“Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom.” So Moses said to the Israelites 3,000 years ago, urging them to choose the path of life. So God says to the people of New York state today (where the legislature effectively removed restrictions on abortion). But they have chosen the path of death, and we have to call that out for what it is. The governor of New York has said — and he is not alone in saying it: “We will let our children pay, with their lives, for our choices.”
That reality frames the beginning of our Lenten season, even in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. We readily identify with the Old Testament prophets who lamented: “This is not my choice, but these are my people, and this is our land, and we all bear the weight of these sins. Spare us, O Lord!”
Because Jesus loved sinners, He was accused of loving sin. But it was not so, and He didn’t let a false accusation deter Him. Today, because the Church hates sin, we are accused of hating sinners. But it is not so, and we can’t let the false accusation deter us from our path.
Love the sinner, hate the sin. It’s not easy. In our fallen condition we tend to blur the lines: we think we have to approve the sin to love the sinner; we slip too easily from hating the sin to despising the sinner. Rather than abandon the project because it’s hard, though, maybe we need to practice until we get better at it.
Fortunately, a practice field is ready at hand. C.S. Lewis noted that we always apply this distinction to ourselves. We think of ourselves as basically good people, even though we have flaws that we detest. Perhaps we can practice by turning the spotlight inward, focusing first on ourselves. Lent provides the occasion for this practice.
To deepen our practice we can heed two pieces of advice from the readings this week. 1) “Hate intensely what he loathes” (Sirach 17: 26). We should look at our sins the way a physician looks at cancer: love the patient and hate the sickness, doing what you can to destroy it. 2) “Offer no bribes, these he does not accept” (Sirach 35:14). For a man who is a habitual user of pornography, or a woman who habitually gossips, giving up chocolate for Lent is missing the point. The Old Testament prophets scorned such sacrifice as a deception, just as Jesus called out the Pharisees for putting on a show and avoiding the real work of repentance. A child gives up chocolate as training for a greater sacrifice. As adults we’re called more directly to make the greater sacrifices.
Consider the episode of Jesus and the rich young man (Mark 10). Jesus loved him, and that love had two dimensions:
1) Jesus affirmed the good in him. 2) Jesus also challenged him in a place where it hurt to grow.
Jesus loves each of us with the same love, and Lent is a time to grow in receiving that love. So, when Jesus loves you, what goodness does He affirm? We need to be able to receive that love. It strengthens us for what comes next: when Jesus loves you, where does He ask, invite and challenge you to go deeper, even if it hurts? Like the rich young man, we can walk into that challenge or walk away.
That’s the deepest task that faces us this Lent: not what’s happening in New York or anywhere else, but what’s happening on the battlefield of our own hearts. If we use Lent to walk into the place where Jesus is challenging us to go deeper, we will make a contribution toward healing our land of its sins. If we walk away, or dwell only in the shallows of repentance, we will make little or no contribution, leaving our land to the consequences of its sins.