For the folks at St. Paul’s in Cambridge …
Lent has an interesting history. It seems to have begun as the period of preparing catechumens for baptism: the time for “becoming Christians.” Later, Lent also became the period when the “order of penitents,” the already baptized who had fallen into serious sin, prepared to be re-admitted into the Church. Finally, it became an annual observance for the whole Church. The gradual expansion of Lent suggests a growing insight into the fact that conversion from sin is not the victory of a moment, but the pilgrimage of a lifetime. Unless we keep becoming a Christian, we cannot be a Christian. To no longer strive to be better, is no longer to be good.
This principle holds throughout the year, of course. But the Church devotes a special season to conversion precisely because of the richness of the Christian mystery. Christ’s words and deeds give us strong motives to feel many different things: to mourn our sins, to rejoice at our redemption, to contemplate Christ’s second coming with holy fear, to contemplate his first coming with gratitude and wonder. To try to attend to all the facets of the Christian mystery at the same time is really to attend to none of them at all. And so the Church refracts the white light of the Christ through the prism of the liturgical year, separating it into its various colors. Now we are in the purple of conversion.
A question arises: what is conversion? Stating it positively, we could say that it means becoming fully alive. But even a moment’s reflection reminds us that life—even biologically—can be defined as “resistance to the pull of gravity.” Where there is no upward exertion, there is no life. The Church’s three great Lenten practices—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are all signs of life in this sense. Each represents a way of resisting the pull of spiritual gravity. Adoration before God checks our self-importance. Fasting checks our craving for comfort and pleasure. Almsgiving pierces the bubble of self-absorption. All the great religions advise similar practices.
All the same, there is something different about the Christian attitude toward conversion and its practices. Christians don’t convert themselves. Conversion happens, not by our life-force, but by Christ’s life within us. Hence, our Lenten practices only dispose us receive Christ’s life; they do not produce it automatically. If we could produce holiness by “resisting the pull of gravity” as reliably as we can produce muscle-tone by lifting weights, if we could simply sculpt ourselves into great-souled persons, Christianity would be a very different religion. We would not need to be here this morning.
This is the meaning of Original Sin, which St. Paul describes in the Letter to the Romans: Through the disobedience of one man all were made sinners … From his own spiritual struggles, St. Paul know that there is a depth of sin that we did not opt into (all were made sinners…). Therefore, there’s a depth of sin we cannot opt out of either. In day to day terms, this means that even our best actions are colored by self-seeking.
This was the painful discovery of the Desert Fathers, the monks of the early Church who went out into the Egyptian desert to imitate Christ’s deeds in today’s Gospel. They fasted, they prayed, they gave alms. No sooner would they discipline one passion than the same selfishness would resurface in a subtler form. The subtlest self-seeking of all was vainglory. For a monk, this was the desire to act the spiritual guru, to be admired as an ascetic, to be thought wise. When the monks realized that they had woven their self-love even into their self-denial, they realized there was nothing they could do worthy of God’s holiness—at least not on their own steam.
This is why we’re here at Mass this morning. This is why it’s not enough to be spiritual-but-not-religious. Not enough to be a nice guy. We need a cure that goes as deep as the wound. We need, as St. Paul says, through the obedience of one man, to be made righteous. We need Christ.
Not surprisingly, Christ turns out to be the ultimate basis for Christian conversion, for Christian fasting, Christian almsgiving, and Christian prayer. We do these practices because Christ himself went before us doing these things; He filled these practices with His own power.
We read today that in the desert, Christ himself fasted, underwent trial, and overthrew Satan. It is because He did so that our own fasting can now claim a share in His victory.
We read today that Christ became hungry and vulnerable today, that He himself required the ministry of angels. When we give alms, then, we aim at more than exercising awareness; we aim to comfort Christ.
Finally, we read today that Christ was led in the Spirit to pray to the Father. Prayer too, then, Christ filled with His power and His presence. Here at the Eucharist, we enter into Christ’s perfect prayer in such a way that His prayer also becomes our prayer.
Christ’s life becomes our life—this is the meaning of conversion–this is the meaning of Lent.