This Life: We’re in it Together
Guest editorial by Michael Shackleton – This week we look at the call of Christians to put to death the deeds of the body – and we’re in it together
From medieval times to as lately as 1963, it was customary for the newly elected pope to be given a stark and graphic warning of the futility of earthly ambition and wealth.
At the solemn liturgical celebration of his becoming the latest incumbent of the Chair of Peter the Apostle, the papal procession in St Peter’s basilica would be halted three times.
The master of ceremonies would kneel before the new pope each time holding burning fibres of flax that were rapidly becoming ashes. No one could fail to see the smouldering bundle or hear the ominous words: “Sic transit Gloria mundi” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”).
Because of his vast spiritual and temporal power which could be abused, and the temptations accompanying it, the novice pope was given an admonishing wave of the finger.
“The glory of this world passes away” — this phrase needs looking at again as we journey through our Lenten observance. It tells us sharply that Lent means we are baptised into the Church whose members acknowledge in faith that “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
The Church has stuck to this belief. It calls on its members to perform acts of mortification of the body, such as fasting, abstinence and denying oneself certain pleasures. St Paul tells us why: “I chastise my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).
Around us, particularly in the bewildering collapse of traditional moral values today, the Church exhorts us to mortify ourselves. The word “mortify” derives from the Latin meaning “to put to death”, and St Paul again declares: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
It must be emphasised at this time that Lenten mortification is not purely for personal holiness before God. We must remember that we are not individual Christians standing alone, responsible for our own salvation and nobody else’s.
We are baptised into Christ and we stand with him and the entire Church when we pray to the Father and do works of spiritual and corporal mercy.
We cannot separate ourselves from the Church. When acts of piety, penance and mortification are performed, the individual shares these with the acts of countless others. We share one another’s burdens and virtues in the Communion of Saints.
The goods, glory and attractions of the modern world have advantages and disadvantages for those who struggle to mortify their earthly desires. Lent makes us concentrate on the reality that we are born without possessing them and we shall leave this life without possessing them.
When God the Son became man he assumed the same human nature as ourselves. Our bodies are good and have been blessed with God’s freely given promise of eternal life with him. But they are destined for something greater and more sublime than their own pleasures.
Mortifying our corporal desires means two main things in the time of the Lenten preparation for the great celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord.
Firstly, our attention is drawn to our own spiritual health and the need to treat temporal goods and delights as passing and not permanent.
Secondly, we share with the Church, from the pope to the lowliest, the eagerness to make amends for our sins, even to suffer humbly the consequences of our sins.
We need to live through Lent in an active and optimistic awareness that we are all one in Christ, bearing one another’s burdens and determined to contradict the worldliness that engulfs us by our faith, hope and love for one another.
We’re in it together.
St Paul has the last word: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).