“We have freedom to do good or evil; yet to make choice of evil, is not to use, but to abuse our freedom.”
This brief quote from Saint Francis de Sales underscores an important aspect of our Lenten journey: the examination of the paths we have taken, the choices we have made, and how that exercise of our free will is drawing us closer to or separating us from God’s unwavering presence in our lives.
With each choice in our lives we stand at a crossroads: we will choose the path that advances the Kingdom, or we will choose the path that advances our limited, egoic view of our existence. We are free to choose either. But only the first will bring us to the sublime peace and love found in our union with God.
Moses warns the Israelites of this spiritual crossroads as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, in Deuteronomy 30:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
For the Israelites about to cross the Jordan this passage had a real, tangible meaning: based on their choices they would live or die, conquer or be conquered. For us this passage is allegorical, but just as real.
By following The Way, living in Christ’s commandments to love God and love our neighbor, we are promised entry to the Promised Land of our new life in Christ – the Kingdom of God within us. Conversely, when we choose the path of selfishness, greed and fear – the path that places our own ego above our neighbor and above God – we cut ourselves off from this Promised Land.
Lent entices us to explore this choice: spiritual fulfillment, peace and life on one hand; shallow egotism, unsatiated strife and death on the other.
The psalmist gives us another allegory of this choice in Psalm 1: a deep-rooted tree, drawing life from a stream of water on one hand; dry chaff blowing in the wind on the other.
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
We can read that passage and hear God’s judgement – God casting us aside as chaff in the wind. But it is our own choices – the use or abuse of our freedom, in the words of de Sales – that yields the outcome. We choose to plant ourselves with deep roots in the living waters of Christ, and yield good fruit. Or, we plant ourselves in the shallow ground of our ego, and wither and blow about in the winds of this world.
Jesus laid this stark choice before us – choose the goals of this world, or the goals of the Kingdom – in Luke 9, just after asking the disciples “But, who do you say that I am?”
Who Christ is, just as much today as when Jesus asked that question of the disciples, is The Way. More than a person or even a prophet, Jesus is the physical embodiment of the path to God, the realization of the Kingdom in human form. If we’re to walk in The Way, Jesus tells us the choice we must make:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
There’s no shortage of messages bombarding us daily of the ways we must compete with our neighbor to “gain the whole world.” But, if we’re to gain the Kingdom, we must take up our cross – seek out those things that kill us to the greed and fear of this world – and follow Christ in the example of self-sacrificial love of God and our neighbor.
That’s a choice Jesus tells us we must make daily. As we set out on our Lenten examination then, we focus on identifying the crossroads, small and large, in our daily lives. Which choices have we made that draw us to the cross? Which have consigned us to chasing this world at the expense of the Kingdom? What changes can we make that yield more of the former, and less of the latter?
It is in the sincere examination of these questions, and the courageous pursuit of God’s answers, that we undertake the true meaning of Lent, and ensure the proper use of the freedom gifted us by God.
Almighty and perfectly loving God, grant us today the integrity to face each crossroads with sincerity in our hearts, endow us with the discernment to identify our cross, and give us the courage to take it up and follow you. Amen.