Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Memorial of the Seven Holy Founders of the Order of Servites
Jesus said to them in reply, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” (Luke 5:31-32)
Am I willing to acknowledge my need? Especially in a culture that so praises independence, do I admit that I depend on others: family, friends, God? Again, the striking image of the American student or worker who insists on showing up to class or work with a fever and incessant cough confronts us. We see this stubbornness regularly in others, and we are not immune from it ourselves. What helps to acknowledge this need? Holes. Make a hole in your diet through occasional fasting. Make a hole in your finances by occasional alms. Make a hole in your schedule by prayer, especially the most ancient and sacred prayer of the Sabbath. Into these holes the Lord may step in and offer you His holiness. When the patient stops trying to cure himself by holding his hand over the wound, and finally removes his hand to show the physician, then the doctor can do what only the doctor can do: work the healing necessary. Let us rejoice in our need, for we are cared for by such a good Lord. Let us acknowledge our needs by giving our Physician room to work in our lives.
Friday after Ash Wednesday
“Why do we fast, but you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, but you take no note?”
See, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers.
Again we have come to the Fridays in Lent when abstinence is not only the recommended form of penance, but a required form of penance. On this day many will suddenly become aware of the paramount place meat has taken in their diets, and may wonder, ‘why am I denying myself the joy of a delicious hamburger, pulled pork sandwich or delicious ribeye steak?’ The reason is not because self-denial is good in and of itself. Nor can it be that we are fasting and abstaining because that automatically improves our relationship with God (see the readings today). If that were the case, Jesus would be telling his disciples to be fasting exactly like the Pharisees rather than warning them about the leaven of the Pharisees whose fasting was an occasion for becoming puffed up with pride. If our actions, even good actions, even spiritual actions are simply serving our own egos, then they are disordered, because they are not leading us to God.
Rather Christ tells the disciples to fast, and Christians continue to do so because self-denial can be spiritually medicinal. It is precisely because of disorder in our desires, priorities and relationships with others that we are called to deny ourselves so as to become far more sensitive to the justice we should be rendering to God and neighbor. With the exception of expectant mothers, no person eats for someone else, only for himself. Therefore, to apply the brakes in consuming food (at the very least in consuming certain types of food one day a week), is to start (with God’s gracious assistance) to reassert the proper balance that should exist in our lives, not seeking ourselves and our own interests first, but God’s. It is a bodily beginning to our open recognition that we have allowed sin to take Christ from His seat of honor in our hearts and minds. In this Friday abstinence, the Church has found a reliable means to helping us return to the bridegroom who so yearns for our love.
Thursday after Ash Wednesday and Memorial of St. Claude de la Colombiere, SJ
“Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you…” (Dt 30:19-20)
What does it mean for someone who is ill to choose life? At the very least for him to make every effort to seek out the means to regain his health: find a professional to diagnose him, take the medicine prescribed, follow the diet and exercise regimen recommended, etc. The patient does these things because he wants a fullness of health that he does not enjoy at the moment. His head is not as clear when he is sick. He has far less energy when he is sick. The fullness of life is affected by lacking the fullness of health. Perhaps this is why Moses describes life as loving, listening to, and holding fast to the Lord our God. I am able to think clearly, honestly and well about my priorities in life when I focus on the Lord. I am able to act with zeal, energy and joy when I act out of love for my God. Let us seek the fullness of life, so that we too may contemplate God as did St. Claude de la Colombiere who wrote, “God is in the midst of us, or rather we are in the midst of him; wherever we are he sees us and touches us: at prayer, at work, at table, at recreation.”
“Even now, return to me with your whole heart!” (Joel 2:12)
In the season of Advent, we celebrate the one who is ever with us, and yet whose coming we can always experience more and more deeply. Now as we begin Lent, we remember again that the Lord is with us. Yet with St. Augustine we may truthfully confess, “You were with me Lord, but I was not with you!” (Conf. X.22) And as we acknowledge that our sins bind our freedom and impede us from being present to God who is always present to us, we can meditate on God’s beautiful and unending cry to us: Return to me! How ardently the Lord desires that we be present to Him, that we love Him in mind, heart and deed! He knows that we will find the fullness of life and joy only in finding them in Him. So the Lord calls us not to hold back. He does not want our hearts to be half-satisfied because we still hold onto harmful thoughts, hurtful words, or destructive actions. “Return to me with your whole heart!” Let us attend to the cry of our God! Let us continue to take the honest look at ourselves that the readings this week have invited us to take, and admit to the Lord what is holding us back, what still impedes our return. He awaits us with open arms, let us this Lent let Him break the shackles which keep our hands from fully embracing Him.
