Every Christian should visit the Holy Land at least once. Called the “Fifth Gospel,” Israel’s holy sites make the Scriptures come alive, reminding us that the story of our salvation, culminating in Christ, is not a myth or a beautiful idea, but actual events in specific places at particular historical moments. Having just returned from there with 116 pilgrims, I felt once again the magnetic power of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection is the center and source of our Catholic faith.
The Garden of Gethesemane, just outside Jerusalem, is a spiritually powerful place for me. The garden contains six olive trees which were there the night Jesus sweated blood in His agony. Inside the church, immediately in front of the altar, is the rock on which tradition says Jesus threw Himself down and prayed that the cross would pass Him by. Of course, we know the Lord accepted His Passion and death on that rock in the end, handing His will over to the Father, and winning forgiveness and salvation for the entire human race.
Whenever I pray in front of that holy rock, I ask the Lord for the grace to hand my will completely over to Him. I must confess I always feel a twinge of fear when I pray that. I am happily willing to give 90% of my will to God, but I also want to keep some back for myself, hanging onto a parachute or an exit strategy, just in case God’s will is too difficult or frightening. We indeed can get ourselves to a spiritual place where we grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way to accept God’s will in our lives, but such a place of joyless, resigned surrender is not good enough.
What I want is to want what God wants because He wants it, to will the will of the Father. That spiritual place is one of freedom, acceptance, peace and docility. Jesus willed His Passion and death, freely accepting it, embracing the pain, lifting all to the Father, and He did so generously and completely. The Lord’s embrace of the cross in Gethsemane is the fulfillment of His entire path of obedience, which we will hear beautifully on the First Sunday of Lent, when, at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, renouncing any self-seeking or misuse of power, always handing His life over to the will of the Father.
Lent is a spiritually opportune time for us to grow in our obedience and docility to the will of the Father, to reject the temptations of sin and self-absorption, and to expand our heart and spirit through the traditional actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. By being generous with God and others, we grow in our ability to transcend our own narrow limits and to apprehend the infinite mercy and compassion of the Lord. When I contemplate what Jesus has done for me, when I hold a crucifix and remember that the eternal Son of God traded His life for mine on the cross and has won eternal life and mercy for me, my heart expands and my spirit soars. How can I be stingy when God has been infinitely kind to me? How can I measure what I give to the Lord, when He has blessed me without limit? How can I reduce my faith to some heavy fulfillment of obligation, when I come to understand that everything in my life is a gift, an undeserved grace?
We do none of our Lenten actions to impress God, to demonstrate our spiritual greatness, or to win the approval of others. Such arrogant attitudes Jesus condemns in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday. (Matthew 6: 1-8) So why do give up things, try harder to be virtuous, and spend more time in prayer during these 40 days? I think of Lent as a clearing out of inner space, so God can act more freely in my life, so there is more of Him and less of me, that my heart is more supple and generous, that I have surrendered my will in little things, and hopefully that will make me more able to be generous and docile in the bigger challenges.
If I can see and accept God’s plan in my life through every detail of events, people, tasks, joys, tragedies, and opportunities that crowd my days, then I am free to live in union with Him, to be His instrument, to serve as His messenger, to be an extension of Christ in the world.
When we look at life through that supernatural lens, we powerfully realize that our work as Vincentians is an extension of the presence and action of God in the world. The Lord powerfully uses us to bring the Good News to the poor, to witness to the radiant dignity of every person, to alleviate suffering with compassion, and to build up the Kingdom of God. Our Vincentian witness is evangelical for it is a proclamation of the Gospel, certainly in word, but most profoundly in deed. For all the good that God accomplishes through us, we give glory and thanks to God!
This Lent, consider inviting someone to join your Vincentian conference. Many people simply need a friendly nudge to consider such a possibility of service. Many Catholics want to serve and love more, but just do not know how. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a beautiful way to live the Gospel and embrace the social teachings of the Church in a very practical and specific fashion. Imagine if every Vincentian brought one other person into the Society!
“For those who believe in the love of God and love him, the most varied circumstances that condition one’s existence are not seen as simply dictated by chance or by the blind laws of nature, but they are all guided by this love. They are occasions and means by which God serves to bring his work of sanctification to completion. He conceals himself behind all the events of one’s life: a given health condition…or some particular cause for disappointment, an unexpected change…He lies behind the particular state of life one has set out on, a sudden trial of a moral nature, or any kind of difficulty found at work. He hides himself behind the fact that we find ourselves to be at a specific place, next to a specific person. Everything, for the one who loves God…acquires positive meaning, because through all these circumstances, one can experience the love of God who wants to guide us toward sanctity.”
Servant of God Chiara Lubich, as published in Magnificat, February, 2023
Bishop Donald Hying