The Light Shines in the Darkness

Merry Christmas!

This year, I would like to share with you some texts that are ripe for meditation on the birth of Christ. On Christmas morning, I took a video of the sunrise for your viewing pleasure, and I’ve put a bit of music in the background to keep it exciting.

Texts for Christmas meditation

  • Magnificat and antiphon from Christmas Evening Prayer I
  • Prologue from the Gospel of John (Christmas Day Gospel)
  • Christmas Proclamation
  • Luke 2:1-20 (Knox Translation)
  • Selection from Pope St. Leo’s Christmas Sermon (Office of Readings on Christmas Day)

The Grace of a Rocky Advent

I look forward to Advent every year. It is one of my favorite liturgical seasons. I’ve written before on the stillness and peace that this time of year brings with it.

This year, that stillness has been harder than ever to find. From what I understand, we have just as much (if not more!) COVID running around the planet as before, but society is simply done with it. Everybody is out shopping, decorating, and doing all those other things that people do to get ready for Christmas. Hopefully, all these people are doing some sort of spiritual practice to prepare for our annual celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ so that they’re ready inside as well as out.

Perhaps it is because the last year and a half have been unnaturally slow, but this Advent feels more frantic and disconnected than usual. Perhaps it’s the weather, which waffles between beautiful and somewhat chilly. Perhaps it’s all the usual things happening this year that didn’t last. Perhaps it’s the virus hanging over my head. Perhaps it’s all the fights and arguments and division sown in the last year which has leached into our faith. Perhaps it’s just that I’m older or just tired. But I’ve struggled this year to connect with Advent.

My natural response in times like this is to ask, “what do I need to be doing differently?” The problem is, I’ve already done that. I’ve made some good changes. They’ve helped. But I still feel off. So what’s the issue?

It’s hard to say where it is, but when we’ve run out of answers, the only place we can reasonably turn is to God. We must put our faith in him, trusting that he can save us from sin and death. We must put our hope in him, believing that he will choose to save us. We must love him, valuing him more than any other prize. Finally, we must trust that God will give us the grace we need. As long as we continue to turn to our heavenly Father, with all of our weaknesses and struggles and frustrations, we can trust that he will give us grace sufficient to overcome any obstacle. Even an Advent that feels a little disconnected.

Because let’s face it: no matter how rough Advent might seem to be, this season is meant to orient us toward Jesus Christ. Perhaps this year, he’s simply orienting me to trust him a little bit more and me a little bit less.

St. Joseph Shows the Way to Live

As the year of St. Joseph draws to a close today, I thought I’d share a brief reflection that’s stayed with me for most of the year.

Painting by Adam Elsheimer of the Flight to Egypt
The Flight to Egypt, 1609, by Adam Elsheimer

When [the Magi] had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew 2:13-15

Scripture records no words spoken by St. Joseph, only his actions. Even when he encounters angelic beings in his dreams, St. Joseph has no verbal response. We see no complaint on his part. All we witness is that once God’s will is made known to St. Joseph, he follows the will of God fully and without hesitation. When Mary was found to be with child and God instructed Joseph, through an angel, that Joseph was to take Mary into his home and care for the child, St. Joseph dropped his plans and brought her into his home. When God asked St. Joseph to leave behind everything and flee into Egypt, St. Joseph did not hesitate to follow the will of God.

What extraordinary faith this man must have had! Abram was sent on a journey like this, to a land that was not his own, with no guaranteed return, simply with the knowledge that God has called him to the journey; thus, he must follow. Abram, who became Abraham when he entered into the covenant with God, became the first patriarch of the Children of Israel. St. Joseph, following God as Abram did, was able to see the culmination of this covenant God had made with Abraham. Amongst Abraham’s numerous descendants, St. Joseph witnessed the birth of the Jesus, the Christ and Messiah, the Savior of the world, through whom Abraham and his descendants—unified not by race, but by common worship of the one, true God—were redeemed.

St. Joseph, a just and righteous man, lived a virtuous life. He followed God, and he put aside everything to be of service to his wife Mary and his foster son, Jesus. He spent his remaining years providing for them, teaching them, and protecting them. He is a model for all of us, but, in particular, for us men. We men seem to have a special kind of pride, ambition, and greed built into us. We desire to conquer things, to make our mark on the history of the world. St. Joseph is the antidote to these temptations to worldly fame. In his humility, he gave up his own ambitions—whatever they might have been—and even his livelihood, when necessary. Why did he do this? He did these things to serve the wife and child given to his care. This is, perhaps, the essence of fatherhood: to die to self and pour out your life in service for those who have been given to you.

