The themes of early Lent are pretty basic. The ashes of Ash Wednesday announce the simple truth that we are going to die and subsequently face judgment. Hence we need to repent and come to believe the good news that only Jesus can save us.
The reading for Thursday after Ash Wednesday features Moses laying out the basic reality that all of us have a choice to make:
Today I have set before you
life and prosperity, death and doom …
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you:
I have set before you life and death,
the blessing and the curse (Dt 30:15, 20).
So there is our choice: life or death, prosperity or doom. There is a Latin expression, Tertium non datur (No third way is given). We often like to think that we can take some middle path, but in the matter of the last things, there is no middle path, no third way. Either we choose God and His kingdom, and then reflect that choice in all of our smaller decisions, or we do not.
To those who think that a middle path is possible, I would say that it is the way of compromise, ambivalence, and tepidity. Walking such a path demonstrates a lack of commitment and a refusal to witness to Christ. These are not virtues that belong to God’s Kingdom; they pertain more to the kingdom of darkness. Jesus says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matt 5:37). He also says, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).
So we are back to a choice: for the Kingdom of Light or for the kingdom of darkness; for the world and its ways, or for God and His ways. Do we choose to gratify the flesh or nourish the spirit, to serve Satan and his agenda or to serve Christ and follow His will and plan?
You are free to choose, but you’re not free not to choose. That is to say, you must choose. If you think that you can go on simply not choosing one or the other, I’ve got news for you: not choosing is choosing the kingdom of darkness.
Many do not directly choose Satan, but rather indirectly choose him by following his ways. We are asked to choose God directly, by accepting the gift of faith and basing our life on what the He commands. Faith is not some sort of “default position” we can have by accident. Faith is the supernaturally-assisted and transformed human decision for God and all that that choice implies. Faith is a gift freely offered and one that we must freely accept; it is a choice that will not be forced on us. Through our many daily choices, we are called to reaffirm, by grace, the choice we have made for God.
So again, life is about choices: the fundamental choice of faith and all the daily choices that either affirm or deny the reality of our faith.
We live in times in which people like to demand free choice, but also like to evade the responsibilities that come with making choices. Moses goes on in the reading today to describe the fact that the choice we make for or against God will have consequences:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin on you today,
loving him, and walking in his ways,
and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees,
you will live and grow numerous,
and the LORD, your God,
will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy.
If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish;
you will not have a long life
on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy (Dt 30).
Yes, choices have consequences. Even small daily choices have the cumulative effect of moving us in one direction or the other, toward God or away.
Many small choices also have a way of forming our hearts. Deeds become habits; habits become character; character becomes destiny. These choices form our hearts, establish our character, and move us into one future or another.
While sudden and dramatic conversions are possible as long as we are still living, it is more common that our hearts become more fixed over time and our fundamental character becomes less and less likely to change. As we get older, it’s harder to change because that’s what choices do to us: they move us in a certain direction, down a certain path; and the further along that path we go, the less likely we are to turn back.
Therefore, daily choices are important. It is essential to examine our conscience regularly and make frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession. Each day we ought to ask the question, “Where am I going with my life?” If we go on for too long living an unreflective life, it is easy to find ourselves deeply locked in sinful habits that become harder and harder to break. Frequent reflection is necessary and we ought not to make light of small daily decisions.
We live in times in which it is often easy to insulate ourselves from the immediate consequences of the choices we make. Medicine, technology, and social safety nets are all good things in and of themselves, but they do tend to shield us from immediate consequences, and help to cultivate the illusion that consequences can be forever evaded. They cannot.
We also live in times in which, perhaps more than ever before, the community is willing to bear the burden of poor individual choices. Again, this is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does become an enabler of bad behavior, and fosters the illusion that consequences can be avoided forever. They cannot.
Our own culture is currently struggling under the weight of a colossal number of poor individual choices, ones that have added up to a financial, spiritual, moral, and emotional debt that we cannot pay. Sexual misconduct, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, the use of hallucinogenic and addictive drugs, the casting off of discipline and parental responsibility, the rejection of faith and ancient and tested wisdom, rebellion, silence in the face of sin and injustice, greed, consumerism, factions, envy, discord, and on and on … all of this is taking a tremendous toll. The consequences are mounting and it is becoming clear that even the most basic functions of society such as raising the next generation, preserving order and stability, and ensuring the common good are gravely threatened.
And what is true collectively is also true for us as individuals. Many poor choices in small matters quickly draw us into self-destructive patterns that get more and more deeply entrenched. Without regular reflection and the reminder of penitential seasons like Lent, it is easy to lose our way. St. Augustine noted this in his Confessions, in which he described himself as being bound,
“not by another’s irons, but by my own iron will. … For in truth, lust is made out of a perverse will, and when lust is served, it becomes habit, and when habit is not resisted, it becomes necessity” (Confessions 8.5.10).
Moses’ warnings are before us as never before.
In 1917, a beautiful and holy woman (Our Lady) appeared to three little children. She explained that the horrifying war (World War I) was finally coming to an end, but also warned that if people did not turn back to her Son Jesus and start praying, an even more devastating war would ensue; Russia would spread her errors and great disaster would befall the world. Do I need to tell you what happened? Any even casual assessment of the 20th century would find it hard to conclude that it was anything but satanic in terms of its wars, death rates through violence and abortion, and in its persecution of the Church.
Life or death, prosperity or doom; what will you choose?
And now from heavy to humorous: