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 endure. Today’s selection from the second letter to the Corinthians is no exception; indeed, this particular passage inspired St. Chrysostom to refer to it as the “blizzard of troubles” (and no, Chrysostom never lived in Cleveland).
But as always, St. Paul does not write of 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 such sufferings to the benefit of the Church, and the greater glory of God. Of course, 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, through prayer, penance, and self-denial, for Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. During this season, we attempt to purge ourselves of such 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 message.
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 suffering stripes and stonings. 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 the suffering serves only to exalt God.
Such triumphant suffering therefore becomes not an occasion for sorrow, but rather one of abiding joy. To simply endure, to passively bow our heads and allow the troubles that afflict us to sweep over us, is not enough. But to accept these troubles and to offer them as an example of our Love of God, transforms our sufferings into something joyous, for in doing so we proclaim to the world the ultimate triumph of Christ.
We have recently been presented with an example of such triumphant suffering. While the world has born witness, Christians are being slaughtered in 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 died because of their Faith! These people, these Martyrs, went to their death believing in the Salvation that was won for them by Christ. In the face of the ultimate evil, they endured, and they 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 willing 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 willing 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 face us every day and not only accepting them, but to do so with a glad heart, and to use them as a witness to the world of Christ’s ultimate triumph. It is to rejoice in the opportunity that those sufferings present to us to proclaim the Gospel. It is about transforming the sufferings of this world into the message of the victory that leads to the next.
And so as we seek to maintain our Lenten disciplines in the coming weeks, let us always remember the purpose for our endurance. Let us undertake to accept our sufferings here on earth and to transform them to the point that they become the “root of all goods, the mother of all piety, the queen of virtues” (Chrysostom). Let us offer our devotions and denials as a continuing witness to the triumph of Christ.