Not every man is called to be a biological father, but every man is, in some way, called to fatherhood. When we accept the cross of dying to self so that we might pour out our lives in service of those in our care, we will realize the truth of Christ’s words: “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

Let us pray together:

Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.

From: Patris corde

Advent Reflections Podcast

I’ve started posting daily reflections on my podcast for Advent. They’re primarily based on the Mass readings for that day and are all very short. I hope you enjoy them!

Advent Reflections 2021 — Christmas Day Advent Reflections 2021

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!
  1. Advent Reflections 2021 — Christmas Day
  2. Advent Reflections 2021 — Vigil of Christmas
  3. Advent Reflections 2021 — O Emmanuel
  4. Advent Reflections 2021 — O Rex Gentium
  5. Advent Reflections 2021 — O Oriens

we’re the birds

God tells us today, through his prophet Ezekiel, that he will take a tender shoot from the highest branches of a cedar tree and plant it in the mountains of Israel, making a home for birds of every kind and every sort of winged thing. Christ also mentions a tree to us today, a tree which grows large enough so that all the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade. When we read such things, it is tempting to think we are somehow related to the seeds or the trees. For example, we can understand the mustard seed as a seed of faith planted in our hearts so that virtue, represented by the birds, may find shelter in our souls. This is, certainly, a good way to understand the parable. When we put the parable into a greater Biblical context, I think a somewhat different reality emerges: We are the birds.

Credit: El Golli Mohamed, via Wikimedia Commons

We human beings love to do things. We like to build stuff. (Unless we are 3 year old boys, in which case we like to destroy stuff.) We like to be able to say, “I did that!” and maybe slap our name on the thing. It is no different in our spiritual lives. We like to claim that we are in control. That our hard efforts at prayer and asceticism led to us being good Christians. While this is, to an extent, true, we must recognize one very important thing: We are the birds. We aren’t in control. And that’s OK. God has provided a place for us to find refreshment and rest from our labors. He invites us to stay and make our home with him in the shady branches he has provided for us. The tree is the Kingdom of God, and we are invited to live there.

When we look at what God spoke through Ezekiel, we learn that the topmost branch of the cedar refers to the King of Israel. When God says he will take from the crest of the cedar and plant it on the highest mountain in Israel, (New Jerusalem Bible) he is undoubtedly giving us a glimpse of Calvary, where Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, was planted on Calvary. God tells us that this cedar he has planted shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. From Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, the Church gushed forth from his wounded side, and she spread through all the world, giving refuge to all the poor ones suffering from the tyranny of evil and sin. God finishes his speech through Ezekiel by saying I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom. God wants us to remember that he is in control, no matter what the political powers of this world might want us to think. Our trust belongs in God.

While we are still on this earth, though, we do not see God clearly, and it can be hard to trust him. Many things block our sight of God; so, we must walk by faith. St. Paul exhorts us to be courageous, and we certainly must be courageous. The Christian life is not easy. We stumble and fall constantly. Sometimes we fall flat on our face and lose the way entirely. We must pray always, asking God to show us the way and to have the strength to continue following him. No matter what sin we fight every day, we must bring it to prayer, surrender it to God, and ask for his help in finding our way back to him. For mortal sins, we bring them to confession so that the gaping wound in our soul can be sewn up and healed.

As we work to find our shelter in the Kingdom of God, let us also remember one more thing about birds. Birds help to scatter the seeds as well. As Christians, we are called to take the Good News and bring it to those around us, so that the Kingdom of God might grow. Most of us do this within our marriages. The love of spouses should be an image of the love of God: fruitful and beautiful. There are many, though, called to spread the Good News in a different way. Those of us called to religious life or to the priesthood are called to love just as fruitfully and beautifully. No matter what your vocation, do no be afraid to follow God. Do not let society deter you. If we follow society, we’ll find ourselves in a dead tree with no shade and recognize that we’re just a whole bunch of angry crows.

Instead, let God be in control. Fly into the branches of his kingdom. Let God lead you to his lush garden, full of beauty and peace.

