Lent and Love - St. Bernard's

Lent and Love

Feb 27, 2024

Joseph Terry, Ph.D.

This blog post was first published in March, 2023. Reprinted with permission.

With an immediacy that seems inescapable, the Church in her wisdom directs our path once again to the desert, that place where our “yes” and “no” are refined, purified, and elevated beyond the conditioned reality of our everydayness. And yet, such a purifying refinement can only occur in the midst of our daily grind, there, betwixt the to-do’s that pepper our lives. Hence, with the not-so-gentle reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return, the Church invites us to enter the desert through the route of our daily activities so that we can learn – remember, really – that we are oriented by a logic that transcends the demands of the fallen systems and structures of this age. This logic is love, the love that sustains the very grammar of being itself. Thus, the desert stands before each of us as the decisive path by which we are to tread so as to be reminded of our first love. Such a reminder can only happen in the school of the desert.

Paradoxically, however, we could only survive the desert experience by first being reminded of the Father’s love for us. This affirmative embrace of the Father coupled with the affirmative push of the Spirit of love is the secret to succeeding in the harsh reality of the desert. And so, we need the desert in order to cultivate the right ordering of our loves, and we can only survive the desert if we are made personally aware of the truth of the Father’s love for us, animated onward by that Spirit who is love.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “you are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. (Mark 1:9-13 ESV)

Like Jesus – by virtue of our baptism, engrafted into his body – we too can hear the affirmative embrace of our Father. And like Jesus, we too are immediately driven into the wilderness by the Spirit who is love, because it is only in the testing of our limits that we are given the opportunity to say “no” for the sake of the greater “yes” that is this love. The options we all possess in the wilderness, to either surrender to the lesser good or to forsake the good for the Good that is the summum bonum, reveal to us the very possibility of love: egocentric love, or theocentric love. Lent, thus, is about love, either for self or for the Other.

These forty days of praying, fasting, and almsgiving – lent as a concentrated form of the Christian life – supply us with the boundary conditions by which we can augment our mode of being in accordance with the grammar of Christ. And this is good news since this means we can, once again, in a concentrated manner, train ourselves to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen,” (2 Cor. 4:18), knowing that the unseen is eternal, truly real, and substantial. No one really wants to live in a dream, and Lent awakens us to Reality.

Only the unseen can truly satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. Only the eternal can quench our never-ending thirst, for we are made for Him. This is why Lent is in fact a gift, for through the embrace of the desert do we ever only truly realize our need for water.

Lent is an extended opportunity for us to learn how to better pursue the things of God with the awareness that God has first pursued us, embraced us, and laid claim upon us with an undying love. This is why Lent is not a time to attempt to “win the heart of God,” or to “prove ourselves before God.” That is not the Gospel, the good news of Christ. Rather, Lent is a time to respond to God’s love by learning how to love Him back and to love our neighbors who are made in His image and likeness. Lent is training in love.

Jesus lived in obscurity with His family for years. As far as we know, He did not perform any miracles, offer extended teaching, or even begin His public ministry. These were the “hidden years” at Nazareth. And yet we hear His Father’s words spoken over Him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). No mighty deeds yet, and the Father embraces Him. Only after Jesus sees the heavens open, experiences the descent of the Spirit upon Him, and hears the embracing words of His Father is He then driven into the desert by love, ready to do battle. Jesus fought well, denied Himself well, and stood well because He knew He was the beloved of the Father. Our ability to do the same depends too on our deepening awareness of the Father’s love for us. This love that we first received in baptism. This love that we continue to receive in the Eucharist and in Reconciliation. Lent is not really about having to do this or that; rather, it is an opportunity for us to say “I love you too, Abba!

So, let us continue to follow Jesus into the wilderness. Let us enter into the mystery of His passion. Let us join Our Lady by drawing close to Him as He carries the cross for us. In the mystery of His suffering and death, we experience life, light, and love. This is why in the mystery of our suffering, penance, and self-denial, we not only share in the mystery of Christ, but also express to our heavenly Father our love for Him.

Joseph Terry, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at CUNY / Kingsborough and is Co-
Founder and Managing Director of Schola Sophia. He is the author of a forthcoming
book titled Human, All Too Human: Mariology as Theo-Philosophical Anthropology.