Bottom line: As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, let's remember the purpose of Lent: An exercise in holy desire by the penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Welcome to Lent. We begin this holy season by receiving ashes on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. The season of Lent lasts forty days in imitation of the time Jesus spent in the desert before inaugurating his public ministry. What is the purpose of Lent? Of course, Lent prepares us for the great celebration of Holy Week that begins with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he celebrated his Last Supper before his Passion, Death and Resurrection. But what do we do during these forty days? What is the purpose of imitating Jesus' time in the desert? St. Augustine summarized it powerfully.
"The entire life of a good Christian," he said, "is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied."
What St. Augustine is telling us is not that we have annihilate our desires. On the contrary our desires are too small. We look for fulfillment in things this world offers, but God wants us to have so much more - his very Self. During Lent we undertake some practices that intensify our desire - our longing for God. Jesus spoke about them in today's Gospel: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They are sometimes called the penitential practices.
Of these practices, prayer has first place. Quoting St. Alphonsus, the Catechism states: "Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned."* Salvation is an eternal relationship with the Triune God in the Communion of Saints. That relationship begins in this life - or it does not begin at all. To use a human comparison: If you desire friendship - that is, a relationship with another human being - you have to do things together, be in each other's presence, talk...and listen. The same applies in our friendship with God. It will not happen automatically. The most important is what you are doing now, participating in the Mass. It is the greatest prayer because it renews the sacrifice which opens heaven to us. Flowing from the Mass are other ways of praying: Eucharistic adoration, spiritual reading (the Bible or writings of ancient authors like Augustine or modern authors like Peter Kreeft and C.S. Lewis), the rosary - or even turning off the car radio and thanking God for his gifts. Prayer is the foundation of the Christian - it opens the way to eternal life.
After prayer comes fasting. This is tricky for us today. Our culture has so much guilt around food that I am afraid of adding to that guilt, making you feel bad about eating a Big Mac or a plate of linguini. We should certainly enjoy food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal. Nevertheless we also must find a place for fasting. Until about 1960, every generation of Christians fasted. It's time to return to the practice. I cannot say I am a great example, but I can help you make a start. Give up for Lent some food you particularly enjoy. Cut out eating between meals or – I am speaking to myself now – that snack before bedtime. When I do it, a voice inside of me says, “Oh no, don’t go to bed hungry.” But the times I have done it, I survived fine. At a very minimum we must follow the rules of no meat today and the seven Fridays of Lent. If you are under fourteen, talk to your parents about it; few children will suffer a negative consequence from eating tuna fish or macaroni and cheese instead of fried chicken. Fasting, giving up some favorite food or eating less, reminds us that if we are going to get to heaven we must deny immediate impulses, take up our cross and follow Jesus. The goal of fasting is not to have a sleek body one can be proud of. Some saints were quite corpulent, others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: They practiced the voluntary self-denial of fasting.
Finally, we come to almsgiving. This practice, while simple in itself, has some complications today. I honestly do not give to every person who shows up or to the people with cardboard signs at stoplights. It is not so much stinginess as a desire to be a good steward, to use resources in the best possible way to help others. For me this means supporting the parish and the archdiocese - and helping the needy in Peru. St. John Chrysostom said that after we have satisfied our own basic needs and of those we are directly responsible for, all the rest belongs to the poor: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” (Homily on Lazarus) Lent is time to look at the things I spend my money on. Do I really need that new book or could I go to the library? How about what I spend on other things? Lent is also a great time – and I am really speaking personally here – Lent is good time get rid of some of the clutter in ones room and ones life. With a bit more organization, I could better serve the needy. We do this not so that people will consider us generous. Someone who gives one dollar might in reality be more generous than any of us. On the other hand, Bill Gates gives away more in a week than all of us together will give away in a lifetime, but that does not necessarily mean he is more generous than you and I. We have to give not by human standards, but according to God's generosity. If we did, our world would not have children living in dire want.
I would like to give you something very practical to remind you of the three basics. It is a flat piece of cardboard that you can form into a small box called a “Rice Bowl.” I ask you to take one, place it on your dining table. Say the prayer on the side - and as you do some voluntary fasting, place in the box what you save. Then bring the Rice Bowl to the church on Easter Sunday. It will help you during Lent to fast, pray and give alms.
Let me conclude with Augustine's description of the cleansing necessary for the exercise of holy desire:
"This exercise will be effective only to the extent we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed."
Welcome to Lent, brother and sisters. As we receive the ashes on our foreheads, let's remember the purpose of Lent: An exercise in holy desire by the penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Amen.
*Here is the full text of paragraph 2744:
Prayer is a vital necessity. Proof from the contrary is no less convincing: if we do not allow the Spirit to lead us, we fall back into the slavery of sin. How can the Holy Spirit be our life if our heart is far from him? Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult, easy. . . . For it is impossible, utterly impossible, for the man who prays eagerly and invokes God ceaselessly ever to sin. (St. John Chrysostom) Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned. (St. Alphonsus Liguori)
From Archives (Ash Wednesday homilies):
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Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
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From Fr. Frank Pavone:
The recent revelations about Planned Parenthood’s willingness to cover up sexual exploitation build on revelations uncovered many years ago. Life Dynamics called hundreds of Planned Parenthood facilities nationwide. The caller, posing as a minor made pregnant by statutory rape, was consistently taught how to lie so that the abortion clinic would not have to report the incident.
As I always say, you can’t practice vice virtuously. Planned Parenthood carries out, justifies, defends, and even celebrates the horrifying dismemberment of children in the womb. After doing that, they are hardly going to have much of a conscience left in regard to any other kind of right and wrong. If one devalues the child in the womb, one will devalue the child outside the womb.
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