Many people live and die without seriously reflecting on the most important issues of existence – what is a human person, what are the origins of good and evil, why must I make peace with those I have wronged, what is our ultimate destiny, can I make this world better, is there a God and, if so, how does he relate with humanity?
For many people, life is oriented to maximizing pleasure and making sure I get what is mine. This superficial orientation is stressed even more in a society such as ours where opportunities for pleasure abound and self-sacrifice seems meaningless. Yet, if we but watch those who pursue pleasure with abandon, we soon see that such a pursuit invariably ends in sorrow. As Blessed John Henry Newman said, "It pleases at first, but not at last. It looks gay on the outside, but evil and misery lie concealed within."
For Christianity, all meaning, all those probing existential questions, are answered through the Christ's cross and resurrection, the paschal mystery.
God created the world good and human beings in God's image and likeness. Sin violated that image. Once let out of the bottle, sin expands like cancer. It is not satisfied with one sin, but rather develops an insatiable appetite, spiralling downward in ever-greater degradations.
Can the spiral be halted? Can the cancer be healed? Try as we might, human beings are powerless over sin. Only if the all-holy God becomes fully human, takes on the burden of sin and conquers it, can the divine image be restored. Even then, the choice remains ours – will we deliberately link our lives to the paschal mystery, the way of the cross that leads to victory?
The way of the cross is a hidden path. We would not have found it had Christ not shown it to us. Then, when we do see it, our hearts recoil and we want to run in the opposite direction, back to the false world of pleasures and possessions.
Having found Christ, we are tempted to desert him. Newman says, "They alone enjoy [the world] who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast who have first fasted."
The Church gives us the great gift of Lent to remind us how we are to live, to practise "the good life." Real sacrifices for the sake of union with Christ, sacrifices that hurt, are paradoxically the path to lasting joy. Turning our backs on the shallow pleasures of the world is essential if we are to live with any depth.
For St. Benedict, the life of a monk is to be a continuous Lent. Lay people are not monks, but we are called to reject the superficiality of the world.
"Repent, and believe in the Gospel," the minister says when placing ashes on our foreheads. That "belief" is no mere act of the intellect; it is a turning inside-out of the whole person. If we want to feast, we need first to fast.