Going Out to Meet the Bridegroom: Bringing Love to our Lenten Struggle
“Be clever, spiritually clever. Don’t wait for the Lord to send you setbacks; go out to meet them with a spirit of voluntary atonement. Then you’ll receive them not so much with resignation (an old-sounding word) as with Love—a word which is forever young.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
The Forge, no. 225
Among the Fathers of the Church, a common interpretation of our Lord’s forty-day fast and temptation in the desert is that He was atoning for or setting right the failure of Israel in its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. Israel was also tested on multiple occasions and they failed, rebelling against “God and Moses.” God tested His people on purpose, “that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not” (Dt 8:2). Jesus went out into the desert on purpose, as St Matthew tells us: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1).
The desert has always exercised a pull on prayerful souls. The stark landscape inspires focus on God and a heightened sense of our own littleness. The Church has continued throughout the centuries to invite us to meet the Lord in His solitude during Lent not only because we must learn to divest ourselves of nonessentials, but primarily to be closer to Him, minus the distractions that often clutter our relationship with Him.
This is important to remember as we set out into the spiritual desert of Lent. The desert is not only a place of privation and testing, but also the privileged place of intimacy with God. The prophet Hosea offers the most poignant witness to the wilderness as the setting for our closer contact with the Lord: “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. … And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD” (Cf. Hosea 2:14-20).
Our own “desert” to which Christ is calling us might be anything from a private home, to an office cubicle, to a city street. Wherever the contents of our hearts can and should be revealed, there the Bridegroom awaits us. The Bridegroom who dwells forty days alone in solitude, at prayer and penance, does not want us to stand far off, but to be drawn by love to join Him: “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”
What things does Jesus say tenderly to us? He speaks hard truths that we can receive only if they are offered with a Divine sensitivity to our weakness. He tells us that we should expect occasions of sin to arise, temptations to come about, challenges and sufferings to test us. His willingness to expose Himself to the devil while fasting teaches us this, as St Peter reminds us: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (cf. 1 Pt 2:21). Our life on earth is a time of testing, struggle, and battle—but not because life should be constantly dreary and agitated. To suffer these trials in union with Christ brings us an intimacy with Him that in human language can only be called spousal. That is why God called Israel into the wilderness, and why Jesus beckons us to join Him in solitude: to test what is in our hearts, that our hearts might be made fit to be united to His.
The best proof of a heart well disposed for this union is the willingness to go out and enter into the fray again and again: “The true life stories of Christian heroes resemble our own experience: they fought and won; they fought and lost. And then, repentant, they returned to the fray.” What we prove is our wholehearted trust in the Savior, a refusal to rely on self, the humility to lean on the Bridegroom: “Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?” (Sg 8:5).
Our Lord’s preferred comparison for the kingdom of God is that of nuptials, the wedding banquet, bridegroom and bride. Some might find such language perplexing, but it is God’s language spoken to us, revealing who He is to us and who He wants us to be to Him—not only wedding guests, but in some way, as close to Him as a bride. The testing that we must undergo, like Israel, prepares us to accept Christ’s betrothal “in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.”
The collect for Ash Wednesday uses vigorous language in calling Lent a “campaign,” a “battle against spiritual evils,” for which we pray we might be “armed with weapons of self-restraint.” When we are called upon to suffer, we tend to think that there is some mistake, that things shouldn’t be like this. Instead, the Lord and His Church tell us to prepare for them. Our outlook should not to be pessimistic or fatalistic—these are not valid Christian attitudes. But within the setting of a sinful world we must be vigilant in our love, because these tests occur not randomly but providentially, to test what is in our hearts.
In this life, the contents of our hearts are often revealed only when we are called to love in very difficult and complicated circumstances; when we are called to love people whom we don’t know how to approach. And only the Lord can enable us to suffer through the unpleasant circumstances to keep firm in loving, in doing the right thing, when we would rather hide ourselves from the battle.
Before we can enter into our heavenly rest, our promised land, we must be tested in this way. St Paul says in Acts: “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (cf. Acts 14:22). And to speak frankly, since we are brethren of Christ, we are not interested in any heaven that can be entered cheaply. We choose as He chose: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master; it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Mt 10:24-25).
Lent is a call to rise up and follow the Lord more courageously. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, all ten virgins were summoned to go out and meet the Bridegroom (cf. Mt 25:6). The bride in the Canticle of Canticles rises from the security of her bed to search for her beloved: “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves” (Sg 3:2). She suffers much in her quest, but she finds him: “I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go” (Sg 3:4).
Our goal is to train ourselves to confront trouble rather than waiting for it to find us. Because when it finds us, we will fear it, recoil from it, and so fail to connect it with the redeeming cross and with the Redeemer Himself. St Josemaria advises: “Don’t wait for the Lord to send you setbacks; go out to meet them with a spirit of voluntary atonement. Then you’ll receive them, not so much with resignation … as with Love.”
We all have things that we fear to face. There are personalities and confrontations that challenge us, hard corrections we must make, or we may fear being corrected, and in general we fear extending ourselves beyond what is comfortable. We can all name something that we would rather avoid than face. Here it is not out of place to quote a Saint out of season, whose life was wedded to the cross of Christ. St Rose of Lima, in her fiery passage from the Liturgy of the Hours, cries out: “I am warning you about the commandment of Christ…: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. The gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Without the cross, [there] is no way to climb to heaven.” If we understood this, she says, then everyone would seek out trouble in order to receive the grace of Christ that accompanies it.
Let’s not misunderstand this. She does not mean just sticking ourselves with pins or hurting ourselves or any other kind of pointless suffering. She means facing up to the troubles that the Lord sends us with love—not passive resignation—and overcoming ourselves in the struggle to do what is right, when we would rather run away. “Christ was tempted and suffered for us,” says the liturgy of Lent, “come let us adore Him,” by imitating Him, who was driven by the Spirit to face evil and suffering so that we would have the courage to face our own.
1. St Josemaria Escriva: Christ is Passing By, no. 76.
2. Cf. Roman Missal, Collect for Ash Wednesday.
3. See Liturgy of the Hours, vol. IV, August 23.
4. Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, Invitatory antiphon for Lent.