Him things as if He is needy. It is here that we hear the beautiful words of mercy and forgiveness, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). The great revelation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God loves us even while we are sinners. As our Lord Jesus makes clear, God desires to share His Trinitarian life with us. God invites us to enter into this Holy Communion. This is God’s great work in the life of His people. The work of God is not merely a response to human sin, but always a plan He has had ‘from the beginning.’
As we enter Lent, we ought to consider not my own deeds, but the movement of God in my life. As the psalmists encourages us to say, “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer” (Psalm 40:17). St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Be convinced of this: God has already chosen you, to be holy and blameless in His sight (Cf. Ephesians 1:4). Therefore, to the question, “What does God want for me this Lent?” we can give the response, “God wants me to be with Him now and at the hour of my death.” We take on mortifications and bodily renunciations as an act of faith in God, Who has called me by name to live in His eternal love. These self-denials will convince us of the validity of our faith and the truth that we were not made for comfort, but for the greatness of heaven. Our Lenten sacrifices are not because if I give this up or add this holy practice “I will be happy.” Rather, God is real and He has invited me to intimacy with him so I desire to let go of myself and my own insecurities and to be dependent upon His goodness. It is an acknowledgement of the truth, that I cannot save myself, but in God alone can my soul find rest (Psalm 62:1). I make this prayer concrete by denying myself ‘the rest’ found in creaturely comforts so as to live in the Truth of my being utterly dependent upon God. ‘For beloved, we are Gods children now” (1 John 3:2) and He is a Father who both chastises those He loves (Cf. Hebrews 12:6) and comforts those who are dejected.
“God Himself will provide the Lamb” (Genesis 22:8) Abraham told his son, Isaac. And today, that is no less true than then, as He gives more Grace and draws near to the humble (Cf. James 4). This year, I encourage our Lenten sacrifices to be less rooted in me and my needs and desires, and more on the truth, that God has a plan to make me holy. He wants me to acknowledge that “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2). Be confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion (Philipians 1:6). Therefore, let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, You hate nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our frailty, may obtain of You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.
January 2021: "Gratefulness in 2021"