Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there still is required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.
Man, do I love Pope Saint Leo the Great. I think I first took to him when I was in seminary pursuing my second degree, in Sacramental Theology. Leo not only had a deep and evocative way of explaining the sacramental realities Christ offers us, but also a clear and concrete way that is easy to grasp. That is hardly what one would expect from a fifth-century pope. You would possibly think he would be abstract and classical, like the ancients; or arcane and medieval, like all those theological Doctors of this-that-and-the-other. But no; it sounds as if you could put Leo on television this very week and he would be intelligible and approachable to a wide audience – if you could find a television network willing to broadcast such incendiary truth!
So right here he sums up the whole foundation for Lent: our constant need for conversion, even after we have received God’s saving grace. What a simple imperative: All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life. What conflicts, petty and great, would be avoided if more souls were focused on that need!
His prescription for how we should do it is equally direct: Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
Perhaps I am not the only one of us for whom at this early stage of Lent, nothing is automatic yet and every participation in the disciplines of the season is a conscious act of the will, sometimes even reluctant: Oh yeah, I can’t have that for lunch; Oh yeah, I promised I’d do that every day; Oh yeah, that’s what I’m trying not to do. And that momentary recognition, leading to that intentional change of course, results not in some sense of accomplishment, but rather an awareness of its rightness, how it could and should and even would be for us normal, if only we were striving for Christ all year. Then the habits of Lent take hold, and all settles into routine.
Leo wants us to know that what we carry in Lent is not some penalty, but in fact a prize. These disciplines, these small self-denials, make us ready for and even produce for us great gifts even as we struggle with the sheer unaccustomed-ness of it all. What we think of as something we are giving to God, even grudgingly, is revealed immediately to be one of His great blessings to us:
There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
The gift of peace. Thank God! And thank Pope Leo for helping us notice.