Thursday after Ash Wednesday
Dt 30:15-20; Lk 9:22-25
March 10, 2011
He who controls the terms of the debate usually wins the debate. By using certain phrases and words, we are able to influence how people around us think about issues and ultimately decide their positions.
A good illustration of this phenomenon is abortion. By framing the matter exclusively as choice, many people then focus on having it or being deprived of it. I think we can all agree that having choice wins all the time.
For a long time, Bernard Nathanson was a servant of choice. His death last month reminds us that the object of our choosing matters too. Fifteen years before he died, the medical doctor made the following admission in print: “Having looked at ultrasound, I could no longer go on as before. . . . It dawned on me, finally, that the pre-natal nine months are . . . another band in the spectrum of life. . . . To disrupt or abort a life at this point is intolerable.” ( The Hand of God, pp. 128,130)
After choosing death for such a long time and personally performing 5000 abortions and presiding over some 60,000 of them, Dr. Nathanson underwent a profound conversion and began choosing life. And for the last thirty years of his life, he dedicated himself to exposing the lies of the pro choice movement he once championed.
In today’s first reading, Moses speaks on behalf of the Lord to the people he has been called to lead. Moses in his speech adverts to a momentous choice in front of God’s people. It is a choice between life and prosperity on the one hand and death and doom on the other. (cf. Dt 30:15) This choice, we learn in the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, is related to obedience and disobedience. When there is obedience to the Lord’s commandments, it yields life. When there is disobedience, it yields death. (cf. Dt 30:16-17)
After laying out the covenant in just these terms, Moses then exhorts the people to choose life. (Dt 30:19) Their choice, by the way, redounds not just to their own safety, but it will also benefit those who come after them, their descendants. (Dt 30: 19) Moreover, a choice in favor of life brings length of life. It is a long life dwelling on the Lord’s land (cf. Dt 30:20) which follows in the aftermath of choosing correctly.
The choice of Lent is vividly depicted for us in the temptations put to Jesus by Satan. In Saint Matthew’s account of these temptations which we will hear this coming Sunday, Jesus chooses three times in favor of life – the life He has in communion with the Father and the Spirit. Three times, Jesus rejects the deadly compromises dangled in front of Him by the father of lies. (cf. Matt 4:1-11)
To make life-affirming choices is what we aim and strive to do. Our choices, then, may take the form of positive action. An example of this kind of choosing is the corporal works of mercy, practices with their origin in the eschatological judgment of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. “For I was hungry, you gave me food, I was thirsty you gave me drink. . . .” (Matt 25:35) Giving food and drink, indubitably a way of giving alms, enhances life by providing what is necessary for its maintenance and flourishing.
But not every good choice we make augments or increases life. Some of our choices actually have the effect of diminishing us or reducing us. Today’s gospel gives indication of that second type of choice, the one that reduces us and brings us low – what we might call a via negativa.
Saint Luke recalls Jesus in His public ministry instructing the disciples to deny themselves and take up their crosses. (cf. Lk 9:23) Those who want to save their lives are going to have to lose them. (Lk 9:24) But if their losing is for the Lord’s sake, it is really a gain then. (cf. Lk 9:24) And losing for the Lord is worth more than gaining the whole world. (Lk 9:25)
Self-denial is not the counsel we are likely to accept when a contract needs to be re-negotiated. Losing some or all of what we have is not the advice we are likely to take when a settlement in or out of court needs to be enacted. Choosing self-denial and choosing to lose in these instances would be manifest signs of weakness, raising the white flag of surrender before our opponents.
Self-denial and losing are, however, conditions for true discipleship. They are what Jesus Himself prescribes. And His word on this can be trusted because of His own perfect obedience. Even though we will not hear the text proclaimed aloud at the liturgy until Palm Sunday, we still pray, live and work the spirituality of the kenosis all during the Lenten season. Jesus’ self-emptying unto death (cf. Phil 2:7-8) is incontrovertibly a choice. It is not as if Jesus somehow places Himself on auto pilot during His public ministry, thereby suspending His freedom to choose. No, it is a conscious “Yes” on our behalf that He makes, allowing us to know the power and the glory of the Redemption. We indeed have been bought at a price (cf. 1 Cor. 6:20) and this purchase is possible because Jesus chooses it.
The great challenge every Lent is to see in Christ’s “Yes” to death a warrant to say “Yes” to death ourselves. There is a challenge also in accepting that greatest of Christian paradoxes, namely, that an abundance of life awaits those who submit to death. And thus our hearts are gladdened by that assurance of new life in today’s gospel when Jesus refers to being raised on the third day. (cf. Lk 9: 22) But before the glory of the Resurrection there is the long shadow cast by the Cross in our lives. May these forty days we embarked upon yesterday help us to choose death on the model of Christ’s death. And may we rise like Him in glory too.
Praised be the Crucified Christ!
Msgr Robert Batule