In the midst of acknowledging the truth about our struggles and challenges and admitting the truth about the Lord, sometimes people confusedly think that temptation comes from the Lord. Yet, against this confusion, St. James writes, “God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.” (Jas 1:13) Rather, what comes to us from God is only good, in fact “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (Jas 1:17) So what then is the truth about temptation?
The truth about temptation is not found denying temptation. Following the counsel of the Lord, we know we ought to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. (Mk 8:15) This may describe the point of view of those who deny that they experience any temptation, and instead insist that their exercise of secular or religious authority is in no way influenced by any disorder in their hearts. That is the denial that puffs oneself up, rather than seeking to truly be built up by the Lord. So what is the truth about temptation
The Psalmist admits the truth: “My foot slips.” The truth about temptation that we are called to admit is that we experience it. Enticed or lured by our narrow desires to treat creatures as if they were the God who alone can fully satiate our longings, we are tempted. And yet in admitting that truth, the psalmist also admits the greater truth of God’s gift, “When I say, “My foot is slipping,”
your mercy, O LORD, sustains me;
When cares abound within me,
your comfort gladdens my soul.” (Ps 94:18-19)
May we with the psalmist be open and honest about our temptations, so that we may share with the psalmist in God’s mercy and consolation.
To truly allow ourselves to be fitting dwelling places for the Lord we must cultivate hearts that are true and just. The heart that is true does not deceive itself, nor does it seek to hide its wounds from those it has been created to love.
But what is the heart that is just? The one which gives to others their due. To our children we owe diligent care. To our employers we owe sincere effort in labor. To our spouses we owe fidelity and love. To our God we owe all of these things, and what grounds the offering of all we owe to God is faith. Because faith is so essential for our relationship with the Lord, the pernicious nature of willful doubt needs to be addressed. “For the one who doubts…must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.” (Jas 1:6-8) Just as others in our life will have trouble relating well to us if we do not give them the care, effort, or love we owe them, so too God cannot give us the wisdom we long for if our hearts do not openly and justly render Him the trusting faith that is His due. For this reason Jesus sighs from the depths of his spirit before he asks, “Why does this generation seek a sign?” (Mk 8:12) It is not a sign the Pharisees need, but trust in the One who stands before them, the One to whom all signs in history have been pointing! As we turn to the Lord in our need, let us above all turn to Him with the faith of the leper we heard yesterday and repeat once more with all the trust God deserves, “If you wish, you can make me clean!”
O God, who teach us that you abide
in hearts that are just and true,
grant that we may be so fashioned by your grace
as to become a dwelling pleasing to you.
– Collect for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
As we join our prayers together as a universal Church today, let us reflect on what it really means to present our hearts as fitting dwelling places for the Lord. The prayer does not presume that our hearts are already perfect, but that if we are indeed open to the working of the Lord in our hearts, then our hearts should be just and true. A just heart desires to give to others what they are due. A true heart seeks to be honest and sincere.
Leviticus’ prescription of the ostracizing of the leper is jarring, and yet provides a powerful image for a true heart. (Lv 13:1-2, 44-46) Ancient men, like modern men, did not have a natural inclination to make their illnesses known. Today we guard our medical secrets very carefully, and sometimes so carefully that we do not even acknowledge to ourselves that we are sick or ill. As a teacher, I become frustrated when a student shows up in the height of flu season coughing, sneezing and feverish, all the while repeating his mantra, “I’m fine! I’m fine!” Unsurprisingly, he and the other students sitting within his sneeze radius spend the next few days at home in bed recovering from being “fine”. You and I may balk at Leviticus’ commands to quarantine oneself in time of illness, and on top of that to tear clothes, muffle beards and shout ‘Unclean! Unclean!’, but that ancient honesty beats modern denial any day of the week.
If in the midst of a 103 degree temperature and inability to stop sneezing we insist that we are in perfect health, is it any wonder that we do not want to admit our avarice, lust, pride, sloth etc. to ourselves, let alone to the spiritual descendants of Aaron? Yet, we also yearn to be a dwelling pleasing to the Lord! Truth is what we need, yet we think it unbearable. ‘Don’t go to the doctor; he’ll just tell you you are sick!’ If the doctor merely gives diagnosis, but no treatment, how are we better off than when we were in denial? The good news is, the truth about our need is fully understood in the context of a greater truth. The leper of the Gospel not only lived crying, ‘unclean! unclean!’ but cried out to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean!” (Mk 1:40) Brothers and sisters, as we look towards the beginning of Lent, let us not hide our wounds from ourselves, but in open and honest acknowledgment, show our hearts to the Lord who wishes to heal us and to make His dwelling within us.