Our Secret Lenten Campaign

In Lent we pray, fast, and give alms so that we can destroy our self-centeredness and become worthy to join our Heavenly Father at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2021.

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

Humility, Truth, and Morality

We must have humility to seek the truth. We must use the truth to inform our actions.

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

The Humble Pursuit of Truth

In Romans today, St. Paul tells us that whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. Conversely, if we allow the Spirit to dwell in us, then we will have life. This Spirit is none other than the Holy Spirit. This raises an important question: how do we allow the Holy Spirit to dwell within us? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the Spirit of God dwells in us through our love. (Commentary on Romans, C. 8, L. 2, n. 626) Even though we received the Holy Spirit in Baptism and again in Confirmation, we drive the Holy Spirit out of ourselves when we sin. Venial sin damages and mortal sin destroys the relationship of love we have with God. The book of Wisdom tells us that God does not abide iniquity, sin, which logically means that our personal sin drives out the Spirit of God. (Wisdom 1:3, cf. Romans, C. 8, L. 2, n. 626)

Driving sin out of our lives is extremely challenging. It is a life-long endeavor, but it is not something we do alone. God assists us regularly with his grace, and He walks with us through this life. He has also left us with the holy Scriptures. Readings the Scriptures and meditating upon them can allow us to grow closer to God and can allow the fertile ground in our hearts to be readied for the Spirit of God to dwell. Christ teaches us in today’s Gospel that he reveals all these things to little ones. Why does he reveal them to little ones and not to mature adults? I can think of a number of answers to this question; however, the strongest answer, I think, is that children have not lost their sense of wonder about the world, nor have they lost their sense of openness to others. A child is not afraid to look up at the clouds and the stars and to see all sorts of shapes and plants and animals. A child, to the horror of many parents, is not afraid to go talk to someone they don’t know. A child trusts his or her parents, and, generally, anybody multiple feet taller than him or her. A child wants to learn everything and is always seeking out truth in adventures, in friends, and in stories. A child also recognizes that sometimes he or she is wrong. In other words: a child has humility. Zechariah, in today’s first reading, tells us that the Messiah will be humble as well: he will not ride into Jerusalem on a horse, but on a donkey.

These three traits of children, of wonder, openness or docility, and humility, are essential to growing in love. No matter how hard we try to hold on to these virtues, we struggle to maintain them as we age. When was the last time you just looked up at the clouds or stared at the stars? When was the last time you admitted—to yourself—that you might not be the most knowledgeable person about any given thing? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be taught? When was the last time you admitted you were wrong?

Not counting the question about looking at the sky, none of these are “fun” things to do. As hard as the questions themselves are to stomach, it gets worse when I recognize that the answer is, to every single one of them, “it has been longer than it should have been.” We live in a society that proclaims that truth is whatever we make it. This relativism, which started in the realm of morality, has infected every area of our society. If we don’t like a truth, if it makes us feel uncomfortable, society teaches us that it is OK to decide that it is not true for us. Society tells us that this is good. Society tells us that we should be comfortable and that we should never have to experience the trauma of being wrong.

Society is wrong.

There is truth, and it is universal. If something is true, that will not change. If you jump up, you will come down. This is a truth. Just as gravity doesn’t change based on our feelings and what we want it to do, neither do the observable properties of the universe, such as the behavior of air molecules, non-living RNA and water droplets, etc. A newly conceived child is a human being made in the image and likeness of God and therefore has a right to life no matter how we feel about the circumstances in which that child was conceived. No matter what our feelings are about something, no matter what our favorite political leaders tell us, truth does not change, because truth is grounded in God, and God does not change. This has been the teaching of the Church throughout all of time, and has been reiterated over and over again, for example, in the Second Vatican Council Document Dignitatis humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person), then again in  St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth), and again by the saint in Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason). Fides et ratio specifically discusses how, as Catholics, we are not only able to, but must use our reason in conjunction with our faith, because our reason is a gift from God. The Catholic Church, despite what some people may say, has always believe that science is a good thing. Through science we learn about creation. When we learn about creation, we learn about its creator, that is, God.

