“Choose life…choose the cross.” (Deut 30:19 and Luke 9:23)
Of the many powerful readings for Mass during Lent, I have always found those from the Thursday after Ash Wednesday to be among the most striking. We begin by recalling Moses’ challenge to the Israelites in the desert that they have a choice with awesome consequences: either choose the life that comes from embracing the Lord’s covenant (and all its attendant responsibilities) or else accept the death that follows from rejecting it. The responsorial psalm, Psalm 1, seems to reinforce this basic logic: the one who chooses to follow the Lord’s path is the “blessed” and happy one; the one who rejects that path is rendered wretched. So far, so good. Everything seems sensible, even if difficult in practice. But then comes the gospel, in which Jesus informs us that “choosing life” actually entails choosing the instrument of death: the cross. It is at this point, if we are honest, that all common sensibility of Christianity founders.
Most of our seminarians were raised in a culture that shuns human limitations and frailties. To choose our culture’s definition of weakness or vulnerability is rarely seen as a higher expression of love. And while we are all familiar with the language of Lent – “dying to self,” “giving something up,” “letting go and letting God,” “fasting, prayer, and almsgiving,” etc. – actively choosing to embody such language does not come naturally. It is no exaggeration to say that the primary goal of seminary formation is to convert a man’s mind and heart from shunning to choosing the cross, so that “giving up for Lent” becomes “giving up for life.” Only then is his heart purely receptive to the love of Christ, and only then can he lead others to that same place at the foot of the cross.
So how does this Lenten conversion happen for a Mundelein seminarian? To be sure, it entails immersion in study and contemplation of the finest theologians of the Paschal Mystery, from Origen to von Balthasar, and beyond. It requires many quiet hours in prayer, both when that is a sweet experience and when it seems sheer drudgery. But ultimately, the choices of Lent can only be fully embodied by encountering the cross as a lived reality in the world.
During this season of Lent, I encourage you to share your lived experiences of the cross with the seminarians and priests in your lives and to pray that we will listen with open hearts. We have much to teach other when we encounter the Paschal Mystery together as the one Body of Christ.
Together with you in Christ, we are Mundelein. We form parish priests.
Fr. John Kartje