If we find the penance of Lent makes us a bit uncomfortable, perhaps we need to look again at the life of St. Paul. This is, as we probably know by now, the Year of St. Paul. But how much do we really know about Paul? Allow me to quote just a couple of paragraphs of Rev. Norman Langenbrunner. He writes: “Luke reports that within days of Paul’s acceptance of Jesus Christ, the new preacher had stirred up the Jews in Damascus to the point that they wanted to kill him, and he had to sneak out of town” (Acts 9:23).
According to Acts, Paul was stoned at Lystra and dragged out of the city (14:19). At Philippi, he was beaten and jailed (16:22). In Jerusalem, he caused a riot (21:31). In Caesarea, 40 men took an oath not to eat until they had killed him (23:21). In Rome, he was guarded by a soldier (28:16).
In his own accounting, Paul remembered being whipped five times with 40 lashes minus one, being stoned three times, and having endured imprisonments, beatings and numerous brushes with death (2 Cor 11:23-25).
And, as we probably know, St. Paul died by being beheaded!
Does all of this make giving up desserts a little easier?
What in the world would have made Paul put up with all that he put up with? What must that experience on the road to Damascus have been like?
For Paul, dying to self was not just words. Dying to himself really was his life. When his false self died, Paul took on his true self: “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me!”
Dying to self is not about masochism or seeking pain. Dying to self is to live for a higher self. Many of our Lenten penances have the opposite effect. Instead of making us less self-conscious, they make us more self-conscious as we think about how hungry we are, or how much we miss that cigarette. Lent becomes an endurance contest rather than a time of rebirth.
Paul, however, got it! He realized that Jesus had come through the worst possible death – the ignominy and torture of the cross – and had found new life. By taking on the person of Christ, Paul realized he had taken on the power of Christ. Yes, pain and suffering can discourage us, but they can’t stop us. Humiliation and cruel words can sting us, but they don’t define us. Death can envelop us, but it can’t defeat us. “Death where is your victory? Death where is your sting?” The last enemy to be defeated really is death, and Christ defeated that enemy and promised us that you and I will, too. Most of us hear that. With some difficulty we struggle to believe that. Paul heard it, believed it and acted on it. He realized that he “could do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Perhaps, to accomplish that in our lives, we need to make the line from a Christmas carol our Lenten prayer: “Cast out our sin, Lord, enter in. Be born in us today.”
Dying to self is the struggle of Lent. Allowing God to live in us and through us is the joy of Lent and of life.
Allow me to close with a little reflection that was mailed to me by Eleanor Lapinsky:
“May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
“May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
“May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”