Let me start by stating the obvious, we are living in a secular culture which has made the right of self-realisation the highest value to be sought. My happiness is the meaning of life. Of course, to say that I am responsible for my own life is not a false insight but even if we embark in the pursuit of the highest human ideals, it may end up as a sort of self-absorption. My fellow man can easily be seen to stand in my way and when we speak of God we have in mind a vague presence who wants us to be good. So beyond that, is there nothing more is to be said?
The biblical message is that God is not only the source of life but also my judge. God does not not fade away simply because man wants to be the master of the universe. Thus, St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to take a step back not to be blinded by what he calls the Spirit of the Age: «Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise» (1 Cor 3:18, see 2 Cor 4:4). Despite the values and norms dominating the culture around us, we Christians must take seriously that in the end we are to stand responsible before God: «Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves», he instructs the Corinthians (2 Cor 13:5). Likewise he tells the Galatians: «Let each one examine his own work … for each one shall bear his own load» (Gal 6:4f).
What is then the way the Christian shall pursue to happiness? St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is that they must take proper care of their spiritual life: «Beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God» (2 Cor 7:1, 1 Cor 6:11). Likewise, in the light of the coming of Christ St. John encourages the children of God: «And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure» (1 John 3:3). Cleansed from sin, we shall be dedicated to God. Clearly this is an invitation to enter the narrow gate. Our pursuit of happiness involves a cleansing of the heart, a quest for holiness in the fear of God.
The cleansing reflects a genuine sorrow for our sins, as St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote to the faithful in Africa more than 1700 years ago about cleanliness of heart: «When it was brought to Jesus’ attention that his disciples had begun eating without having first washes their hands, he said in reply: ‘He who made the outside made the inside too. Give alms and all of you will be made clean’ (Luke 11:40f). Thus he taught that it was not your hands which should be washed but rather your heart and that uncleanness must be removed from the inside rather than from the outside. For they who have cleansed their inner selves have also cleansed what is outside, and they whose mind has been cleansed have also begun to purify their skin and body» (On works and alms, 2).
Blessed lenten season!
+ Roald Nikolai
Published on Ash Wednesday on the website of The Nordic Catholic Church, here.