Fifth week of Lent

Christ’s model of courage and trust

By Most Reverend Louis A. DeSimone

The Catholic Standard & Times presents the fifth of a six-part series authored by the auxiliary bishops of Philadelphia to aid readers in their Lenten preparation during this year of St. Paul.

We are past the halfway mark in Lent. Our feet are firmly set on the path that leads to Jerusalem, to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Yet, the disciplines we undertook with such fervor at Lent’s start might now chafe, and so we look to St. Paul for encouragement during this year dedicated to him.

The letter to the Hebrews is written by a close disciple of St. Paul to a people in exile, driven perhaps from Jerusalem. They are discouraged and restive, and their faith is wavering. Old habits call out to them, and they risk returning to them. We, too, might be discouraged in our Lenten exile, wondering if we can endure to the end.

The letter to the Hebrews brings strength and comfort to the discouraged and the wavering. It situates Christ’s great sacrifice solidly in God’s entire plan of salvation history. The Paschal Mystery is not an accident of history, but intended by God from the first to cement His covenant with us. So the author, in the same manner as St. Paul, breaks open the Old Testament to show us how it is perfectly and completely fulfilled in Christ. Along the way he encourages his readers to persevere in what they have begun.

In this short selection from Hebrews, we hear of Christ’s reverent submission in the face of trials. He was driven to tears in the garden at Gethsamane; nevertheless He bent his will to that of the Father. St. Cyril, a father of the Church and 5th century patriarch of Alexandria, reflects that Christ “experienced fear … at times allowing his flesh to feel what is proper to it in order to fill us with courage.”

Similarly, Julian of Norwich reflects on the example Christ set for us in His passion. “God did not say: ‘You shall not be tormented, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be grieved;’ but God said, ‘You shall not be overcome.'” She goes on to remind us that God wants us to hear these words and trust Him as Christ did “in weal and woe.” In Christ’s example we see how to meet fear, how to face difficulties: with courage, with trust and with prayer.

Even as we are encouraged in this passage by Christ’s model of courage and trust, Hebrew’s author is also providing gentle instruction in doctrine. For Christ to cry out to God with such deep emotion, He must have been fully human.

St. Paul, too, was often in tears at the lukewarmness of the persons he was trying to turn from their sins. Endeavoring to do the Lord’s will, he persevered until his martyrdom. Years later, writing from North Africa, Tertullian exclaimed: “How happy is the Church of Rome on which the Apostles, Peter and Paul, poured forth all their doctrine and their blood.”

Echoing the majestic hymn recorded in St. Paul’s letters to the Philippians, which sings of a humility unto death, the author of Hebrews highlights Christ’s obedience, acquired in His suffering. The Latin root of obedience is obaudire – to listen deeply.

Adam was disobedient – he did not listen to God, and all humanity suffered. Now Christ takes that suffering upon Himself and turns it back into obedience. We are enabled once again to listen deeply to God, to obey His Word. As Hebrews says, those who obey will receive eternal salvation.

As we read later in Hebrews, “you accepted with joy being stripped of your belongings, knowing that you owned something that was better and lasting. Do not lose your fearlessness now!”

We embarked on this Lenten journey with Christ, stripping off what separated us from God’s love. Let us not lose our courage now but stay the course in imitation of the great St. Paul.

In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his reverence. Son, though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. – Hebrews 5:7-9

Lenten meditation

Paul reminds us that Jesus struggled to accept His mission of suffering for us.

Yet, He accepted His suffering willingly in obedience to His Father, thus becoming the source of our salvation.

Do I struggle with accepting God’s will for me in my life?

What have I learned through suffering?