Having spent the three weeks of Septuagesima in meditating upon our spiritual infirmities and upon the wounds caused in us by sin, we should be ready to enter upon the penitential season which the Church has now begun. We have now a clearer knowledge of the justice and holiness of God, and of the dangers that await an impenitent soul; and, that our repentance might be earnest and lasting, we have bade farewell to the vain joys and baubles of the world. Our pride has been humbled by the prophecy, that these bodies would soon be like the ashes that wrote the memento of death upon our foreheads.
During these forty days of penance, which seem so long to our poor nature, we shall not be deprived of the company of our Jesus. He seemed to have withdrawn from us during those week of Septuagesima, when everything spoke to us of His maledictions upon sinful man, but this absence has done us good. It has taught us how to tremble at the voice of God’s anger. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, we have found it to be so: the spirit of penance is now active within us, because we have feared.
And now, let us look at the divine object that is before us. It is our Emmanuel; the same Jesus, but not under the form of the sweet Babe whom we adored in His crib. He has grown to the fullness of the age of man, and wears the semblance of a sinner, trembling and humbling Himself before the sovereign Majesty of His Father whom we have offended, and to whom He now offers Himself as the Victim of propitiation.
He loves us with a brother’s love; and seeing that the season for doing penance has begun, He comes to cheer us on by His presence and His own example. We are going to spend forty days in fasting and abstinence: Jesus, who is innocence itself, goes through the same penance.
We have separated ourselves, for a time, from the pleasures and vanities of the world: Jesus withdraws from the company and sight of men. We intend to assist at the divine services more assiduously, and pray more fervently, than at other times: Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in praying, like the humblest suppliant; and all this for us. We are going to think over our past sins, and bewail them in bitter grief: Jesus suffers for them and weeps over them in the silence of the desert, as though He Himself had committed them.
No sooner had He received baptism from the hands of St. John, than the Holy Ghost led Him to the desert. The time had come for showing Himself to the world; He would begin by teaching us a lesson of immense importance. He leaves the saintly Precursor and the admiring multitude, that had seen the divine Spirit descend upon Him, and heard the Father’s voice proclaiming Him to be His beloved Son; He leaves them and goes into the desert.
Not far from the Jordan there rises a rugged mountain, which has received, in after ages, the name of Quarantana. It commands a view of the fertile plain of Jericho, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea.
It is within a cave of this wild rock that the Son of God now enters, His only companions being the dumb animals who have chosen this same cave for their own shelter. He has no food wherewith to satisfy the pangs of hunger; the barren rock can yield Him no drink; His only bed must be of stone. Here He is to spend forty days; after which, He will permit the angels to visit Him and bring Him food.
Thus does our Saviour go before us on the holy path of Lent. He has borne all its fatigues and hardships, that so we, when called upon to tread the narrow way of our Lenten penance, might have His example wherewith to silence the excuses, and sophisms, and repugnances, of self-love and pride.
The lesson is here too plainly given not to be understood; the law of doing penance for sin is here too clearly shown, and we cannot plead ignorance: let us honestly accept the teaching and practise it. Jesus leaves the desert where He has spent the forty days, and begins His preaching with these words, which He addresses to all men:
“Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
Let us not harden our hearts to this invitation, lest there be fulfilled in us the terrible threat contained in those other words of our redeemer: “Unless you do penance, you shall perish.” (Luke 13:3)
Now, penance consists in contrition of the soul, and mortification of the body; these two parts are essential to it. The soul has willed the sin; the body has frequently co-operated in its commission. Moreover, man is composed of both soul and body; both, then, should pay homage to their Creator. The body is to share with the soul either the delights of heaven or the torments of hell; there cannot, therefore, be any thorough Christian life, or any earnest penance, where the body does not take’ part, in both, with the soul.
But it is the soul which gives reality to penance. The Gospel teaches this by the examples it holds out to us of the prodigal son, of Magdalene, of Zaccheus, and of St. Peter. The soul, then, must be resolved to give up every sin; she must heartily grieve over those she has committed; she must hate sin; she must shun the occasions of sin.
The sacred Scriptures have a word for this inward disposition, which has been adopted by the Christian world, and which admirably expresses the state of the soul that has turned away from her sins: this word is conversion. The Christian should, therefore, during Lent, study to excite himself to this repentance of heart, and look upon it as the essential foundation of all his Lenten exercises. Nevertheless, he must remember that this spiritual penance would be a mere delusion, were he not to practise mortification of the body. Let him study the example given him by his Saviour, who grieves, indeed, and weeps over our sins; but He also expiates them by His bodily sufferings. Hence it is that the Church, the infallible interpreter of her divine Master’s will, tells us that the repentance of our heart will not be accepted by God, unless it be accompanied by fasting and abstinence.
How great, then, is the illusion of those Christians, who forget their past sins, or compare themselves with others whose lives they take to have been worse than their own; and thus satisfied with themselves, can see no harm or danger in the easy life they intend to pass for the rest of their days! They will tell you that there can be no need of their thinking of their past sins, for they have made a good confession! Is not the life they have led since that time a sufficient proof of their solid piety? And why should anyone speak to them about the justice of God and mortification? Accordingly, as soon as Lent approaches, they must get all manner of dispensations. Abstinence is an inconvenience; fasting has an effect upon their health, it would interfere with their occupations, it is such a change from their ordinary way of living; besides, there are so many people who are better than themselves, and yet who never fast or abstain. And, as the idea never enters their minds of supplying for the penances prescribed by the Church by other penitential exercises, such persons as these gradually and unsuspectingly lose the Christian spirit.
The Church sees this frightful decay of supernatural energy; but she cherishes what is still left, by making her Lenten observances easier, year after year. With the hope of maintaining that little, and of seeing it strengthen for some better future, she leaves to the justice of God her children who hearken not to her when she teaches them how they might, even now, propitiate His anger. Alas! these her children, of whom we are speaking, are quite satisfied that things should be as they are, and never think of judging their own conduct by the examples Jesus and His saints, or by the undeviating rules of Christian penance.
It is true, there are exceptions; but how rare they are, especially in our large towns! Groundless prejudices, idle excuses, bad example, all tend to lead men from the observance of Lent. Is it not sad to hear people giving such a reason as this for their not fasting or abstaining — because they feel them? Surely, they forget that the very aim of fasting and abstinence is to make these bodies of sin suffer and feel. And what will they answer on the day of judgment, when our Saviour shall show them how the very Turks, who were the disciples of a gross and sensual religion, had the courage to practise, every year, the austerities of their Ramadan?
But their own conduct will be their loudest accuser. These very persons, who persuade themselves that they have not strength enough to bear the abstinence and fasting of Lent even in their present mitigated form, think nothing of going through incomparably greater fatigues for the sake of temporal gains or worldly enjoyments. Constitutions which have broken down in the pursuit of pleasures which, to say the least, are frivolous, and always dangerous, would have kept up all their vigour, had the laws of God and His Church, and not the desire to please the world, been the guide of their conduct. But such is the indifference wherewith this non-observance of Lent is treated, that it never excites the slightest trouble or remorse of conscience; and those who are guilty of it will argue with you, that people who lived in the middle ages may perhaps have been able to keep Lent, but that now-a-days it is out of the question: and they can coolly say this in the face of all that the Church has done to adapt her Lenten discipline to the physical and moral weakness of the present generation! How comes it that, whilst these men have been trained in, or converted to, the faith of their fathers, they can forget that the observance of Lent is an essential mark of Catholicity; and that when the Protestants undertook to reform her, in the sixteenth century, one of their chief grievances was that she insisted on her children mortifying themselves by fasting and abstinence.