Lent draws our attention to the cross of Christ. As we reflect on and practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery. We have a particular opportunity to unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ. There are times in life when suffering can seem overwhelming and the cross becomes very heavy. In the book of Genesis, when we read of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, we are reminded of our own human frailty and that without God’s help we can do nothing. We human creatures can be affected by all kinds of suffering – physical, emotional, spiritual, moral – either our own or that of others. But how often do we pause to reflect on the collective effects of our suffering culture?
The sources of some of our deepest cultural wounds are those which strike at the fundamentals of life and love. It is interesting to note that as we celebrate the Centennial of Our Lady’s message at Fatima, one of the most deeply profound things said by Fatima visionary, Sister Lucia, whose cause for sainthood is currently before the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, had to do with the culture and the end times. Sister Lucia said, “The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Do not be afraid, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. However, Our Lady has already crushed his head”. These are sobering words, and as those who labor to build a culture of life and love know all too well, they speak the truth unequivocally.
Every single one of us is affected by this culture of life and love, or lack thereof. Consider some of today’s miseries: abortion, contraception, divorce, cohabitation, substance abuse, pornography, assisted suicide and euthanasia – to name but a few. Saint John Paul II often said that “the family is the most vital cell of society”. When the family is broken, so is the world around us. It is a cross far too heavy for us to carry alone. So how can we attempt to make sense of it all and in at least some small way overcome the temptation to discouragement?
We recall Christ’s words, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 16). Indeed this can seem a mind-boggling challenge even to a steadfast Christian. But we are not alone – the Holy Spirit can give us the grace we need to embrace the cross.
Saint John Paul II offers a reflection for living out Christ’s commands in his great encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) where he explains with profound insight certain fundamental questions of the Church’s moral teaching. He says, “Following Christ is not an outward imitation, since it touches man at the very depths of his being. Being a follower of Christ means becoming conformed to him who became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross. Christ dwells by faith in the heart of the believer and thus the disciple is conformed to the Lord. This is the effect of grace, of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in us” (VS, n. 21 – emphasis original).
In our “if-it-feels-good-do-it” society, which has all but lost sight of objective truth and reality, we face a great challenge. But this challenge is met by the Divine gaze of Love. We are called to true freedom – not the false freedom of “license to do as we please” – but the freedom that truly liberates, the freedom to choose the good. Saint John Paul offers a prescription for putting this into practice. He explains, “Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfillment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbor, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning.” He goes on to explain that to live the challenges of love we must follow “a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love.” Most helpfully, he gives examples: “…the commandment ‘You shall not murder’ becomes a call to an attentive love which protects and promotes the life of one’s neighbor. The precept prohibiting adultery becomes an invitation to a pure way of looking at others, capable of respecting the spousal meaning of the body” (VS, n. 15).
This is a very positive and freeing way to understand the commandments and to know what we must do to begin to overcome the quagmire of suffering in today’s culture. We see that the good Lord has created a right order to things – an order that is for our good, for our flourishing. It is when we go against God’s design that we falter. We see this manifest in our personal failings as well as in our societal ones.
When we feel the angst of the oppression of the culture of death, let us unite our sufferings with the anguish of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. He saw all the sin and sorrow and more. Is it no wonder He sweat blood? No matter what misery we may be experiencing, it is not the end of the story. If we conform our lives to Christ, we necessarily also conform our lives to the Cross. But we must remember the words of St. Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18) and “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We do not carry the cross alone. When the Exsultet is proclaimed at the Easter Vigil, we hear the incredible words, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that won for us so great a Redeemer.” And we know that no matter what suffering we endure, we can rejoice that our Redeemer lives.