What do you most judge about yourself? Can you list five things that you appreciate about yourself? Are you certain that God couldn’t do anything but unconditionally love you?
These first days of Lent I pondered these questions. Rooted in my earliest childhood years I found events that in some way had contributed to breaking down an awareness of the absolute reality of God’s claim on my life which he had instilled in me at my Baptism. I found that as I was reflecting on these questions, I was judging myself harshly, couldn’t list even one thing that I appreciated about myself, and wasn’t deeply certain that God endlessly loved me.
Let me share with you an image.
When I consider the ways in which I try to be significant, central, satisfied, I imagine a beautiful, glistening sunshine-drenched path in front of me (outside of me) leading to a horizon of happiness that I can’t quite see but am quite sure is there. When I traced the roots of this image back to my earliest years, I discovered one particular day in which I maliciously made a statement against another person, thinking others would be proud of me, include me, want me, praise me because I had aligned myself with their values.
It didn’t happen. In fact, I was told that I was never to speak that way again.
As I pray with this wounding situation, I have to admit that my child’s heart had been filled with malicious glee at the expense of another person who became the target of my criticism. I had been sure that I would at last attain acceptance in behaving in a way that didn’t spring from my Christ-self. I was elated at the promise of at last belonging. I felt a lightness and strength and happiness.
That sunshine-drenched path that seemingly stretched before me, however, was suddenly drenched in tears, the glistening light extinguished.
As I prayerfully rested with this image it shifted, and I had a sense of walking, as a child, among the stars in the night sky. I couldn’t see around me, no goal stretched out before me, no one else’s values or ideology fascinated me with the false promise of personal significance. Yet I felt safe and a type of cosmic and divine belonging, stepping through the starry night as each star became a bridge on a path, that was being put there just for me. A path not sought. I was enjoying going step by step, unseeing, where I was led. I was blessed with a feeling of the peace of holy childlikeness.
In a veritable song of triumph, Saint Paul exclaims in Romans 8 this one reality that truly grounds our life: “Now Christ lives his life in you!” (v. 10) Yes, our bodies are dead because of the effects of sin, but the Spirit of God, the life-giving Spirit imparts life to us because we are fully accepted by God. The Spirit breathes life into us and will raise us to life, as God raised Jesus to life!
Lent is a time to refocus our attention from the flesh which suffers the effects of sin to the full acceptance that is ours because we have been enfolded by the Spirit of Jesus into the family of God (v. 14-15).
Yes the body is dead because of the effects of the original fall of Adam and Eve, as well as the sins of others who affect my life and my own sins. AND the life-giving Spirit has imparted life to me. I can taste this life if I no longer live controlled by the flesh (v. 13). The penances of Lent aren’t really about proving we have the grit to last 40 days without something we really like or doing something that we don’t normally do. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving train us to live our lives no longer controlled by the flesh so that we can taste the abundance of life God has given us in his Son. The children of God are those who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit, who are moved by the impulses of the Holy Spirit (v. 14).
Everything I wanted in that childhood event: acceptance, association with another by talking their values, personal value, I receive as the Spirit rises within me. The “sun-drenched path before me” suddenly becomes the Spirit’s linking my life to the Trinity when he whispers with tender affection to my heart: “You are God’s beloved child!” I have received the Spirit of adoption who has me cry out, “Abba! Father!” Sacramentally at Baptism the words, “Beloved Father!” became my joy to say, my declaration of true and everlasting belonging. I share all his treasures and will be co-glorified with Christ provided I accept as my own the suffering caused by the Spirit working in me the death of my sin and my darkness (v. 14-17). The glory of God to be revealed in us is far greater than anything we give up in this process of spiritual maturation in Christ.
Again, this glory which I have sought in external things that have pleased and flattered me, promising me a rosy future is actually bestowed on me in Christ. The whole universe is standing on tiptoe as it were, watching in the darkness to see the unveiling of God’s glory in those he has claimed for his family. The Holy Spirit takes hold of us making our destiny coincide with God’s plan. Our destiny and God’s plan are one thing. And because they are woven into one, we can trust that in every detail God is working out his perfect plan to bring good into our lives. The Lenten blessing this very morning for Wednesday of the First Week of Lent prays: “in your kindness cleanse [your people] from all sins, for if evil has no dominion over them, no trial can do them harm.” We have been called, shaped, redeemed, and empowered by the Spirit to fulfill God’s divine purpose. “For he knew all about us before we were born and he destined us from the beginning to share the likeness of his Son” (v. 29-30). In the Amplified version these verses read: “For those whom He foreknew [and loved and chose beforehand], He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son [and ultimately share in His complete sanctification], so that He would be the firstborn [the most beloved and honored] among many believers. And those whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called, He also justified [declared free of the guilt of sin]; and those whom He justified, He also glorified [raising them to a heavenly dignity].”
This Lent, instead of mourning all the ways in which my happy plans for personal glory have been obstructed, I’m resetting my spiritual life to focus on how God has been determined to stand with us and nothing else can stand against us. I am rejoicing in Jesus who said that nothing could snatch us out of his hands! I am carefully adjusting the lens of my heart so that I can reverently praise my Beloved Father who freely offered his Son up for us all and will certainly not withhold from us anything else he has to give.
So nothing, not even my silly vainglory, not even my wounded desires to belong, can separate me from God’s endless love. God is having me triumph overall because he made me a conqueror. His love in me is my glorious victory over everything! Nothing can separate my belonging, my sure groundedness, my absolute certainty of being loved because of his love lavished on us in Christ Jesus! (v. 35-39). Nothing. Ever. Will. Separate. Me. From. Christ.
Images Credit: Via Cathopic: Marilopz, Luis Ca, Carloscastolo