Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

A lot of people say they aren’t giving up something for Lent, they’re just going to try to do something positive. I think that can be a little vague, to be honest. I usually tell people it doesn’t just have to be one or the other. Indeed, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that it should actually be both.

Fasting is important because it helps us to see how blessed we are. It is important because it helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide. Fasting teaches us, once again, that God is God and we are not. This is important for all of us independent-minded modern-day Americans. We like to be in charge, in control, and the fact is that whatever control we do have is an illusion. God is in control of all things, even when it seems like we are in chaos. Fasting teaches us that we can do without the things we’ve given up, and that God can provide for us in much richer ways. Fasting is absolutely essential to having an inspiring, life-changing Lent, and I absolutely think that people should give things up for Lent.

But giving something up for Lent does not excuse us from the obligation to love our neighbor. This falls under the general heading of almsgiving, and along with fasting and prayer, it is one of the traditional ways of preparing our hearts for Easter during Lent. We might be more mindful of the poor, contributing to our food pantry or a homeless shelter or relief organization. We might reach out by actually serving in some capacity, like at a soup kitchen, or spending an hour at PADS. We also might give the people closest to us in our lives a larger portion of the love that has been God’s gift to us, in some tangible way.

Today’s first reading reminds us that fasting to put on a big show is a sham. Fasting to bring ourselves closer to God includes the obligation of almsgiving and prayer. Together, these three facets of discipleship make us stronger Christians and give us a greater share of the grace that is promised to the sons and daughters of God.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

The prophets of the Old Testament were always pretty clear about the fact that God was sick and tired of people trying to claim righteousness but not really being righteous. The idea of keeping the letter but not the spirit of the Law, of fasting and praying with the express idea of getting these things over with so one could return to cheating the poor was repugnant – is repugnant – to our God. The prophets cried out full-throated and unsparingly that worship of God was not a part-time endeavor, that the time for “business as usual” was over.

In Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is tseh’-dek, which has the connotation of right relationship. This was the theme of the prophets: that right relationship, a relationship directed toward God and toward others, was the only thing that could ever deliver true peace.

This is the call of Isaiah in today’s first reading. God makes it clear through Isaiah that showy fasting, mortification and sacrifice is not what God wants from humankind. God, who made us for himself, wants us – all of us, and not just some dramatic show of false piety, put on display for all the world to see. God doesn’t want fasting that ends in quarrelling and fighting with others, because that destroys the right relationships that our fast should be leading us toward in the first place.

So, if we really want to fast, says Isaiah, we need to put all that nonsense aside. Our true fast needs to be a beacon of justice, a wholehearted reaching out to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. As we get into our Lenten practices these days, we too might find that our self-sacrifice ends up pushing us away from others, and ultimately from God. That’s not a sign to give it up, but maybe more to redirect it. If we give up something, we should also balance that with a renewed effort to reach out to God and others. Right relationship should be the goal of all of our Lenten efforts this year. And we can truly live that kind of penitence with joy because it comes with a great promise, says Isaiah:

Your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Behold: now is the acceptable time!
Behold: now is the day of salvation!

This is the way the prophet Joel calls the Israelites, and all of us, to repentance.  Repentance is an important spiritual theme for Lent: in fact, if it were not for our need for repentance, we wouldn’t need Jesus, he wouldn’t have to have taken on flesh, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die.  But he did, and he did that not just because religion in those days was out of whack, or that people in that time were more in need of repentance than people in other times, including our own.  He did that because we all have need of repentance, now just as much as always.  Each of us is probably not evil to the core, but we all have things we need to let go of and move away from, so that we can return to the Lord.  That’s repentance, and that’s what Lent is all about.

It’s so much a part of Lent that one of the two instructions we can give when someone comes to us for ashes is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  The other, of course, is “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  I tend to use both of these, alternating between the two, and letting the Holy Spirit decide who hears each.   I do that because I think they are both fitting reminders for us as we enter into holy Lent.  We have to keep repentance, and our own return to dust one day, in our minds and hearts so that we can long for the salvation God wants to bring us.

We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. Lots of us may still have the remnants of old and bad teaching that you have to come to Church on Ash Wednesday or something horrible will happen to you, or maybe you even think that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday is what makes us Catholic.  When you don’t come to Church on a regular basis, you lose contact with God and the community, and yes, that is pretty horrible, but not in a superstitious kind of way.  The real reason we come to Church on this the first day of Lent is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday.  Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of that great gift.  All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.

Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation.  Our Church offers us three ways to do that: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  Giving things up, spending more time in prayer and devotion, dedicating ourselves to works of charity, all of these help us to deeply experience the love of Christ as we enter into deeper relationship with him.  That is Lent, and the time to begin it, as Joel tells us, is now:  Now is the acceptable time!  Now is the day of salvation!

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly.  None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are.  It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy.  Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty-day retreat that will bring us all closer to God.  May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

Behold: now is the acceptable time!
Behold: now is the day of salvation!

