It is, as I write, Sexagesima week. Next week will be Quinquagesima, its fourth day being Ash Wednesday. Penance beckons us. Jesus invites us into the desert with Him. As we follow, we must collect our thoughts and travel there with a clear purpose. Hastily jumping into penance is, like all haste in important affairs, foolish. As Solomon tells us, “he that is hasty with his feet shall stumble” (Prov. 19:2).
Now is, therefore, when we should be planning our Lenten penances if we have not done so already. But, more than the particulars of what we will do, we should have a vision of the “Big Picture” into which this Lenten penance fits. A glance at the last chapter of the Bible will give us a snapshot of just that. Therein we read that Our Lord tells Saint John, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (ἐγὼ τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ, ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ἡ ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ τέλος — Ego sum alpha et omega, primus et novissimus, principium et finis — Apoc. 22:13). Yes, we will encounter these words on Holy Saturday and during Easter Week, too, but we can apply them here and now to our Lenten journey.
How does this give us the “Big Picture”? And how does it give us a clear purpose this Lent? It does so by showing us that God is both our First Cause and our Final End; more specifically, it also shows us that the Man-God, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Logos, is the beginning of our life of grace on earth and the end of our life of glory in Heaven. Besides being our Beginning and our End, he is also our “Middle,” or — in Biblical terms — our “way” (John 14:6), who brings us to our happy End as members of His own Mystical Body: “Because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph. 5:30).
He who is our beginning came into this world that we might seek Him, find Him, cleave to Him, and ultimately posses Him as our end. Our entire lives, whether considered morally, sacramentally, liturgically, or in any other way, has this as its purpose: to make us cleave to Jesus Christ so that we may be united through Him to the Holy Trinity. This also pertains, let us recall, to how we live the most mundane duties of our state in life.
Regarding this Lent, what best unites us to Jesus Christ is what we need to do. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are part of the Church’s penitential economy; and they are, therefore, of perennial validity for the faithful. God Himself also sends us penances by providentially allowing us to suffer; and His chosen penances for us, which we should accept with serenity, are the very best. It is a commonplace — almost a trite saying, so frequently is it repeated — that if we but “offer up” whatever we suffer, it is helpful to us and pleasing to Almighty God. For all its repetition, though, this truism is no less true. We learned on Sexagesima Sunday about all the penances and privations God allowed the Apostle Paul to suffer, after relating several of his more harrowing tribulations, followed by some of the supernatural gifts he received, he thus ends the passage:
And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me. For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me. And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. — 2 Cor. 12: 7-9
May we learn to glory in our infirmities amid life’s bitter trials!
Whether of God’s choosing or our own, if our penances help us to grow in faith, hope, charity, humility, and abandonment to the will of God, they are good. If they help us to “lean on Jesus” more and more (to use a favorite expression of a confessor of mine), they are good. If they strengthen us in the duties of our state, they are good. In effecting all this, they unite us to Jesus Christ and, through Him, to the Trinity who is blessed forever — Amen!
But let us return to the “Big Picture” I spoke of. Jesus is “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” There are three pairings of words here in Saint John’s Apocalypse:
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet.
ὁ πρῶτος (prótos, Latin: primus) — means first, or chief. We call Genesis 3:15, the “protoevangelium,” or first good news, while Saint Andrew is the “Protoclete,” first called.
ὁ ἔσχατος (eschatos, Latin: novissimus) — means last or extreme. We call that branch of theology that studies the last things, “eschatology.” In Latin, it is called de novissimis, after the equivalent Latin word. Jesus is our “eschatos,” our “last thing,” for if we are united to Him, we reach the blessed purpose for which we were created.
ἡ ἀρχὴ (arché, Latin: principium) — means beginning or origin. This is the same word we get in Saint John’s Gospel (1:1): “In the beginning (Ἐν ἀρχῇ) was the Word.”
τὸ τέλος (telos, Latin: finis) — means end, goal, or purpose. This word gives us the common English word “tail,” but also the very philosophical word teleology, which is the philosophical study of purpose.
As God, Jesus Christ made us:
All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. — John 1:3
For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him. And he is before all, and by him all things consist. — Colossians 1:16-17
As Man-God, Jesus Christ redeemed us:
And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he may hold the primacy: Because in him, it hath well pleased the Father, that all fulness should dwell; And through him to reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven. — Colossians 1:18-20
As God, He is the very purpose, end, and goal of our existence, our “reward exceeding great” (Gen. 15:1).
Fixing in our minds these six words that Our Lord Jesus Christ used to describe Himself to His Beloved Disciple can help us to achieve a vision of our origin and our purpose during this Lent and always. Sometimes we have to look at the little things right before us, and at other times, we have to look up, or step back, and take in at a glance the “Big Picture.”
This Lent, as the world goes crazy around us, let us fix our minds and our hearts where our real treasures are. If we put ourselves efficaciously to that task, with the help of God, we will not be condemned with this world.
“Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to every man according to his works” (Apoc. 22:12).
Have a blessed and fruitful Lent.