Cedars of Lebanon from Wikimedia Commons

Today’s Readings:
June 13, 2021
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:25-34

the destiny of sheep

Today we hear the beautiful Gospel of the Good Shepherd who does not flee from the wolves but is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. Many, if not most, of us who read this see it as a call to be like the Good Shepherd, to stand fast in the face of evil and protect those around us. That is, perhaps, one of the many things Jesus wants to take from this parable, but I believe that we are missing the rather obvious point if that’s what we take away from today’s Gospel. That so-obvious-we-often-miss-it point? We are the sheep. Christ says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Israel was the original flock, and we are the sheep that belonged to another fold. Christ came to add us to his flock. We are the sheep who will hear his voice and unite as one flock with one shepherd. Well… We are the sheep, unless we have chosen to follow Satan and become one of the wolves.

Jesus Christ is the one and only Good Shepherd. If we follow anyone else, we are not in safe hands. We must follow the voice of the one who conquered death. We hear in the Easter Sequence “Death with life contended: // combat strangely ended! // Life’s own Champion, slain, // yet lives to reign. […] Christ is truly risen // from the dead we know. // Victorious King, Thy mercy show!” (Victimae paschali laudes, ICEL trans.)

The battle of the Good Shepherd against the wolves is already won. The real question is not, “Am I like the Good Shepherd?” but, “Do I follow his voice when I hear it? Do I allow him to protect me?” St. Peter tells us that “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If we follow Christ’s voice, we will be saved, but if we instead follow the voices of this world, the voices of power, money, carnal pleasure, gender ideology, politics, or whatever else is floating around, then we will not be saved. We will become one of the wolves who scatter and capture, dragging others down to hell with us.

God has bestowed his love upon humanity and invited us to become his children. When we were baptized, we were given that title: Child of God. We don’t entirely grasp how glorious this is because we don’t grasp the glory of God. We were created in the image and likeness of God. We were adopted as his sons and daughters at our Baptism. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, came to this earth to call us to himself so that he might save us from the wolves of sin and death. We have been invited to join God in an eternal life of joy after we pass from this earth. This is the destiny to which every one of us are called.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete once said, “Our first interest is in our own destiny, and it that is not there, there is no way we can be interested in anything beyond that. To say that, the accusation, the fear will immediately grow in us that I am being selfish. I should first take care of the needs of other people; I should care first more about other people, and then about me. But you cannot care about anyone else unless you care about yourself. […] Christ presents himself as our Redeemer because he rescues, strengthens, safeguards this interest in our destiny.” (Albacete, Culture at the Crossroads (online PDF), pg. 63)

Let us look to the glorious destiny to which we have been called. We are the beloved children of God. We are the sheep protected by the Good Shepherd. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

Today’s Readings:
April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:8-12; Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18

Do I know Him?

As I prepared for this weekend, a few lines from the second reading, from St. John, kept haunting me:

Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.

This is strong language. St. John does not use the term “liar” lightly. None of the Biblical authors do! These lines forced me to consider a question: “How do we know?” Perhaps, even more pointedly, my heart proposed a question to me: “Do I know Him?”

Let’s start with what “knowing” isn’t: to know is not to understand completely. We will never fully understand God. He is utterly beyond our comprehension. It isn’t just God, though, who we cannot fully comprehend. We will never fully comprehend another human being. We may get to know them, but we won’t fully understand them. If you look at a couple who has been married many years, the spouses can still be surprised by one another. These surprises delight us, because they are not something we expect from that person.

So what does it mean “to know”? When we come to know something or someone, we allow that thing or person to influence our minds and shape how we see the world. Some examples might help understand.

  • When we were young and learned our numbers for the first time, it changed the world for us. We could now count things and understand quantity. Everything became different because we came to know our numbers.
  • Let us go back to that married couple I mentioned. When a person first met his or her spouse, the spouse-to-be was a total mystery. The man and woman did not know each other well. Over the years, though, the spouses come to know one another more and more. As they come to know each other, the way they see the world changes. Their understanding of reality is different, because they know this other person.

When we come to know God, it means that we have allowed him to enter our minds and teach us. We allow him to change how we see the world. As we come to know God, we begin to see the world through his eyes: we see the beauty of creation, and we see the horror of sin.