After informing myself on matters like this, I know more about creation than before. I have learned more about the truth. As Catholics, we must take one further step after learning the truth: We must allow the truth to inform our actions. As a result of my study and research this week, I am wearing my mask more. This is neither a mistake, nor is it a fluke. It is intentional. This is not due to government mandating that I wear a mask; however, Christians are, in most cases, bound to follow civil authority. 1 I am wearing my mask more, because I have come to the knowledge that it is the right thing to do. After informing myself with information from sources that make it their business to know these things, doctors and physicists and chemists, I see that the evidence is fairly clear that they help. I didn’t think wearing a mask was important, but I was wrong. Masks are effective, especially when combined with social distancing, at preventing others from catching disease from me. While the research shows that a mask does not protect me, it does protect those around me, that is: the mask protects my neighbor. Is it perfect? No. But it is significantly and scientifically proven to be better than nothing.

I don’t do this (wearing a mask) because I want to: Honestly, I don’t. But what I want and what I feel… it doesn’t matter. God demands that I love my neighbor as myself, always. This is truth, and like the truth, this demand will never change. If I don’t love my neighbor, I cannot love God, because it means my love is messed up. If my love is messed up and I can’t love God, then I am not allowing the Holy Spirit to live in me. God asks us, on a regular basis, to do things we don’t want to do for the good of ourselves and the good of others. This is, in fact, the essence of Christian love: to sacrifice for the sake of my neighbor. This is something every married couple knows: “I don’t always get my way, because I love my spouse.” As a priest, I see the situation a little differently. Daily, priests pray about sacrifice and remember what Jesus did to save us. The crucifixion is simply a part of priestly spirituality. Jesus was tortured, beaten, and crucified for us. It wasn’t fun or enjoyable. I can’t imagine that he really wanted to do it (at least, on the part of his human nature). Most importantly, Jesus did not need to die for himself. He suffered and died purely because he loves us, his neighbor, so that he could eradicate and conquer the most primordial contagion known to plague humanity: sin.

Brothers and sisters, let us always seek the truth with openness and humility, like children do. Let us allow the truth to inform our actions so that we can truly love our neighbor, and in doing so, open our hearts to the life-giving Spirit of God.

Today’s Readings:
July 5, 2020
14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

Humility before God

We aren’t always as smart or clever as we think we are. Sometimes, the Lord helps us recognize this.

Homily for the Fourth Friday of Lent.

acknowledging our lowliness

Acknowledging our lowliness and humility before God is one of the most important steps in prayer.

Homily given for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Liturgical Year C.

Full homily text: https://mattsiegman.com/2019/10/acknowledging-our-lowliness/

Acknowledging our lowliness

I am so lucky that I’m the tax collector in this story. Every time I read it, I remember how humble, honest, and good-natured I am. What a relief it is to not be like the rest of humanity! like that Pharisee! Oh wait…

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. We love to compare ourselves to one another. We love to think, “I am the best.” Somewhat perversely, we also love noticing how much better others have it—or at least seem to have it. We can’t stop measuring ourselves by others around us. We look at things like a person’s wealth, fashion sense, physical beauty, possessions, or even moral sensibility, and we get it into our heads that they are better or worse than us. This is the poison of comparison. It is exemplified by the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. If we’re really honest with ourselves, I bet we can all find this in ourselves. I certainly catch myself doing it. What can we do to fight this evil that we’re drawn to?

We must take the hard medicine of humility. We must ask God to help us. We have to spend some time in prayer every day, and we must spend a part of that time asking God to help us grow in virtues, such as humility. This isn’t something we can choose to do or not to do. We must pray. We must ask God’s assistance. It is the only way to conquer the rebellious heart, caused by original sin, that lies within each of us. We must approach God in the silence of our hearts with humility, recognizing that He is God, and we are not God. We didn’t create ourselves, this universe or anything: He did. After we acknowledge this fact, then we approach him and ask him to assist us.

