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Lent Ashes

Lent: A Time to Learn to Be Vulnerable to God

CNS photo/Bob Roller

Lent aims Catholics toward a spiritual bullseye: learning how to become more open to a loving relationship with God. We have a role model for this effort: “The way, the truth and the life” Himself, Jesus.   

To pave the way for our redemption, to claim the title of Savior, to give us the opportunity to join Him and all the other saints in heaven, Jesus focused on a specific mission – to preach the Good News, of course, but, He was able to do this by obeying the will of His Father. In doing so, Jesus allowed Himself to become vulnerable. 

Learning to be vulnerable has to be part of the mindsets of our missions, as well.  

From the moment He was born, Jesus’ very existence became the very definition of vulnerability. Here is how Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI puts it:  

“In the child Jesus, the defenselessness of God is apparent. God comes without weapons, because He does not wish to conquer from outside but desires to win and transform us from within. If anything can conquer man’s vainglory, his violence, his greed, it is the vulnerability of the child. God assumed this vulnerability in order to conquer us and lead us to Himself.”

To understand the power of that word – vulnerable – you have to understand its history, which Merriam-Webster Dictionary shares about this way: 

Vulnerable is ultimately derived from the Latin noun vulnus (‘wound’). ‘Vulnus’ led to the Latin verb vulnerare, meaning ‘to wound,’ and then to the Late Latin adjective vulnerabilis, which became "vulnerable" in English in the early 1600s." 

To be capable of being physically wounded, as the word originally meant, or to be defenseless against non-physical attacks, is not the state that most humans prefer. Exposing ourselves to danger goes against the grain of every average person’s evolutionary thoughts.   

But, yet, from the moment Jesus was born, the Son of God was targeted. Out of jealousy and to protect His power, King Herod wanted Jesus dead. He was just a defenseless infant, but already the Prince of Peace was targeted to be murdered.  

That is what vulnerability looks like.  

And then, later, when Jesus began His public ministry, through His words and actions as the Messiah, He placed another target on Himself, which led to the most loving and holiest man the world has ever seen becoming nailed to a cross.  

Battered, bruised, whipped, bleeding, humiliated, scorned, and exhausted, His arms spread open as if He were still trying to hug His enemies, Jesus loved until the end, despite the cruel and vicious way he was being killed. 

That is what vulnerability looks like.  

And so the question I am posing this Lent is this: why is it important for us to become vulnerable to God? Here is a description of what we look like when we do not:    

“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” C.S. Lewis, the great British author and Christian lay theologian, once wrote. “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Jesus is Love. He was able to love as well and as purely as He did because He allowed His Father to love Him. He emptied Himself of what He wanted and allowed Himself to trust God. Obedience followed, and by obeying His Father’s will, Jesus carried His cross, not only figuratively, but literally, by carrying of a heavy wooden beam on His way to His crucifixion.  

All of Jesus’ actions showed that He was willing to be wounded; in fact, that also happened, literally, as His death was one of the most painful ways a human could die. Jesus knew all this and yet remained open to obeying God’s will.  

That is what vulnerability looks like.  

He was open because He had emptied Himself of all that stood between Him and God.   

“The proud cannot bring themselves to hold out empty hands to God,” Sister Ruth Burrows wrote in her book, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. “They insist on offering virtues, good works, self-denials, anything in order not to have nothing.” 

Sister Burrows continues: “They want to be beautiful for Him from their own resources, whereas we are beautiful only because God looks on us and makes us beautiful. God cannot give Himself to us unless our hands are empty to receive Him. The deepest reason why so few of us are saints is because we will not let God love us. To be loved means a naked, defenseless surrender to all God is. It means a glad acceptance of our nothingness, a look fixed only on the God who gives, taking no account of the nothing to whom the gift is made.” 

To be loved, in other words, means to be vulnerable. To be loved by God means that you are worthy. To be loved by God means becoming humble enough to know that, because of our fallen natures, we need a Savior.  

Jesus’ death, to redeem mankind and offer us salvation for our sins, proved His love for us. When you are loved by God, you allow God’s love and mercy to pour in. Jesus puts it this way, according to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

To be weak, then, means allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to carry your cross, and, in doing so, you are following Jesus. And, in doing so, you die to yourself. And, in doing so, you decrease, and He increases. And, in doing so, the love, mercy and the graces that God pours into you will flood out into the world.  

To be vulnerable means we have the opportunity this Lent to listen to God in prayer more, to repent and, thus, transform our lives by offering Him all our sins, our pains, our sufferings, our worries, and our anxieties.  

Let the Holy Family be our guide in learning how to be vulnerable. It was Mary’s “yes” to God that led to the birth of the Savior and for her heart to be pierced by his death. It was Jesus’ “yes” to God that led to Him dying and rising for us. Mother and Son loved God and trusted Him so much that they were able to become vulnerable enough to let Him lead them.  

That is what being vulnerable means: it is all about being loved by Him and loving Him. This Lent, start on the path to becoming more vulnerable to Him. As Jesus showed, it is the path to Eternal Life.