The process of coming to know things—one could call this the process of education—is a risky process, because it changes us. What is other than us, that which is not us, becomes familiar to us by entering our mind and residing with us in a mental, but real, way. If the process of education doesn’t change us, if we do not change as we come to know things and people, we have learn nothing.

As we come to know God, we can more fully imitate Him and love Him. We experience his love more fully, because we know it better. We have seen it. Because we have seen God’s love, we can then love those around us more freely, because we have learned how to do it from God. We seek to know God so that we may fulfill the deep desire in our hearts: to love and to be loved.

But is this all even possible. Is knowing, as we are called to do, even possible?

Some deny it is possible to know anything. This lens of doubt and suspicion started at least as far back as Descartes, and is the core of many modern philosophies. If it isn’t possible to know anything, if there is nothing outside of me that can change me, that can alter how I see the world, then the logical approach in life would be to do whatever is best for me.

Some deny that it is possible to know anything beyond the material. This reductionist view of the universe takes away the beauty of our humanity! If it were true, things such as beauty and love become chemical byproducts of our bodies. How sad would that be if it were true? To deny our ability to know beyond the material results not only in a denial of truth, but in a reduction of our desire. If we believe there is nothing beyond this life, then slowly, over time, we will lose our very human desire to survive death and seek the infinite.

The ability to know is at the core of our humanity: it is by knowing the other that we fulfill the most basic human desire: to see and to be seen by another. Look at Adam in the Garden of Eden. Until he knew and was known by Eve, he was not fulfilled. Until he could love and be loved, know and be known, see and be seen,—all of these are different faces of the same action—he was not fulfilled.

In our world, knowing the other is a very challenging thing to do, because something quite sinister gets in the way: sin. To repent from sin helps us to see the other more clearly. It removes the gunk in our eyes and in our minds that clouds our perceptions of the world. Sin clogs our vision. Lust, for example, prevents us from seeing the value of the other. When we lust for power, for money, for people, it means that we want to take something which not us and possess it. It is a desire to make things a part of myself so I no longer have to admit my weakness, so I no longer have to admit that I need someone other than myself for my fulfillment. We could do a similar analysis with each of the seven deadly sins.

Christ suffered the effects of sin and conquered them so that we could convert our lives, repent, and follow him. When we repent and turn back to him, our vision is slowly cleared, the clouds lift. The Sacrament of Confession is a very important part of this process. We are all witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ who conquered sin and made it possible to repent, to convert, to not only to know each other but to know God. Christ showed us how our deepest desire will be fulfilled. We can love and be loved infinitely and forever. This love can conquer death itself.

At the beginning of Lent, we were told to repent and believe in the Gospel. Let us continue to convert our lives and follow Christ, so we might experience the glorious knowledge of the Resurrection.

Today’s Readings:
April 18, 2021
Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; Psalm 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:35-48

Remember…

If we dig into the history of worship, way back beyond the coming of Jesus Christ and even farther back than the Old Testament takes us, we see a few trends. We see that human being are innately religious. We see that the first human communities were formed around worship sites to help care for them so that people might come to perform and observe rituals to the gods. If the rituals were not done correctly, the people feared that the now-displeased deity would inflict punishment of some sort upon the people. As a result, a specialized group of people with the knowledge necessary to ensure that rituals were performed correctly developed. This priestly class became the people tasked with mediating between humanity and their gods. The priests were responsible for ensuring that their idols were fed and clothed properly and expected the worshippers to provide the necessary goods and materials to care for their gods.

When we look at the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and his followers, we find something different. Yes, we see holy sites and a specialized class of priests, and on first glance it looks very similar. But the priests act very differently. Our God specifically prohibited the making of images. Our God specifically tells his people that he does not eat the flesh of animals offered to him. The priests of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not there to provide for God. Our worship of God adds nothing to his greatness, but our worship of God is valuable for a very important group of people: us. By worshiping God, we express our desire for his closeness to us and his presence in our life.

In the liturgical celebrations commanded by God in the first reading tonight, the most important command is to remember. God says that This day shall be a memorial feast for you, which all generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution. What must we remember? God comes to our aid. When his people cry out to them, he is not a passive observer. This is why he sent his Son: to save us from the mess we got ourselves into. But these things are easy to forget. So we must memorialize these events. We must remember.

