Just a few days ago, as we began the holy season of Lent, the Church, in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, described it as a “Campaign of Christian service.” As Americans, the notion of a campaign might evoke images of individuals traveling around, trying to convince us why we should choose them to lead our country. From the perspective of the Eternal City, however, the notion of a campaign involves a king or a general and an army marching out into battle. This is the image the Church takes up with respect to this spiritual campaign, a battle against an enemy.
With Lent starting so soon, it might have caught us a little by surprise and for this reason, it might seem a little forced upon us, as a sort of divine conscription. We’re ordered by the Church, speaking on behalf of God, to do and/or not do certain things: fast, abstain, pray more, do penance.As adults in the modern world, this might cause us to bristle a bit or it might cause raised eyebrows among our non-Catholic friends. They might argue that as consenting adults, we shouldn’t have to submit to such treatment as if we were children. We’re free!
To be honest, however, this notion of freedom, common in the modern world, is not real freedom, but an abuse of freedom. Freedom is, in fact, God’s gift to us so we may freely choose to serve Him and love Him. This gift He has given to us, which necessarily includes the ability to go our own way, so that there would be a union between men and God; this should give rise to such awe and gratitude that God – the Almighty, all-knowing, omnipresent, the infinitely good and perfect One – would deign to associate with us who are infinitely insignificant in comparison!
But we don’t get that union by doing whatever we want; there are conditions on the relationship, which we see in any human relationship. A husband, for example, cannot, after marriage, simply decide to leave in ways against the wishes of his wife without causing great harm to their relationship and their family.
This gets us back to the idea of conscription. We don’t uphold the conditions of our relationship with God, that is, we sin, but nonetheless we want that union which He offers us, so the Church, as God’s ambassador, brings us back to a way of life in keeping with the conditions of the relationship, just like Moses did with the Israelites in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, telling them what they had to do in order to be living in a way pleasing to God. We have to purified of these sins – it’s not “Catholic” dieting or torture.
We have to learn to say no to all those things around us and in us that keep us from loving God above all things, precisely so that we can say yes to God. This means that we may have to say no a lot…and you can only say no if you have an alternative (i.e. a thing to which you say no).
Thus, we get to temptation; there will be temptations (i.e. things to which we can say no). St. Augustine, the great 4th-Century bishop of Northern Africa, wrote: Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations.
The good news is that our Lord shows us how to do battle with temptation; we see it in the Gospels according to Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Further, He shows us that victory is possible, but only in Him, which is key to our success in this Lenten campaign; we’re not going to be victorious if we’re fighting this battle with our own strength because we’re weak and insufficient for the task.
We are ordered on this campaign into the desert; we are led by the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church, just as the Holy Spirit led the Lord into the desert, to engage in that spiritual combat with those things in us and around us to which we give in, those things which are more important in our daily lives, in our bank accounts, in our homes which we find to be more precious to us than friendship with God and our love for Him.
We can choose not to go and it may seem that nothing will happen; we’ll continue in our mediocre love of God. Note however, that choosing not to act is a choice in itself, and if choosing to engage in this campaign leads us closer to God, choosing to not engage will lead us further from Him.
Or we can accept this medicine, which the Divine Physician has prescribed for us; we can accept the loving invitation of our Heavenly Father to love Him more authentically, by setting aside those things which we love more than God.
However weak we might be, if we ask the Lord to accompany us on this campaign, doing battle with the evil – and lesser goods – which we love more than God, He will strengthen us with His Power that we might be victorious.
The question we personally have to answer is: are we staying home in our spiritual mediocrity or will we accept the invitation to entire into that battle with Christ leading us that we might authentically love Our Father as He deserves and be Christians, not just in name, but in fact?