The First Sunday in Lent
The Epistle. II Corinthians 6. 1.
Brethren: We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also, that you receive not the grace of God in vain; (for he saith: I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the day of salvation) giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings: by pureness, by knowledge, by long-suffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, by the word of truth, by the power of God: by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left: by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true: as unknown and yet well known: as dying, and behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed: as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing: as poor, yet making many rich: as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.
In today’s Epistle we are once again presented with St. Paul’s penchant for making lists. It sometimes seems that the Apostle was incapable of writing a letter without including some recitation of all he has personally suffered, or providing a compilation of what a good Christian must avoid or endure. Today’s selection from his second letter to the Corinthians is no exception; indeed, this particular passage inspired St. John Chrysostom to refer to it as the “blizzard of troubles” (and no, St. Chrysostom never lived in Cleveland).
But as always, St. Paul does not write about these “troubles” in order to make himself look more holy, or more put-upon, than his fellow Christians; nor does he leave his audience without hope. Rather, he tells us how we may use our “sufferings” for the benefit of the Church; and to the greater glory of God. Quite naturally, this is of particular significance to us during the Lenten season.
As we all know, the forty days of Lent are intended to be a time of preparation for Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, through prayer, penance, and self-denial. During this season, we attempt to purge ourselves of those earthly temptations and impurities that remind us of our sinful nature and prevent us from truly focusing on the Love of God. In keeping with this notion, Catholic Christians will undertake some form of personal discipline in the hope that by doing so, we may achieve this “purification”.
By now I am sure that most of us have determined just what form our Lenten discipline will take; whether we have decided to give up some luxury or behavior, or to take up some task or devotion for the next 40 days. And we may be tempted to think that denying ourselves of something or adding to our already busy lives will be very difficult. It is when we are given to such thoughts that we should recall St. Paul’s “blizzard of troubles”.
Of course, I am not saying that we should compare giving up chocolate or coffee or whatever to suffering imprisonment. Nor am I trying to associate adding some devotional exercise with receiving stripes or stoning. But the key here is in these three simple words from St. Paul; “in much patience“.
Another word that may be used here for “patience” (and one that may be closer to the original Greek), is endurance. But we must take care to understand just what “endurance” means in this context. Endurance does not mean simply the ability to bear pain or the strength to continue in the face of adverse conditions; in the Christian context, to which St. Paul refers, endurance requires that these abilities be used triumphantly; that the Christian who suffers does so in such a way that serves only to exalt God.
Such triumphant suffering therefore becomes not an occasion for sorrow, but rather one of abiding joy. It is not enough to simply endure, to passively bow our heads and allow our troubles and afflictions to sweep over us. But when we accept these troubles and offer them as witness to our Love of God, then our sufferings are transformed into something joyous; for in doing so we proclaim to the world the ultimate triumph of Christ.
We are constantly presented with examples of such triumphant suffering. While the world continues to bear silent witness, Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East nearly every day because of their Faith. But even as we can rightly decry the savagery of these acts, still we must emphasize the triumphant aspect of them; they are dying because of their Faith!
These people, these Martyrs, go to their death believing in the Salvation that Christ has won for them. In the face of the ultimate evil, they have endured, and they have won! “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Mark 13. 13). In spite of Satan’s best efforts, the triumph belongs to God.
Now perhaps this is an overly dramatic example to be placed in comparison to our Lenten disciplines. But the overriding concept remains the same; no matter what we suffer, we must endure triumphantly; no matter what we give up or what we take on, it must be done joyfully; not as an example of a hardship chosen, but rather as a model of how we are prepared to endure for the Glory of God. It is one thing to say that we are willing to give up chocolate for Lent; it is quite another to say that we are ready to suffer gladly for Christ.
Again, the message here is not about endurance, but rather about triumphant endurance. It is about taking all those sufferings and challenges that we face every day and not only accepting them, but doing so with a glad heart; using them as a witness to Christ’s ultimate triumph. It is about rejoicing in the opportunity that those sufferings present for us to proclaim the Gospel. It is about transforming the sufferings of this world into the message of victory that leads us to the next.
And so, in the coming weeks, as we seek to maintain our Lenten discipline, let us always remember the purpose of our “endurance”. Let us undertake to accept our sufferings here on earth and transform them so that they become the “root of all good, the mother of all piety, the queen of virtues” (Chrysostom). Let us offer our devotions and disciplines as a continuing witness to the victory of Christ. Throughout this Lenten Season, let our example be always one of triumphant endurance.
“but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience“.