The Priesthood of Jesus Christ, in which Fr. Drew and I participate, assists us in remembering God’s love for us. The pinnacle of the worship of our God is the celebration of our Eucharistic Liturgy, and the pinnacle of the priesthood is the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy, which in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church we call Mass. In the Mass, we do this in remembrance of Him by making those events ritually present through the actions of the priest. When we celebrate the Mass, literally make the events of our salvation present, and even more so tonight. Tonight is not simply a night in which we remember the Last Supper. Tonight is the Last Supper. Tonight we do not simply remember Christ feeding his apostles with his Body and Blood. Tonight Christ feeds us with his Body and Blood.

When we receive the Eucharist, we receive God, and we receive his love in our hearts. Love is not a gift that can be hoarded. It must be given. In this great Sacrament of Love, God gives us the ability to love our neighbor. Tonight we are fed with the Body and Blood of God. We share in a Communion of all believers who have been similarly united with God. This is the glory of the Eucharist, a glory which our human senses fail to see. By faith alone can we behold this mystery, which enables us to follow the commands of Christ: to love God and to love our neighbor.

Today’s Readings
April 1, 2021
Thursday of the Lord’s Supper
Exodus 12:1–8, 11–14; Psalm 116:12–13, 15–16bc, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26; John 13:1–15

John 3:16 and Fear of the Lord

Everybody loves to quote John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. It is a very comforting passage when taken out of context. When we read it in context, though, this passage ought to inspire the fear of God in us. Fear of God is a virtue. We spend a lot of time trying to talk around it and say it means something else, but it is vitally important we recognize that God is the absolute ruler of this universe, and what he says is what happens. Our opinions do not matter, only the truth as given to us by God. The truth in today’s Gospel is a warning to all of us.

Jesus said to Nicodemus: // “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, // so must the Son of Man be lifted up, // so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” We have to start by remembering why Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert. The people of Israel had committed the sin of idolatry. They worshiped a golden calf. They began partaking of the same horrendous rituals of the clans and tribes around them. We see these same actions condemned in the first reading today: In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people // added infidelity to infidelity, // practicing all the abominations of the nations // and polluting the LORD’s temple // which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The word abomination means that these actions are not the simple worship of false gods. When worship becomes an abomination it usually includes rituals acts of wanton lust done in a perverse mockery of temple liturgy. They would have included human sacrifice, and worse. I will spare you the details. (In the podcast “A Land of Giants”, they get into a lot of the strange & nerdy details.)

The children of Israel, both those in Moses’ day and those in the first reading today, were punished by God. When you partake in abominable actions, there are consequences. God had sent his messengers, his prophets, and the people did not listen. When the people of Israel hardened their hearts and refused to repent, the LORD’s anger against his people blazed up beyond remedy. The instigators of these atrocities lost their lives, and those who were saved were the ones who repented of their wickedness. This action by God may seem drastic, but we must consider this: these abominable actions were making a mockery of God at a minimum and were potentially outright demon worship. Allowing such acts to continue would destroy Israel. God had swore to protect his people. Occasionally the only way to do this is purification from false prophets and false religion: to remove the bad influences through somewhat drastic means.

Christ said that the Son of Man [must] be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God the Father desires us to look upon his only begotten Son, nailed to the Cross. He wants us to believe in him. He wants us to repent of our sin so that we might have eternal life. He wants us to flee from the condemnation which our sin has rightly earned us, for the Gospel continues: And this is the verdict, // that the light came into the world, // but people preferred darkness to light, // because their works were evil. // For everyone who does wicked things hates the light // and does not come toward the light, // so that his works might not be exposed.

John 3:16, when we read it in context, paints a vastly different story for us: God the Father sent his Son to us out of love to save us from ourselves and present the gift of eternal life, and we—humanity—rejected him. We deserved death for this rejection, but God’s love overpowers even this rejection. St. Paul teaches us that God, who is rich in mercy, // because of the great love he had for us, // even when we were dead in our transgressions, // brought us to life with Christ. Christ invited us to join him in his Resurrection, and he gave us the means to do it. When we are baptized, we die to this sinful world and are reborn in the Resurrection of Christ. This is why Baptism is so critically important: in Baptism we die to the darkness and become children of the light, we begin to live in the truth.

