Having been anointed with holy ashes last week, we now fix our gaze upon the cross of the Son of God, and guided by the light of the paschal fire, we begin our preparation for the Resurrection of the Savior of the World. No one will reach the hoped-for day of the Resurrection, who has not first willingly entered into the tomb. If you seek to rise with Christ, you must first die with him.
But how are we to accomplish this spiritual death? The answer is simple, and yet so hard for our fallen nature: we must die to our own human desires; we must renounce the enticement of the body, that having willingly accepted the death which our first parents dealt to all of mankind, we may begin to live the life of God. This is why the Lenten fast is so important. Throughout the year we condition ourselves to follow the demands of the flesh, we eat when we are hungry, we sleep when we are tired, and we may curse when we are angry. This constant assent to the demands of the body has a spiritual effect. Instead of the soul (intellect and will) ruling our lower passions, we become enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh. Far from being able to choose rightly about the good things God has given to us, we become like animals, going after everything that gives us pleasure. For this reason, our Holy Mother Church sets before us the forty day journey of Lent. In this season we seek to become masters of our lives once again, taking control of our lower passions so that we may focus upon higher goods. How difficult it is! As anyone who has taken the fast with all seriousness knows, to deny the body its most basic urges exposes the real war between the body and the soul. This war is the war of the cross, and we will either win or we will lose; there can be no in-between. Either we will have mastered our desires, after the forty days of Lent, in such a way as to willingly accept death upon the cross of Christ and burial with him in the tomb, or we will renounce him as the Savior, and turn instead to the worship of the body. Therefore, over the next few weeks, let us turn our attention to the spiritual life, turn our thoughts to the wise men of the Church, and prepare our souls for the Resurrection of God.
Let us begin our Lenten meditation with an exhortation from Saint Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church.
Now is the time in which the souls of all men should be stirred with greater fervor towards spiritual perfection, and inspired with greater confidence: now when the return of that day on which we were redeemed invites us once more to the fulfillment of all our sacred duties, so that purified in body and soul we may celebrate the supreme Mystery of the Passion of Our Lord . . . Accordingly, with great solicitude has this divine means been given us, so that these forty days of reflection may assist us to restore the purity of our souls, and so that during them we may, by good works, make satisfaction for our past sins, and by devout mortification, purge ourselves of them.
As we are therefore beginning this sacred season, dedicated to the purification of the soul, let us be careful to fulfill the Apostolic command that “we cleanse ourselves from all defilements of the flesh and of the spirit,” (2 Cor 7:2) so that restraining the conflict that exists between the one and the other substance, the soul, which in the Providence of God is meant to be the ruler of the body, may regain the dignity of its rightful authority.
We must then so moderate our rightful use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. For this is also a time for gentleness and patience, a time of peace and serenity, in which having put away all stains of evil doing, we strive after steadfastness in what is good.
Be you certain, Dearly Beloved, that the devil, the enemy of all virtue, will look with envy upon these pious practices, to which we trust you freely give yourself; and he will bring against them all the force of his malice, so that from piety itself he may weave snares against piety: so that those he could not destroy through despair he will seek to undo through vain glory. Whose purpose will that most wicked enemy not dare to attack? Whose self denial does he not seek to undo, when . . . he attempted his deceits even against the Savior of the World? Let us therefore, Dearly Beloved, be watchful against the deceits of the devil, not alone against the enticement of gluttony, but even in our very purpose of fasting.
Enter then with pious devotion upon these holy days of Lent; and prepare for yourselves the works of mercy, that you may merit the Divine Mercy. Extinguish the fires of anger, wipe away all hate . . . give way to each other in the simplicity of true humility.” Let offenses be forgiven. Let harshness be changed to mildness, disdain to gentleness, discord into peace . . . so that our fasting may be pleasing to God. To Him we shall offer a true sacrifice of self denial and devotion if we keep ourselves from all iniquity; being helped in all things by Almighty God, Who with the Son and Holy Spirit is One in Divinity, One in Majesty, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Excerpts from a sermon of P. St. Leo the Great.