By NEMS Daily Journal
Penitence is the hallmark of Lent, the ancient church season leading up to Easter. But being penitent is never easy – even for those who can at least intellectually acknowledge the need for it.
Humans are prideful beings. To say we are sorry and to be truly remorseful in our hearts, is something that goes against the grain of human nature. That has always been the case; it is all the more so in the modern age with its emphasis on self-esteem, self-fulfillment and other “self-ish” mantras.
Man’s original sin was to see himself as godlike. It’s what the story of the Garden of Eden is all about.
Sin is about our own presumption in taking the place of God in our lives. We become the arbiter, the judge, the ruler of ourselves. That way, there is always self-justification. Or as with Adam and Eve, always someone or something else to blame.
But Jesus says we must die before we can live. He says we must lose our life in order to gain it, that the way of the cross is the way to our true humanity. We cannot celebrate resurrection without death, Easter without Good Friday.
One of the late Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Lenten prayers strikes at the heart of this:
“Yes, Lord, I have to die –
with you, through you, and in you –
and thus become ready to recognize you
when you appear to me in your resurrection.
There is so much in me that needs to die:
false attachments, greed and anger,
impatience and stinginess.
O Lord, I am self-centered,
concerned about myself, my career, my future,
my name and future, my name and fame.
I see clearly now how little I have died with you,
really gone your way and been faithful to it.
O Lord, make this Lenten season
different from the other ones.
Let me find you again.
Finding God – during Lent or at any time – means getting ourselves out of our own way first. The disciplines of the faithful life are all about removing the obstacles that separate us from God. When we are consumed by our self-centered fears, preoccupations, anxieties and insecurities, we can’t see God. Only when we die to what the world says we should worry about are we freed to become the people we were created to be – and to live life as it was meant by the Creator to be lived.
This is a message that is hard to hear. It can mean rejection and ridicule, pain and sacrifice. It is not what the culture teaches us, this subordination of ourselves to another, to The Other.
But it is the only way to live fully. It is the clearest path to peace and serenity.
“People seek glory by moving upward,” Nouwen wrote. “God reveals his glory by moving downward. If we truly want to see the glory of God, we must move downward with Jesus.”
It’s not the way of the world. But then who would have thought that God would save the world by dying on a cross?