[W]hoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

As children of the light, we are called to allow God to burn brightly within us. We are called to show the light given to us to those who still live in the darkness who have never encountered the Good News of redemption given to us by Christ. We are called to show the light given to us to those who have extinguished the light that once burned in them.

There are many things we must do to show our light to those around us, but we must begin by purifying ourselves. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the way that we do this. Each is essential, all of them must actually be done in both our bodies and our souls. We must actually pray. We must actually give some sort of alms. We must actually fast from food. Many of us struggle with physical fasting, and I know there are some medical situations which make it impossible, but for the vast majority of us, fasting from food—actual physical fasting—is essential. St. Basil the Great wrote that, “if all were to take fasting as the counselor for their actions, nothing would prevent a profound peace from spreading throughout the entire world.”1He later continues that “abstinence from food is insufficient for praiseworthy fasting. […] True fasting is being a stranger to vice, controlling the tongue, abstaining from anger, distancing oneself from lust, evil speech, lying, perjury.”2Even those who cannot physically fast must strive to fast from these other things.

Today is Laetare Sunday, a day of rejoicing in the midst of Lent. We rejoice today because our Lenten works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have allowed us to grow closer to God. As we enter this final time of preparation to celebrate the victory of Christ over death, let us be ever more intentional about turning toward the light.

Today’s Readings:
March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalms 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

Our Secret Lenten Campaign

In the collect, sometimes called the opening prayer, we asked God that today “we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self restraint.” Shortly, as we prepare the gifts before the Eucharistic Prayer, during which they will become the Body and Blood of Christ, and then will be sacrificed and offered to God the Father, we pray that we might undertake this campaign of purification, penance, and charity so that, “cleansed from our sins, [we] may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of [Jesus Christ].

These prayers tell us everything we need to know about the holy season of Lent which we begin today. they tells us why we engage in Lenten practices: so that we become worthy to celebrate the Passion of Our Lord. We celebrate our Lord’s Passion every time we participate in the Mass, but this is all a shadow of the true celebration to which we are invited at the end of our lives: the Heavenly Wedding Feast of the Lamb. To celebrate this eternal banquet well and devoutly, we must engage in a campaign of Christian service on this earth. The point of this service is to eradicate evil from our lives: evil cannot coexist with our God, whom we will join in Heaven.

To engage in this campaign of Christianity, we utilize the weapons of self-restraint. As the prophet Joel teaches us, we must rend our hearts and not our garments. In plain English, he is telling us that what is inside our hearts is much more consequential than what is outside. Christ tells us how to rend our hearts in the Gospel today: pray, fast, and give alms. Our Lenten practices should incorporate all of these. For example: perhaps instead of buying a coffee and bagel in the morning, we could save that money up and donate it to the Lord’s Diner at the end of the month. We could make a daily effort to pray for those poor people on this earth who are alone, lost, and who have nobody to pray for them. Instead of giving up meat on Fridays alone, we could give it up on Wednesdays as well. These practices of self-denial and mortification “break us in order to raise us up and open our hearts” by destroying our “obsessive concentration on self caused by sin.” (Louis Bouyer as quoted in Magnificat, February 2021, p. 270)

Perhaps the most important aspect of these ascetic practice urged by Christ is one we often overlook: we should do them without drawing attention to ourselves. By engaging in these practices and not seeking worldly recognition, we allow our Father, who Christ repeatedly tells us sees the secrets of our hearts, to give us that recognition when we meet him at the Heavenly Banquet where we hope to join him. Humble prayer, fasting and almsgiving done in secret is a defining trait of Christian asceticism.

This year, we are given an extra chance at humility. Because of the pandemic, the Vatican has changed the distribution of ashes in many countries. Instead of receiving a cross on your forehead, we will sprinkle ashes on the crown of your head. This is an ancient practice, which we find in the Bible centuries before Christ. While new to us, in many countries, such as Italy, this is what they always do.

Unless you are lucky enough to have a beautiful bald head like mine, nobody will be able to tell you are fasting today. Nobody will be able to tell that you went to Mass today. Nobody will be able to tell that you began your Lenten campaign today. Nobody will be able to tell that you are rending your hearts to become worthy to celebrate the Passion of Jesus Christ today. But that’s OK. Because your Heavenly Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you with everlasting life.

Today’s Readings:
Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2021
Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

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