Prayer, Fasting, and Alms-giving lead to Joy!

During Lent, we intensify our efforts to grow closer to God. We fast, pray and give alms, just as Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel. These are things we must do. Humanity has turned away from God. We all have sinned and turned from God—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Psalm 51 speaks to all of these types of sin. It uses three different Hebrew words: פשׁע (pesha), חטאה (chatta’ah), עוון (‘ă·wōn). Each of these expresses a different type of sin. I wasn’t able to find my notes from 4 years ago, but if I remember correctly: עוון refers to a general condition of sin within humanity, חטאה refers to sin committed unintentionally—sort of a side effect of human nature, and פשׁע refers to sin committed intentionally. (I’m fairly sure the words and the definitions are right, and I’m pretty sure that’s how they line up, but I’m not 100% sure!) These are all different ways we get turned around and separated from God. We need help turning back to God. The prophet Joel tells us all—the children, the elderly, those literally just married, even infants—to cry out, “Spare, O Lord, your people!” If the Lord does not forget the cry of the poor, neither will he forget the cry of his children who, poor in spirit, turn back to him.

Jesus today tells us how to make that turn back to him prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. And he tells us how to do each of these things. We are supposed to do all of these things in private, so that others cannot see them. In fact, Jesus takes it one step further: when we fast, we are supposed to anoint our head, wash our face, and no appear to be fasting. It’s as if he wants us to undertake these penances joyfully.

It may seem odd, but there is, actually, a logic to it. Let me explain. Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving clear space out of hearts, getting rid of all the cruft that has been building up: attachments to material things, over-concern about our bodies (see Matthew 6:25-34), or things we have allowed to take God’s place. We clear out all those things that get in between us and God. When we empty out that space, though, we need to fill it up with something. If we fill it up with the praise and adulation of those around us, what good would any penance do? What good would all this work do? We’d be no better off than the hypocrites Jesus talks about in the Gospel today. Instead, we do these things in secret, and offer them to God, so that He can fill up our heart. In addition to the great practice of giving things up, we should add additional time for prayer and the Sacraments during Lent, so that we are filling that space we spent all that energy to clear with God. God is the source of all our joy, and if we are full of him, how can we help but be joyful? Fasting, prayer, alms-giving—these things are not easy, but they clean out our hearts and open them to God, they give us more room for God to work in our lives: of course we’ll be more joyful, because God lives within us!

This is, in fact, what we must do to fulfill what God has asked us to do. Paul, in the second reading, reminds us that we are to be ambassadors for Christ. We must allow God to appeal to others through us. We must be lights, shining brightly with God’s love and his joy and his mercy. What better way is there to do that then to clear out all the junk from our hearts and let God fill it?

Now is an acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. This Lent, let’s do something a bit hard, to truly open up our hearts to God. The collect today was so excellent, it said “Grant, O Lord, that 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.” (Emphasis is mine.) This is our campaign of Christian service, by which Christ sends us to do battle with evil. We pray, fast, and give alms, so we get everything between us and God out of the way and go forth as joyful witnesses and ambassadors for God.

Today’s Readings
February 26, 2020
Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 & 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

The Only News That Really Matters

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” The Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass asks us to rejoice. If you ever wondered why we call this Gaudete Sunday, it comes from the Latin version of this verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico gaudete. […] Dominus prope est.” The Church, during this time of preparation for the Nativity of our Lord, feels it necessary to remind us to rejoice in the Lord. Our reading from Isaiah speaks of the joy that we will experience when we the Lord comes to us: the earth itself will be unable to contain its joy, with even deserts exulting and blooming with flowers.

To me, this little breakout of rejoicing and joy seems like a perfectly human thing to do. When I am preparing for some really amazing event, at some point everything just fades out, and I have to simply sit back and delight in the joyful anticipation of the event. I must admit, I am feeling this way about Christmas right now. I’ve been very conscious of my preparations for Christmas this year, and at this point, that’s all fading away, and I’m just excited for Christmas. When I was praying about the readings this Sunday, I kept thinking about a movie I recently saw… Ford vs. Ferrari. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a really good movie. A little bit of language, but nothing really objectionable. I wish more movies were like it.) You may be thinking, “what in the world does a movie about Ford beating Ferrari at Le Mans have to do with Gaudete Sunday?” Well, that’s 100% fair, but I kept thinking about the voice-over at the beginning of the movie, where Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, says, “There’s a point, seven thousand RPM, where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless, it just disappears. And all that’s left is a body moving through space and time. Seven thousand RPM, that’s where you meet it. It creeps up near you, and it asks you a question. The only question that really matters. Who are you?”

