When we were small, our parents and catechists invited us to ‘do’ something for Lent, to make an effort or sacrifice such as not eating sweets or to eat less. Later, the accent was put more on sharing than on sacrifice and I think that passage from a Lent of deprivation to a Lent of sharing was progress. Even today, my first reflex at the beginning of Lent is to ask myself, what am I going to ‘do’ for Lent?
There are a good many reason to recommend fasting, the main one being that Jesus himself fasted in the desert for forty days. Now I see that Jesus did not approach God because he fasted, but fasted because he was so close to his Father. Focused entirely on the revelation, which he had just received at his baptism, he felt the need to find himself alone and away from everything for a certain time. For him, the desert was not the empty place but the place of encounter and his abstention from food was the fruit of a marvelous union and an overflowing joy. For Jesus, asceticism was not the cause but the fruit of the union.
Enlightened by this, I would like to go deeper into it by looking at St. Paul.
What is commonly called the ‘conversion’ of St. Paul on the road to Damascus is not strictly speaking a conversion in the sense of a transition from infidelity to the law or a dissolute life to a virtuous life. Paul was a pious Jew and he was morally and religiously irreproachable. Before his encounter with the Risen One, Paul’s righteousness and sense of justice was bound by the workings of the Law. The sudden and dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus passed Paul from a God whom he wished to seize and possess to the searing intensity of a God who had seized him. The result was a complete transformation of Paul’s heart and the way he looked at the world.
All of a sudden and from now on, all the efforts he had deployed to be faithful to the law are in vain. (Gal, 1, 14) The justice which he had searched for so passionately was Christ and no other. Paul made the discovery that he could only be justified by and in Christ. Because the Law that he sought to observe so scrupulously was, at the same time, both holy and cursed. There are three reasons for this: Law can introduce in man a destructive schizophrenia, “For I do not do the good that I want, but I do the evil that I hate” (Rom. 7, 19). Secondly, it contributes to a rupture in human fraternity. This is particularly so when the observance of the Law becomes an occasion to judge or to condemn others (cf. Rom. 2, 1ff). Thirdly, by putting too much confidence in its proper observance, one ends up by not having any need for God and even killing God by refusing to recognise that Jesus Christ is the end of the Law and the inauguration of the Kingdom of grace and the Spirit.
The result is a dispossession of one’s own works and even the dispossession of one’s life, “for to me, life is Christ (Ph. 1, 21a). Paul knows what “relying on one’s works” means. From now on, he distrusts them up to the point that he will rely more on his weakness than on his strength. And, he does not consider his personal poverty as an obstacle to his mission, he considers it as major asset of his apostolate so that ,as he says, your faith is not founded on the wisdom of men but on the power of God (2 Cor. 2, 3-5). “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12, 10b).
All that is very nice, but it poses the question: “Should we no longer make an effort?” Need one lose all sense of decency, even as far as immorality? The question is ancient yet still current.
The question already divided St. Augustine and Pelagius, who saw here a source of dangerous ideas for morality. If one promises human beings that they will be borne to virtue by pure grace, is there not a risk of neglecting the efforts necessary to achieve this?
Later on, the Counter Reformation reproached Luther for his doctrine of Sola Fides, as if faith excluded works. In fact, Luther maintained that Theology was mistaken at precisely the moment when it began to confuse the Law and the Gospel (the demands of God and the gift of God) by proclaiming that men could merit that which could only be the unconditional gift of the grace of God.
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