By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Self-denial is not foreign to the world. It is not original or exclusive to Catholics. Granted, the indulgence of our culture might obscure this fact. Most people do seem to go about seeking to satisfy their appetites, and more. The world’s dominant message is not self-restraint but self-indulgence. Nevertheless, even in the midst of all this we do find some self-denial.
You do not have to be a believer to grasp that life occasionally requires self-denial. Sometimes for noble purposes – like a soldier forgoing comfort in defense of his nation. Sometimes for less noble purposes – like an athlete disciplining himself to make the team. And sometimes for downright selfish and vain purposes – like the starlet dieting to lose weight and fit into that bathing suit. The pagan view reaches the heights of silliness in Nietzsche’s phrase: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (No, what does not kill you might just make you weaker, sicker, more spiteful, resentful, etc.)
Our Lenten sacrifices should be different, distinctly Christian – if not outwardly, at least by intention and purpose. Unfortunately, they typically resemble secular New Year’s resolutions more than Christian offerings. We hold our breath, bite the bullet, and white-knuckle it until Easter, at which point we relax, breathe a sigh of relief…and slouch right back into the same vices as before. We can do alright for 40 days. But it does not seem to impact the rest of the year.
The prayers of Mass during Lent alert us to the difference of Christian self-denial. They speak of a “holy fast” and “bodily discipline now solemnly begun.” Here there is something different from what we find, even in admirable ways, among the pagans. We call it mortification – literally, a putting to death of things. But a putting to death as the necessary preliminary to resurrection and new life.
If we do well with Lenten resolutions, we pat ourselves on the back. If (more likely) we fail in them, then we go into a tailspin of discouragement. Either way the focus is the same: self. A sure sign that our mortifications are not by the Spirit is when they prompt us to focus more on ourselves.
Saint Paul was not ignorant of noble secular and pagan examples: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor 9:24-25). And yet Saint Paul does not end there.
In speaking of mortification – of the sacrifices and self-denial necessary for Christian thriving – the Apostle says, “but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.” (Rom 8:13). If by the Spirit… Christian self-denial proceeds not from self-will or selfish goals. We are not trying to prove ourselves or earn our way into heaven. Our self-denial comes from the Spirit and focuses on Jesus Christ. For the Christian, self-denial – mortification, putting to death – is the living out of Baptism, when we by the power of the Spirit died with Christ, and rose with Him. With every mortification we return to the font of Baptism, where our old self was crucified with Christ, where we were buried with Him and rose with Him to new life (cf. Rom 6:4-6). Christian mortification is not a heroic pagan effort but a return to what is most true about us: We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God (cf. Col 3:3). It is, in short, the Spirit putting to death whatever in us is not of Christ.
We take them up, invest ourselves in self-denial and hand them all over to God. Let Him do with them what He will, as we are too weak to make them good. It is the Spirit and not our own efforts that unites us with Him Who first fasted and mortified His flesh.
Amazing, is it not, how self-denial can lead to pride? How selfish we can be in restraining ourselves? If we do well with Lenten resolutions, we pat ourselves on the back. If (more likely) we fail in them, then we go into a tailspin of discouragement. Either way the focus is the same: self. A sure sign that our mortifications are not by the Spirit is when they prompt us to focus more on ourselves.
Our Lenten resolutions and sacrifices are meant to be offerings, not merely practices. We take them up, invest ourselves in self-denial and hand them all over to God. Let Him do with them what He will, as we are too weak to make them good. It is the Spirit and not our own efforts that unites us with Him Who first fasted and mortified His flesh. We ask His Spirit, then, to come and collect all our little deaths, our simple Lenten sacrifices; so that we can experience Christ’s death more profoundly and likewise experience more profoundly His Resurrection.