It’s hard to believe, but Lent kicks off tomorrow. Lent is that time of the year for each of us to seriously examine our hearts and enter more deeply into the mystery of our salvation. It’s a time to experience again the breathtaking mercy of our God, who at just the right time, when we were still helpless… died for the ungodly. In the face of a world that blandly glosses over sin and its effects, the season of Lent declares with terrible clarity that actually… we’re not all “ok.” We desperately need help. We need to be saved! We need grace.
That’s what I’d like to speak briefly on this morning — Grace. We must never lose sight of Grace.
Often enough the first thing that comes to mind when we think about Lent is the spiritual workout we plan on putting ourselves through. We come up with all sorts of incredible feats of fasting and penance that we intend to complete, and for all intents and purposes, Lent can become sort of like Catholic Olympics — an extreme test of spiritual endurance, a display of religious stamina. “Woah! You’re going 40 days without watching Netflix? You must be really holy, dude!” “Jeez, you’re giving up Facebook? I could never do that — I’d have no friends!”
These are good things to give up, but if we’re not careful, Lent can become more about flexing our spiritual muscles than about what Christ is accomplishing in us. It can become more about ourselves and what we are doing than about what God is doing.
Yes we should be pushing ourselves and striving after holiness. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul goes so far as to write: “I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” But what about Grace? Where does that fit into the picture?
Everything relies on it.
Our first reading from the letter of James says that “every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.” That is to say: Everything good is a pure grace from God. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.
So, our Lenten fasts may impress our friends, but they don’t impress God — That’s because they are first and foremost His gift to us. They are for our good, not His. God enables us to give up Netflix, because He happens to love us more than we could ever love watching Stranger Things. He gives us the courage to take ice-cold showers…or at least lukewarm ones. He gives us peace of mind to let go of our possessions and give to the poor. He fills us with perseverance and patience when we sit down for the Holy Hour we promised to pray. He does all this not for his own health, but for ours.
There was an early heresy in the Church called “Pelagianism” which taught that we can be holy on our own and basically hold God hostage. “Look, Lord! We did all this… so now you have to love us. Now you have to pay attention to us. Now you have to let us into Heaven!” We instinctually know this is a lie — We can’t make God love us anymore than He already does, and yet we can become “practical pelagians.” Even if we know we need God’s grace, we end up relying on ourselves in all sorts of ways. St. Augustine once wrote, lamenting his own wrestlings with grace: “Why do you rely on yourself only to find yourself unreliable? Cast yourself upon God! He will not draw back so that you fall. He will catch you and he will heal you!”
Even the disciples tried relying on themselves, and we heard it in our Gospel passage this morning. Jesus warns the apostles of the “leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod,” and their first response isn’t: “Lord, we don’t fully understand, but we know we need your help! Preserve us! Sustain us!” Instead that conclude among themselves… “It’s because we didn’t bring enough bread.”
It strikes us as an odd conclusion, but is it so different than our own daily struggle? All the time, we say things like: “I didn’t do enough. I didn’t love God enough… so now He’s angry with me.” That’s why bad things are happening to me — I didn’t bring enough bread…”
Our Lord reminds the disciples, as he reminds us today, that He is the one that multiplied the loaves. In fact, He is Himself the Living Bread, and He gives us all the bread we could ever need — He gives us all the grace we need! As we enter into the season of Lent together, we need to keep this central truth of our Faith in mind: That every every perfect gift is from the Father. That we rely entirely on the gift of grace. This is the source of all our strength.