This might sound like a lot of extra work compared to our normal prayer. Why must I acknowledge my lowliness before God? Doesn’t he love me? Shouldn’t he answer my prayers either way? Fair questions, but I would point us all to today’s first reading. It is an incredibly hopeful reading for us, so long as we recognize who we are before God.

The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. This first sentence reminds us that God will not be fooled. He does not play favorites, but judges each of us on our own actions, not of those around us. Simply calling ourselves a part of his chosen people won’t work. Claiming to belong to his Church will not buy us Heaven if we do not live our faith through our actions, by following God’s law and actively participating in our shared mission to save the world from sin. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint. Again, God doesn’t play favorites. Even the poor will be judged on their actions when they meet God; however, those who receive poor treatment in this world do have his ear while they are here. God loves us all, and when he sees us mistreating one of his children, God takes notice.

The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. God also pays special attention to those who are in his service on this world. When we serve God willingly and share in his mission, we can be assured our prayers reach the Heavens. Remember that line in the Our Father? Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. When we serve the Lord willingly, we are implementing God’s will on Earth, and He will surely help us with that task. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay. When we serve the Lord’s mission, when we follow his will, when we recognize who we are in relation to God, we can be assured that nothing will stop our prayer from reaching Heaven. It will reach Heaven, and we are guaranteed that God will answer it. Not only will he answer it, but he will answer it with his justice, which is also his love and his mercy. He will answer it without delay, for God knows the needs of his children. He knows that we are mortals, and our days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)

The tax collector today recognizes his lowliness before God, and he knows that all he can truthfully and honestly say before God is O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. As we follow Paul’s example and follow God in this race we run towards eternal life, let us acknowledge our lowliness and ask God for his help. By following God and keeping ourselves close to Him through humble prayer, we can rest sure in knowing what Paul knew: The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.

To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Today’s Readings:
October 27, 2019
30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Humility and the Heavenly Banquet

In our Gospel today, Jesus gives what could be perceived as a lesson in social etiquette, but it is so much more than that.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Liturgical Year C, given at 9AM on September 1, 2019. 

Full homily: https://mattsiegman.com/2019/08/humility-and-the-heavenly-banquet/

Humility and the Heavenly Banquet

Audio recording of homily from 9am on September 1, 2019.

Some weekends, our Holy Mother, the Church, makes the theme tying the readings together very obvious. This is one of those weekends. So, let’s talk about humility!

In our Gospel today, Jesus gives what could be perceived as a lesson in social etiquette, but it is so much more than that. This wedding banquet of which our Lord speaks is not some abstract thing. We are all invited to this wedding banquet: Heaven. In Heaven, our souls will be united with God in a way completely unfathomable by us while we live in this world. While we remain ourselves, we will mystically be united with God in eternal bliss and happiness at this wedding banquet. The eternal wedding banquet in Heaven is that place where God brings all of us back to himself, so that we can share in our Creator’s joy.

“What does this have to do with humility?” you might ask. Jesus warns us against overestimating our place at this banquet. He wants us to know our place before the host of the wedding banquet. When we look at the bigger picture, Jesus is telling us that it is absolutely critical to know where we stand before God. If we overestimate where we stand in relation to our Lord and God, we run the truly horrifying risk of being asked to move to a different place at the table. When we look at the rest of this story in Luke—we only read about half of Luke’s account of this parable—or consider Matthew’s recounting of this same teaching, we find that there are even worse consequences if we overestimate our standing with God. If we refuse to honor this invitation to the Heavenly banquet or if we come without having attempted to prepare ourselves, we may be thrown out into the streets, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus is telling us that it is much better to underestimate ourselves in relation with God, to not take our relationship with him for granted, to always continue working on that relationship, so that when we do arrive at our eternal judgment and reward, God surprises us by moving us to a higher seat. Humility is not allowing other people to walk all over us. Humility is not saying “yes” to every request made of us. Humility is properly understanding our worth. Our worth comes from two things and only two things: the fact that we are adopted sons and daughters of our God who created us, and our relationship with God. Nothing else matters.

