BEFORE THE CROSS | Lenten discipline counteracts belief that our desires define us

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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Are you following the Olympics?

Olympic medalists often tell us that their success has made their sacrifices worthwhile. That should raise a question for us as we enter the second week of Lent. The glory of heaven can't be less than the glory of an Olympic medal. What sacrifices are we willing to make to get there?

This week the prophet Ezekiel tell us about a conversation between God and Israel, and it may guide our Lenten discipline. God says that if someone with a long history of sin turns and repents, "None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him." Likewise, if someone with a long history of good deeds turns to evil, "None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered."

The Israelites say, "That's not fair!" What they want — or think they want — is a sort of "salvation arithmetic." Good deeds should go into God's book, and always remain there as our bank of merit before Him. Bad deeds should go into God's book, too, and always remain there as our bank of faults before Him. Whether we're pleasing in God's eyes is a simple question of the balance of merits and faults.

But God's standard is different — both easier and harder than salvation arithmetic.

What God wants is our heart. That's the only thing that goes into the balance. As St. Augustine wrote, "My weight is my love." In that way, salvation is easier than accumulating enough good deeds to outweigh our sins.

But God's standard is harder than salvation arithmetic, too, precisely because He wants our heart, not just our external deeds. In addition, He doesn't just want a part of our heart, He wants the whole thing. That's the sense in which Jesus tells us: "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." And that's why, immediately after saying this, He lays out a program for purifying our hearts: anyone who's angry with his brother will be subject to Gehenna, anyone who looks with lust has already committed adultery in his heart, and so on. In that way, salvation is harder than accumulating external good deeds. Our hearts need to be conformed to God's heart!

That offers guidance for our Lent. What's one area of your heart that needs working on? Whatever it is, that's the sacrifice for which the Lord asks, and that's where our Lenten discipline should focus. Do we need to cut away something that keeps our heart from loving? Do we need to carve out time and energy that would allow us to love more deeply? That kind of discipline will shape the weight of our heart — and that's the weight the Lord wants us to place on the balance.

If someone could tell you "follow this discipline — make these sacrifices — and you'll win Olympic glory" would you do it? Gold medalists tell us that, looking back, the sacrifice and discipline are worth it.

Well, Jesus speaks to us in the Scriptures this week. He says: "follow this discipline — make these sacrifices — this is the path to heaven." Yes, the discipline and sacrifices required of our hearts in Lent are hard. But, looking back from the perspective of heavenly glory, they'll be worth it. 

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