As we approach Holy Week, I’d like to give a few reflections on chapter 12 of the Book of Hebrews. After relating the experiences of many people of faith in the Old Testament, the author of Hebrews gives what I consider a perfect invitation to our Lenten pilgrimage:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (12:1-4).
The author of Hebrews presents the image of a runner who keeps his focus forward to the end goal — to Jesus, to joy, and to the Beatific Vision of God — who does not let the discouragements of the past, present, or future distract him. As St. Paul wrote elsewhere, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13b-14). Lent is a time designed to train our focus forward.
And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? — “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).
Do we appreciate the great gift of Lent — “that we may share in his holiness”? Or do we just take it for granted every year as “just another one of those inconveniences the Church is always dropping into our lives”? Or, given the additional suffering experienced lately due to the Coronavirus pandemic, have we just thrown up our hands and walked away from our Lenten penances?
But just as a truly loving father disciplines his children, the Church, following the inspiration of the Spirit, knows that for us to truly appreciate the meaning of Easter, we first need to experience the self-imposed sacrifices of Lent. By willingly letting go of one or two otherwise harmless conveniences, we allow the Holy Spirit to train and strengthen our hearts and minds, and especially our wills, to face the unpredictable inconvenient trials of life. Our Mother, the Church, wants us to reap “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” But as Our Lord told His Apostles on the night on which He was betrayed, “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (Jn 15:2).
In your walk with Jesus Christ, are you producing fruit? St. Paul explained that “the fruit of the Spirit” — or how we are changed by grace when we abide in Christ — “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Are you growing in these virtuous character traits? To do so, we need to be “pruned,” which is how and why our loving Lord disciplines us, challenges us, sometimes with suffering, discouragement, loneliness — and why the Church challenges us to accept and even impose some level of suffering and detachment upon ourselves for forty days. Why? Because He wants us to be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, etc., as demonstrated by the many witnesses whose lives give evidence of the work of grace.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (12:12-13).
This is exactly how I sometimes feel when Lent arrives. Have any of you experienced this? All of a sudden, in the busyness of life, co-workers come back after lunch with smudges on their foreheads, and you realize you’ve forgotten it’s Ash Wednesday! The author of Hebrews reminds us that, in order to follow and abide in Christ and to experience the joy He promises (cf. Jn 15:11), we are called to ignore whether we feel like it or not (i.e., “drooping hands” and “weak knees”) and willfully respond to the nudge of His grace, to realign our otherwise wandering paths, “straight” back on course in His direction.
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (12:14).
Seriously, did you hear that warning? Without “holiness … no one will see the Lord.” If you stood before Him tonight, would you do so without embarrassment? This is what Lent helps us prepare for.
See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious (12:15-16a).
There is much in these verses that speaks to the effects of the present “immoral” and “irreligious” scandal in our Church, as well as our modern culture. Lifelong Catholics, clergy and laity, as well as non-Catholics exploring the Church, can grow bitter, discouraged, doubtful, even disenchanted, which can cause “trouble” in the souls of so many, even leading hearts and consciences to feel “defiled.”
These last few verses so clearly express the motivation behind the ministry of the Coming Home Network. Many of our separated brethren, because of their particular theologies, do not emphasize the need to grow in holiness. So we must not take it for granted that just because our non-Catholic family members or friends say they have faith in Jesus and read their Bibles and go to their churches that they “are just fine where they are.” They need to know — from us — that both Scripture and the Church warn that they must “strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” And they can’t grow in holiness without “the grace of God,” so we do everything we can to make sure “no one fail[s] to obtain [it].” And our staff, volunteers, and online support community are here to encourage those who are growing bitter — even feeling “defiled” as a result of the ongoing crisis in the Church.
Please make these last days of Lent an opportunity to offer up in prayer our families, our friends, our Church, our suffering world, and especially those struggling with a “root of bitterness,” begging for God’s mercy and encouragement. And as the author of Hebrews closes this chapter, “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire”(12:28-29).