We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. Lots of us may still have the remnants of old and bad teaching that you have to come to Church on Ash Wednesday or something horrible will happen to you, or maybe you even think that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday is what makes us Catholic.  When you don’t come to Church on a regular basis, you lose contact with God and the community, and yes, that is pretty horrible, but not in a superstitious kind of way.  The real reason we come to Church on this the first day of Lent is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday.  Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of that great gift.  All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.

Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation.  Our Church offers us three ways to do that: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  So first, we fast.  We give up snacks, or a favorite food, or eat one less meal perhaps one day a week, or we can give up a favorite television program or activity.  Fasting helps us to be aware of the ways God works to sustain us when we’re hungry.  The whole idea of fasting is that we need to come to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide, and to cut our ties with anything that keeps us from God.  Some people say they don’t have to give something up for Lent because they would rather do something good and focus on the positive.  I’ll tell you right now, it doesn’t have to be one or the other; in Catholic teaching, it’s always both/and.  You can give something up to strengthen your relationship with God, and do something good to strengthen your relationship with others.

Second, we pray.  We already must pray every day and attend Mass every Sunday; those are obligations that we have as people of God.  But maybe Lent can be the opportunity to intensify our prayer life, to make it better, to make it more, to draw more life from it.  Maybe we are not people who read Scripture every day, and we can work through one of the books of the Bible during Lent.  Maybe we can learn a new prayer or take on a new devotion.  Maybe we can spend time before the Lord in the adoration.  Maybe we can just carve out some quiet time at the end of our busy days to give thanks for our blessings, and to ask pardon for our failings.  Intensifying our prayer life this Lent can help us to be aware of God’s presence at every moment of our day and in every place we are.

Third, we give alms or do works of charity.  We can donate money for organizations that feed the poor, or perhaps help to provide a meal at a soup kitchen.  Maybe we can devote some time to mentoring a child who needs help with their studies, or volunteer to help in our school or religious education program.  Works of charity might be a family project, perhaps volunteering to help in our food pantry together, or shopping together for items for our 40 Cans for Lent campaign.  When we do works of charity, we can learn to see others as God does, and love them the way God loves them and us.

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly.  None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are.  It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy.  Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty-day retreat that will bring us all closer to God.  May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

A lot of people say they aren’t giving up something for Lent, they’re just going to try to do something positive.  When it’s that vague, I often think that means they’re doing nothing at all for Lent, which is sad for them.  But, I usually tell people it doesn’t just have to be one or the other.  Indeed, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that it should actually be both.

 

Fasting is important because it helps us to see how blessed we are.  It is important because it helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide.  Fasting teaches us, once again, that God is God and we are not.  This is important for all of us independent-minded modern-day Americans.  We like to be in charge, in control, and the fact is that whatever control we do have is an illusion.  God is in control of all things, even when it seems like we are in chaos.  Fasting teaches us that we can do without the things we’ve given up, and that God can provide for us in much richer ways.  Fasting is absolutely essential to having an inspiring, life-changing Lent, and I absolutely think that people should give things up for Lent.

 

But giving something up for Lent does not excuse us from the obligation to love our neighbor.  This falls under the general heading of almsgiving, and along with fasting and prayer, it is one of the traditional ways of preparing our hearts for Easter during Lent.  We might be more mindful of the poor, contributing to our food pantry or a homeless shelter or relief organization.  We might reach out by actually serving in some capacity, like at a soup kitchen, or spending an hour at PADS.  We also might give the people closest to us in our lives a larger portion of the love that has been God’s gift to us.

 

Today’s first reading reminds us that fasting to put on a big show is a sham.  Fasting to bring ourselves closer to God includes the obligation of almsgiving and prayer.  Together, these three facets of discipleship make us stronger Christians and give us a greater share of the grace that is promised to the sons and daughters of God.

 

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Fasting, almsgiving and prayer are all staples of the Christian disciple’s life.  They are praiseworthy things, to be sure.  But Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel reading that they are not things to be done for praise.  No one should even know that we have done these things, because in receiving praise for them, we have received our only reward.  Far better to make fasting, almsgiving and prayer so much part of our lives that no one even notices.  Except, of course our Father who is hidden.  And our Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay us.

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  Some people – Catholics included – see the things that we Catholics do as external, and superfluous.  And indeed, when we do these things in perfunctory, rote kind of ways, then we are definitely missing the boat.  But all of these things can be manifestations of our desire to love God more.  In Lent, we fast, give alms and pray.  Our fasting can be our desire to rely more on God’s care for us.  Our almsgiving can be our desire to be one with God who is close to the poor.  Our prayer can be a manifestation of our hunger for God.  When we do these things with love for God, they aren’t mere externals; they are part of our living faith.  And when they are done with that kind of love, we are truly not far from the kingdom of God.