Lent calls faithful to greater discipline, renewal of sacrifice

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I pray that your Lenten discipline and devotion is renewing your faith and leading you closer to our Lord Jesus Christ. His most Sacred Heart burns with love for us! If only we allow this fire to catch in the sodden tinder of our worldly and distracted hearts, how much love and grace will he pour into our lives!

Seek him, seek his holy face, and do not let the cares and distractions of the world hold back your love for the one who loves you most and best.

St. Padre Pio often said that we should not fear temptation, because being tempted proved we were still clinging to Christ, however weak we might be. Only those who have given up the spiritual battle cease to experience temptation. How simple and yet how profound an insight!

Jesus warned us about the attractions of the “broad and easy way,” and where that lack of struggle leads (Mt 7:13). He was not talking, first and foremost, about material wealth and comfort, although there is always the spiritual danger in wealth of learning to rely on ourselves rather than God (see e.g., Mt 5:3, and Lk 12:13-21).

Rather, our Lord was talking about moral complacency (see CCC, #1696, 1970). It is all too easy to make compromises between the perfect love of God and neighbor, and the way the world demands that we act.

It is not enough to refuse to do an evil oneself; to be faithful to Christ’s law of love, we must both repudiate every evil and seek somehow to free our neighbor from them, as well. Most of the way we do this daily is by the faithful witness of a life lived for God, according to our vocation and state in life. Given the realities of “the flesh, the world, and the devil,” this is already a way narrow and hard enough. It gets still harder, indeed it becomes “the way of the cross,” when it demands our personal sacrifice to remain faithful.

The essence of every temptation is to avoid this sacrifice, to make another compromise between fidelity and what seems necessary. For a disciple of Christ, this is the same as rejecting the cross. It is in the moment of temptation, then, when we are most truly at the foot of the cross, watching Christ die for us.

The passion plays out in us, spiritually. The bleeding and suffering Christ looks directly into the eyes of our heart, tells us of his great thirst for our love, and begs his Father in heaven to forgive us for crucifying him by our sins. If we resist the temptation, repeating the great baptismal “No” to sin and “Yes” to God’s love and grace, then we cling firmly to him, remaining at the foot of the cross and not fleeing.

If we give in to the temptation and commit the sin, then we abandon the cross in that moment. Yet Christ remains near us, calling us back, and offering infinite forgiveness, especially in the sacrament of confession.

It is not, therefore, the temptation itself, or even the failure to resist it, that drives us away from God. We can and do sin and repent, over and over again, and God never tires of forgiving us! This last is part of the profundity of St. Pio’s insight – that God never tires of forgiving us!

But because we are finite, and weak, and imperfect, we tend to experience the constancy and recurrence of temptations as another, inevitable failure. We might come to think that repeated temptation, or repeatedly falling into the same sin, proves how far we are from God.

In fact, all it proves is how much more we need God’s mercy and love, how little – indeed, not at all! – we can gain salvation by our own efforts.

It is only our stubborn refusal to accept his mercy that drives us away from his love. In that spiritual state of despair, we cease to struggle against sin and evil. Our compromises have grown so large that they encompass our whole life, and there is no place left to stand within one’s heart where the cross can any more be seen. This is the “broad and easy way,” broad because it gives scope to every self-indulgence and soul-deadening sin, and easy because there is no struggle involved in following it.

In Lent, we are called to a greater discipline, a renewal of sacrifice, so as to see more clearly the choice every moment before us, between these two paths. In the struggle to be faithful, we gain our salvation, or rather, Christ gains it for us by his perfect fidelity and bestows it on us by his infinite love.

By “seeking the narrow gate,” we are doing no more or less than clinging to him, in spite our weakness and sinful falls. Hence the confidence, the saving faith, hope, and love, with which we are taught to cry, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

If you have not yet received forgiveness from our Lord in the sacrament of confession this Lent, I encourage you to do so now. In this sacrament, the Lord responds, “Thank you for your trust; receive my love and forgiveness.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

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