Jesus gives us a fascinating example to help us understand humility today. He tells us that when we hold a banquet, we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, because these people cannot repay us. At one level, Jesus is being straightforward and telling us exactly what to do here. Caring for these people is something we all must do, but Jesus never speaks on just one level. As I prayed with this passage, God revealed, perhaps, the most humbling aspect of this Gospel passage. Jesus is asking us to do exactly what God does with us. God has invited all of us to his heavenly banquet, knowing that we cannot ever repay him. We are all the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. We are poor in our faith. We are all crippled by original sin. We are lame, unable to walk without much difficulty on the path God asks us to follow. We are all blind to the spiritual reality all around us every day.

Fresco of the Heavenly Jerusalem from 1580.
Fresco of the Heavenly Jerusalem, depicting Heaven as a great banquet. Painted in 1580 at Annunciation Cathedral, Russia.

Despite all of this, God invites us to his wedding banquet. To our wedding banquet with Him. Will we accept his invitation? Will we prepare ourselves for the eternal wedding banquet by cleansing ourselves of the grime of sin and putting on the garments of faith and good works? Will we pray to God and ask him to grow our faith and hope in him so that we have the courage to walk the narrow path which leads to this great banquet? Will we take an honest look at ourselves and our relationship with God and allow him to show us those areas where we need to grow closer to him?

May we all ask God for true humility, in hopes that one day we might join him in eternal bliss at the Heavenly banquet.

Today’s Readings:
22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
September 1, 2019
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Psalm 68; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; Lk 14:1, 7-14

Sanctifying the World

Just two weeks ago, Jesus called out the Pharisees as hypocrites for testing him. Last week, the Pharisees tried again. Today, Jesus preaches against the Pharisees. “They do not practice what they teach,” Jesus says, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.” Jesus is not pulling his punches. Why is Jesus reacting so strongly to the scribes and the Pharisees?

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees
Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) by James Tissot

Jesus condemns them because their observance of the law is merely external. They preach the law, but they do not live it. They may say, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself,” 1 but they love luxury and accolades more than God and neighbor. They have made idols of their phylacteries and their fringes. They have exalted themselves, and they shall be humbled if they do not repent of their ways—either in this life or the next.

The readings here are pointed at the priestly portion of society in Israel. Each reading speaks of the necessity for the priests to care for the children of God, and strongly condemns those who tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. The message to the priests and scribes and Pharisees in these readings is clear, and it is strong: practice what you preach, or you will answer to God.

But what does this have to do with everyone else? Why does the church give us all this reading?

The purpose of the priesthood is to sanctify. In the Church, there are two fundamental types of priesthood. There is the ministerial priesthood, conferred through ordination. Its goal is to sanctify the children of God. The priest exists to serve and sanctify the baptized. There is another type of priesthood in the church, on in which each of the baptized share: the common priesthood of the faithful. Through this common priesthood, the baptized are called to sanctify the entire world.

When we understand that all of God’s baptized children are a part of the common priesthood of the faithful, the readings take on a new meaning. We must all follow the way of God. We must care for all our brothers and sisters in this world. We must humble ourselves.

Malachi warns us that if we do not do this, our blessing will become a curse. Our baptism gives us a great blessing and great graces. Baptism transforms us into children of God, and God marks us as his beloved. With this blessing, with this covenant, however, we are given a missionary responsibility. God calls us to sanctify and convert the world: to teach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world through our words and actions. If we fail to do this, the we will not only lose what we had before our baptism, but we will also lose all the gifts we were given in baptism.

This duty is serious. It is a challenge to each of us. We must allow God to take control of our lives, to reflect him in everything we do. We must all humble ourselves and become servants of our neighbor. Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived, and in today’s Gospel, he tells us that the greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Today’s Readings:
Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time / Year A
Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; Psalm 131:1, 2, 3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12