Hence a life of penance and sacrifice is what keeps us on the straight and narrow and bonds us to Christ, so that we can be "a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation." (1 Peter 2:9) The entire church is called to be one with Christ, our High Priest, who chose to take suffering upon Himself for our instruction and redemption. And what did the Captain say to His crew? "Whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27)
If the standard of the cross has been the victory of the saints, worldly enticement has been the downfall of the wayward, so our efforts to restore the Church must include a revival of that right and shining way that we call the standard of the cross: a life of penance, sacrifice, and prayer.
As Catholics, we must cleanse our souls of all sin, mortal and venial. What manner of evil has been set upon mankind that compels him to lose his soul by rejecting the sacraments, by no longer confessing to his confessor, but coming to receive Jesus Christ in Communion while his soul is degraded by sin of mortal nature! A spirit of presumption prevails where very few today are giving serious consideration about the next life. Heaven knows all too well that Purgatory awaits those who do not use their time on earth to cleanse their souls of worldly attachment, so Lent is the appropriate time to renew our commitment to renounce earthly fools-gold and focus on the true gold of Heaven.
The fact is that we are being watched and evaluated at every instance of our life as the good Father tallies the score. When we die, the only thing God looks at is our soul, not our money, rank, acclaim, health, popularity, intelligence, academic skills, degrees, honors, or otherwise. When we stand before God we will be stripped of all these so that our soul is laid bare before him, placed under the divine X-ray as it were, so that if there remain any stigma of sin––any envy, anger, pride, ingratitude, self-admiration, stubbornness, coldness, untruthfulness, unkindness, self-love, indecent aspirations, or love of the flesh––then these blotches will need to be rubbed out and burned off in the furnace of Purgatory. (1 Cor. 3:13-15)
Sins of the Flesh
But will all have the chance to enter Purgatory? People today degrade themselves in debauchery, fornication, and the forbidden pleasures of the flesh, through which many will be eternally banished. The Blessed Virgin at Fatima revealed that more souls go to hell because of sins of the flesh—fornication, homosexuality, immodesty, and other like commissions of impurity—so it's important that we mortify our senses and be "nailed to the cross with Christ." (Galatians 2:19)
From the saints we learn that the sacrifice of the senses is very pleasing to God. When, through examination of conscience, we make a sincere effort to purge sensuality from our being so that we can live for God without the meddling of sin, this pleases the Father much.
But such examination will bring heartfelt sorrow in that it forces us to see our pride as God sees it. However, a true Christian will efface himself and detest his pride for the Kingdom. This penance of heart that comes through sincere contrition is part of what the Psalmist means by "an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart" which God "wilt not despise." (Psalm 50:19)
To keep our Lenten observance genuine, it’s important that we keep our works before God in secret, "that thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father who sees in secret will repay thee." (Matthew 6:4) After all, showing off humility is not humble.
When Jesus in the Gospel tells us not to groan and disfigure our faces when we fast so that people can see we are fasting, it carries over to mean that our personal woes, sufferings, and almsgiving should likewise remain hidden from the view of others. As Jesus told the people, "Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 6:1) It is only the human weakness of pride that makes one concerned with the opinion of man, so Lent is a time to give up self-pride which hardens us against God and compels us to look for human acknowledgment.
Jesus told Sister Lucy of Fatima, "The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My law. This is the penance that I now seek and require."
The keeping of God’s law then is always the truest sacrifice. "If you love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15) What good does it do a man to give up candy for Lent while living with his girlfriend at the same time? Better that he give up his girlfriend and enjoy his candy. Or a woman who gives up snacks but works for Planned Parenthood? Better that she quit her job and enjoy her snacks. Such a sacrifice would bring rewards, but hypocritical fasts never pan out.
In the Christian life it is inevitable that one will be tempted to deny Christ for personal gain, whether it’s higher pay, a higher position, or public acclaim. Unfortunately, many have sold out and forfeited their chance to enter the Pearly Gates. As Jesus told the people, "Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and shall not be able." (Luke 13:24)
That is, they won't fit through the Pearly Gates because of the worldly accumulations attached to their beings, so we must purge ourselves of self-seeking, remembering that only love and prayers can follow us into the next life.
If people only knew that this rule of penance and sacrifice was given for our eternal bliss and happiness, they might practice it more! The next life will be far more glorious than anything the human mind could ever conceive, yet lukewarm Christians discard this for a few short years on earth, as they run about aimlessly seeking all the empty pleasures of the world. Wasting our time on earth has been the great mistake made from the beginning of time.
Thanks to Luther and his minions, millions today entertain the fallacy that all is forgiven by Christ's Passion so that there is nothing they need to do for their salvation other than to believe they are 'saved.' Consequently, Christ's Sacrifice for them is wasted since it is only applied to those who participate in Christ's Passion—who carry their cross and embrace penance and suffering. (Luke 14:27)
Heaven Gained by Merit
Unfortunately, the world has all but forgotten why Christ even died on the Cross, so maybe Lent is the time to get it right. The truth is that Christ's Sacrifice didn't actually *earn our salvation, since salvation is gained by merit. "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will he render to every man according to his works." (Matthew 16:27)
Christ's Sacrifice rather earned us the opportunity for salvation, i.e. it opened the gates of Heaven and purchased for us his Church with all its helps and graces, but we still need to do our part to "fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ." (Colossians 1:24)
It can be compared to a kind benefactor who decides to pay your tuition through college—all expenses paid with no reimbursement expected back. And this he does out of the goodness of his heart, it's not due in any way to your merit, but proceeds strictly from the generosity of his heart. He sees potential in you and in his mercy he has decided to put you through college gratis, so you can excel and earn your Masters degree.
But, he’s not going to do your homework too! You have to earn your own degree, so that if you fail to do so and you waste away the gift, that benefactor will be angry, and you will lose his friendship. Let us not forget the parable of the slothful servant who wasted his talent by burying it in the earth, thus bringing upon himself stripes and punishment in prison. (Matthew 25:25-30)
Let us then resolve to fast from the world, the flesh, and from anything that hampers our progress as latter-day disciples. Even theological knowledge, if sought solely for itself is vain and detrimental. “I would rather feel compunction than to know its definition.” (Imitation of Christ) Learning is only a means to an end, so that if what we learn doesn't bring us to our knees where we love God above all else, it is vainglory.
"Knowledge puffeth up." (1 Cor. 8:1)
We were purchased at a great price by the Blood of Christ that we might sacrifice all to gain Him, so let us joyfully say with St. Paul: "I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ." (Philippians 3:8)
* The exception to this being the newly baptized who immediately die thereupon.