In his Apostolic Exhortation of November last year (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis laid out systematically what has been a core element of his pontifical preaching so far – the importance of experiencing and manifesting the joy of the gospel and of the meeting with Jesus Christ in a deep personal relationship that is the ground of that joy. I would like to quote some of the opening passages of this Exhortation as a reminder of why it is we deny ourselves of otherwise good things during Lent, and of the profound relationship we have with Christ, which is renewed during this period:
‘The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost!’
Evangelii Gaudium 2-3.
This emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus as the core and foundation of Christian life was also something stressed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (as I have written about here). The key difference in Pope Francis’ presentation though, is the focus on how this relationship should affect our lives, and be made manifest in them – that joy should be a key mark of the Christian. In the introduction to Evangelii Gaudium, he elaborates on this, grounding the reasons we have for this joy in the knowledge that God’s mercy is boundless and inexhaustible:
‘Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!’
This forgiving, merciful love of God, which characterises His very nature and is the form in which we meet Him within that encounter with Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, is something though, that if we are to be transformed, and the joy of the gospel is to reshape our lives, we must allow in. Love is never coercive, and the ability of God’s love to penetrate our souls and reorient our wills towards holiness and happiness is to some extent dependent upon our consent – it is possible to refuse this love. C. S. Lewis has some sobering words to say on this matter in The Four Loves:
‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.’
The Four Loves (2002), p.147, Harper Collins.
It is possible, due to an over-zealous attitude of self-protection and self-reliance, to shut out any encroachments upon our presumed autonomy and sense of security. This shutting out of others, shown most powerfully in our resistance to God’s love, can indeed harden the heart to the point where it is no longer even capable of love – either receiving it or giving it. When this state is reached, that personal relationship with Christ mentioned by Pope Francis above becomes a very hard thing to establish – we put ourselves outside of God’s reach.
Thankfully though, the Church in her wisdom has provided many means of re-presenting the great moments in salvation history, which enact and relate to us that boundless and merciful love Pope Francis insists that we recall to ourselves. In Holy Week, which is close upon us, we will meditate upon the Passion of Christ, wherein we see the lengths that God will go to in order to display to us the extent of His love, and the depths of our experience He is willing to enter that we may be saved from our sins. Lewis writes again:
‘We must keep always before our eyes that vision of Lady Julian’s in which God carried in His hand a little object like a nut, and that nut was “all that is made”. God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up…
…Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.’
This is how much God loves us, and how much He yearns to bring us into fellowship with Him. In the liturgical readings for the season, in the Stations of the Cross, in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and in many other ways, the Church has provided means for us to re-encounter Jesus and know the extent of His love. By meditating on His Passion, Cross and Resurrection, the hardest of hearts can be melted and brought from that virtually irredeemable state mentioned by Lewis to having a ‘broken and contrite heart’ and a ‘new and right spirit’ within (c.f.; Psalm 51:17,10).
From this position, where we see the depth of our sinfulness, and the unwarranted love and forgiveness which yet meets us in Jesus Christ, we know that here is a relationship which will never fail – here is Someone who will always continue to love us, no matter what. This knowledge, when committed to in faith and responded to with love, gives us the expanded horizon of a hope beyond this life, and can truly serve as the grounds to a peace and joy that the world cannot give. As we make our way towards (and through) Holy Week, let us remember the steadfastness and depth of this love, upon which our hope rests, that it may carry us through to the rising dawn of Easter.