Seven thousand RPM aside, there is a deep and profound point here. The question at the end, “who are you?,” is a critically important question, but there is even more than that here. When we have focused on something long enough, when we have prepared for it with everything we have, and when we finally find ourselves right in the middle of it: everything else really does fade away. We are left with just two things: ourselves and whatever it is we’re getting ready for. In Advent, we prepare to make present again the memory of our Lord, Jesus Christ, being born in Bethlehem all those years ago. We try to let all of the hustle and bustle of the world, all of the parties, all of the distractions fade into the background as we focus on just that one even: the sudden and completely undeserved appearance of Jesus Christ on this earth, in our hearts, in our lives. It is a moment of profound joy. Elizabeth, at Mary’s visitation, asked, “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” We, ourselves, can pose a similar question as we move closer to Christmas: “why has this happened to me, that my Lord comes to me?”

The simple answer: God loves us too much to leave us. Our love is fickle and fades, but his never does. So, he came to us to save us. In case we wouldn’t take him at his word that he was who he claimed to be and had the power he claimed to have, he worked miracles and incredible signs, so that we might know he was the Messiah foretold by the prophets. John the Baptist had dedicated his whole life to preparing for the Lord. There was no more credible witness than John the Baptist that Jesus was the Messiah foretold from the very beginning, the offspring of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent.

There’s a point, the Third Sunday of Advent, where everything fades. The things of this world become weightless, they just disappear. And all that’s left is that pure and joyful expectation. Third Sunday of Advent, that’s when you meet it. That joy, it creeps up near you, and tells you Good News. The only news that really matters: Rejoice! The Lord is near!

Today’s Readings:
December 15, 2019 (published December 27, 2019 at 11:40am)
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Reflection for the Fourth Wednesday of Easter

Fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands always seem to indicate someone was about to be sent on a mission. The Church in Antioch participated in fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands for Saul and Barnabas prior to their mission to Cyprus. Their mission? To share the light of Christ with the world.

I realized recently that there are several sacraments where hands are lain upon a person. The link between ordination and mission is fairly easy to see, and is very similar to the mission of Saul and Barnabas: spread the light of Christ and minister to the People of God. Confirmation, likewise, has a laying on of hands when the forehead is anointed with Chrism. (CCC 1300) The link in confirmation to mission is, similarly, not difficult to see: Confirmation seals a person with the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and spread the Good News, even through trials and difficulties.

The third sacrament with the laying on of hands, however, is a bit more of a mystery in its mission. During the anointing of the sick, the priest lays hands upon the receiver of the sacrament. Anointing of the Sick is no longer reserved to those in immediate danger of death, so what does this gesture mean?

I think that there are two possible ways to understand this symbol of the laying on of hands. The first is that the laying on of hands reminds the Christian of his or her mission that was given in Baptism, was strengthened in Confirmation, and was renewed with each reception of the Holy Eucharist: to spread the Good News and to be a light shining out to the world. I think, though, that this is just a part of it. Saint Pope John Paul II taught the Church many things through his writings and his example. One of these things was the value in suffering.

Suffering is a paradox. We cannot understand, and it will never truly make sense to us. We can grasp at why we suffer, as Saint Pope John Paul II did beautifully in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris: On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. (Vatican Amazon) When we suffer in a Christian way, we can inspire others to turn towards God—in a way we can be missionaries in our suffering. Furthermore, suffering inspires compassion within others, which is another their soul may be moved toward God.

The laying on of hands during the anointing, then, would remind us of our Christian mission in general, and aid us in taking on a special mission of evangelization through our suffering. The laying on of hands also has an ancient connection with fervent intercessory prayer, which St. James calls for when ministering to the sick. (James 5:14-15)

When a person is dying, I think that the laying on of hands during anointing takes on yet another meaning. When a person in the twilight of their life, and is close to death, that person is preparing for the journey to eternal life. He or she is preparing to embark on a new mission, a mission no longer bound to the chains of an earthly body. When hands are lain on a person nearing death, it is commissioning him or her on a new stage in the human journey: the journey home, the journey to Heaven. It is possible for this final journey to end up in different place, to Hell, but this is why Catholics have the combination of prayers and sacraments that used to be called “Last Rites.” (I will write a full article about Last Rites in the near future—this post is already long!)

Today, let us remember the mission that God has given to us. Let us go bravely into the world which is becoming increasingly hostile to religion, especially when religion that stands up to it, and show everyone that it is a joy to be Christian, and by our joy, let us spread the light of Christ.

Today’s Readings: Acts 12:24-13:5a; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6 and 8; Jn 12:44-50

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