The Collect of the Mass for Ash Wednesday is among the most memorable and powerful in the Roman Missal:
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.
The martial language of this prayer resonates with special potency during the current invasion of Ukraine. Spiritual combat is always an essential aspect of the Christian life, but it takes on a special urgency during the Season of Lent. We follow Christ out into the wilderness, separating ourselves from what ordinarily distracts us, in order to meet the attacks of Satan with the armament of God.
Lent is a campaign. The People of God are on the march, like the ancient Israelites, marching through the wilderness from slavery to the Promised Land. Like the Israelites, God’s people today face enemies in pursuit from the place of slavery left behind, enemies who block the way into the Promised Land, and the enemy within themselves.
Against each of these enemies, Israel found itself powerless, utterly dependent on the Lord. The Egyptian army would have routed the Israelites if God had not made the Red Sea come down upon it. The armies of the peoples in and around the Promised Land were fierce and the Israelites were inexperienced fighters. But the Lord delivered those peoples into Israel’s power. And the Israelites were themselves prone to infidelity and even idol worship, but the Lord showed patience towards them and for forty years cultivated a loving covenantal bond with His people.
In a world fraught with chaos, as today’s world certainly is, Catholics would do well to heed this lesson of utter dependence upon the Lord’s power. Satan is unleashing a brutal, seemingly relentless attack in this age, but true victory does not belong to him.
The major difference between Lent and the Exodus is not the difference between forty days and forty years. That difference is infinitesimally small compared to the much greater difference between their sojourn’s anticipation of Christ and the knowledge of Christ’s victory that characterizes and inspires the pilgrimage of Lent.
In other words, Lent is a spiritual campaign of the Church militant and a victory march of the armies of God. The Christian’s battles against Satan and sin are fought with a view to and by the power of Christ’s Paschal Mystery and His victorious death and Resurrection. As Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, 85:
Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.
Despite the certainty of Christ’s victory, however, the Christian must never become complacent. The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving “weapons of self-restraint” for which the Church prays in the Ash Wednesday Collect. To turn away from the self, with its insatiable hungers, and to attend to the Lord and the needs of His people is at the heart of Lenten combat. Such selflessness empowers the rejection of temptations that prove too enticing to those who are self-indulgent. When a person is habituated to saying “yes” to himself at all times, it becomes nearly impossible to say “no” to sin.
In this combat against self-centeredness and sin, we imitate Christ’s forty days in the desert. Blessed Columba Marmion writes in his book The Mysteries of Christ that understanding Christ’s temptations in the wilderness require first understanding the role of temptation in the Christian life:
The divine perfections demand that a creature, rational and free, be put to the test before being admitted to enjoy the future beatitude. It is necessary that here below such a creature be on trial before God, and that it renounce, freely, its own gratifications so as to recognize God’s sovereignty and obey His law. The holiness and justice of God demand this homage.
According to Marmion, the power of this choice against sin and for God is such that it forms “the foundation of that merit which the Lord rewards with the beatitude of heaven.”
We cannot earn heaven in any natural sense, but we can merit heavenly reward even as we receive it gratefully as God’s gift to us. Just as spiritual combat is often underemphasized in Catholic circles today, so too is the Church’s doctrine of merit. The Council of Trent teaches:
Hence, to those that work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons and daughters of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God Himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits…[God’s] bounty toward all men is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits.
The doctrine of merit, rightly understood, inspires in the Catholic faithful new zeal as they undertake the campaign of Lent. This holy season becomes more than a vague opportunity to “grow” in various aspects of the Christian life, as essential as such growth is. Instead, Lenten sacrifices, animated by faith, hope, and charity, become the spiritual weapons, attacks, and counterattacks by which God’s people participate in the victory of Christ and win the glorious reward of salvation in Him.
Every step of the way, Christians do battle with the confidence St. Paul expressed in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
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