Lent and Heroism

Lent is a time for preparation. I’ve always been bad at that. Waiting ain’t my thing.

Lent is a time for sacrifice. I’m bad at that, too. Self-denial ain’t my thing either.

But I read many writers who say, “No, self-denial isn’t the point. Lent’s a time for coming closer to God.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to have a closer relationship with God. The challenge for me is execution.

Almsgiving, fasting, prayer—for me it feels like work. I can do it, but I need a little inspiration. This year I’m finding it in unlikely places.

The kids are learning about the Black Death—the plague pandemic that killed as many as 200 million Europeans from 1346─53. It’s not a pleasant topic. One fact jumps out: priests were especially hard-hit.

The mortality rate for the general population during the Black Death was 30 percent. For priests, it was closer to 45 percent.

It’s not hard to see why. Priests heard deathbed confessions. They did a lot of anointing. Close contact with the sick almost always led to infection. Infection usually meant death. One plus one equals two.

Here in the twenty-first century, we can do the math. But in the Middle Ages, no one knew about the germ theory of disease.

They presumed the plague was God’s punishment. They thought that if you got sick you’d probably done something to deserve it.

The multitudes of priests getting sick and dying pointed to one conclusion—the Church was corrupt and her priests were sinful.

No good deed goes unpunished, eh?

It was a bum rap. The priests of the Black Death were brave and selfless, going where no one wanted to go, doing what no one wanted to do. And dying for it.

That’s a small but useful bit of inspiration, via my kids’ history books. Keeping our Lenten promises may seem hard, but not nearly as hard as ministering to the doomed.

Most of the original apostles died as martyrs. I find that inspiring. It’s also the best evidence I can think of that Jesus was—and is—what He claimed to be.

The apostles knew Him. They experienced His ministry. They witnessed the passion and resurrection.

You wouldn’t give up your life for a maybe, would you? I wouldn’t.

The apostles weren’t the only ones to lay down their lives for Christ. Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury was murdered for refusing to play nice with political authorities.

We could use some of that spirit today.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take a condemned man’s place at Auschwitz. That kind of selflessness only comes from one place—a relationship with God so close it transcends everything.

But, you say, World War II was 70 years ago. The Black Death was almost 700 years ago. It’s not so easy to find examples of Christian heroism these days.

Not true. Open the newspaper. The world hasn’t changed much. Christians all across the Middle East are being slaughtered for their faith.

“What’s ISIS?” my daughter, Clara, asked my wife, Ursula, the other day.

The best questions come out of the blue. Luckily, I married well. Ursula steered the conversation away from the death merchants of ISIS to the bigger picture.

All around the world, many thousands of people refuse, daily, to deny Christ even when doing so might help them avoid torture and death. Clara finds that inspiring.

I pray she never faces the test.

The fact is: We won’t all be martyrs. That’s not God’s plan. However, as St. Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, we are all called to be holy.

Most of us fall short on that as well. It’s okay. Even Saint Peter denied Christ a time or three. Jesus forgave him nonetheless.

Just like He forgives you and me when we struggle to live up to our Lenten promises.

Lent is a time for preparation. Prepare to be forgiven.

From the March 2015 issue of Fairfield County Catholic

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