Holding out until the end
Imprisoned and in chains, St. Paul writes to his young companion Timothy, "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith" (2 Tm 4:7). Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles and his letters recount the hardships Paul had to endure — "beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts" (2 Cor 6:5) — as he traveled the Mediterranean world spreading the good news of Christianity.
As we approach the end of Lent, we might relate to St. Paul; after nearly 40 days of our penitential practices we see the light at the end of the tunnel as our six-week Lenten observances yield to Easter joy. We have endured; we have held out until the end.
When I think of endurance, Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition in 1914-1917 comes to mind. His intrepid team survived appalling trials and disasters, including the crushing of their ship (ironically named Endurance) by pack ice and a 720-mile journey to South Georgia island in an open lifeboat. That not a single man was lost on the expedition was due to superior leadership and teamwork.
During Lent we too experience superior leadership in our observances through the encouragement of the "great cloud of witnesses" who have endured hardships for their faith and whose thoughts and deeds are preserved in Scripture.
In the Old Testament we read about how our ancestors in faith, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, held out for 40 years on their journey to the Promised Land, experiencing hunger, thirst, the desert heat and attacks from hostile tribes. Though they sometimes fell into apostasy along the way, they repented and returned to the Lord, just as Ash Wednesday invites us to do.
The New Testament authors continue that theme, exhorting the early Christians, who would have much to endure in the way of persecutions, to be steadfast in the faith. Jesus himself prophesies the destruction of the Temple and tells his followers that their own family members will betray them because of him — "But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved" (Mt 10:20-22, 24:13; Mk 13:13).
St. Paul, even in the imprisonment from which he knows he will not get out alive, exhorts Timothy to follow his example in being steadfast in the faith, for the one thing we can count on is that "if we persevere, we shall also reign with (Christ)" (2 Tm 2:12).
While the First Letter of Peter regards the trials suffered by the early Christians as a test, that genuineness of their faith will win for them "an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading" (1 Pt 1:4).
We can take heart that Jesus, our Lord and Savior, has gone before us in seeing trials and challenges through to the end. He endured 40 days of fasting and praying in the inhospitable desert, an experience that culminated in his encounter with Satan.
He not only stood out for the entire 40 days; he also resisted the devil's temptations and emerged from the ordeal with a clearer vision of his mission and how he would carry it out.
Later, having already been tried by fire, Jesus endured the horrors of the crucifixion and emerged as victorious king — our exemplar, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us: Just as Jesus endured the cross for the sake of the joy to come, so too must we "persevere in running the race that lies before us" (Heb 12:1-2).
A final word of encouragement comes from the author of Psalm 27. Despite many trials, the psalmist, certain that he will "see the Lord's goodness in the land of the living," exhorts us to hold firm: "Take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord!" (Ps 27:13-14).
By Nancy de Flon, Catholic News Service