Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 4

(Homily for Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Message: We see today that the prophet Samuel and Jesus himself used anointing to communicate God's power. Physical elements, like the cross or an icon, can assist powerfully in prayer.

In today's Old Testament reading Samuel anoints David with oil. Over the young man's head, the prophet pours a horn of oil - and the spirit of the Lord rushes upon David. The Gospel shows Jesus using his saliva and clay to make a rough and ready ointment. He anoints a blind man and when the man washes, he suddenly sees.

The two anointings point to an important aspect of prayer: the use of material elements. You and I have bodies as well as souls. For that reason, to communicate God's life in the sacraments, we use visible, material substances: water and oil, bread and wine, man and woman.* The Church also has sacramentals - physical objects related to the sacraments: holy water, candles, statues, medals, holy cards, scapulars and so on.

All sacramentals can help us pray, but I would like recommend two. First, the crucifix. When St. Francis prayed alone, he often held a crucifix in his hand. For your prayer I encourage you to have a crucifix - or at least a cross - in the room. On Good Friday we say, "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world." The cross has everything we need: humility, patience, perseverance, forgiveness, healing.

St. Paul reminds the Galatians that, before their very eyes, he portrayed Christ crucified. (3:1) Paul, by the way, does not say that Christ died so that we could live. No, he died so that we could die. Die with Christ, die to sin, die to old life so we can rise to a new life in Christ. The cross constantly calls us to die to self and live for God.

And the cross is not gloomy. St. Francis meditated night and day on the cross, but by all accounts, he was the most joyful man who walked our planet - apart from Jesus of course and his mother who stood by her son's cross. So in your prayer space, have a crucifix - and consider taking the cross into your hand and kiss it - even the small cross on your rosary. The cross can focus our prayer.

Besides the cross I would like to recommend a second physical object: an icon or sacred image. Among the Orthodox, the person who makes an icon is more than an artist. In making an icon he spends time in prayer and fasting. The icon, for many devout Christians, not only represents the saint, but in some way carries his presence.

I have experienced this sense of present in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. As I approached, the face and eyes seemed to look with compassion. "Juanito, Juan Diegito, you are the littlest of my sons." Her glance communicated something similar to me. A holy image, an icon of Mary or Jesus or one of the saints can have great power and can help wonderfully in prayer.

I could say more about the use of material elements in prayer - and even about how care for our physical bodies (exercise, diet, rest) can affect our prayer. But I will leave it to this: Consider having a crucifix and a sacred image in your prayer space. And don't be afraid to have them also in your secular space - your car, your workplace or on a chain around your neck.

We see today that the prophet Samuel and Jesus himself used anointing to communicate God's power. Physical elements, like the cross or an icon, can assist powerfully in prayer. I encourage you to have them in your prayer space. Next week I will address how you can pray outside that space. For this Sunday I conclude with some lines from the Second Scrutiny. In this Lenten exorcism we pray:

Free these elect
from the false values that surround and blind them.

Let them rejoice in your light, that they may see,
and, like the man born blind whose sight you restored,
let them prove to be staunch and fearless witnesses to the faith,
for you are Lord for ever and ever. Amen


*First Things has a forum titled THE CHURCH AND CIVIL MARRIAGE (Eight scholars and writers discuss whether religious institutions should get out of the marriage business). One of the authors notes:

Today marriage in America is being destroyed by a movement that seeks to fundamentally deconstruct its meaning and purpose. And it is happening fast. Given this reality, George Weigel has argued that it is time for the Church to take a dramatic step: withdraw from performing civil marriages.

If the Church were to take this step now, it would be acting prophetically: It would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by �marriage� and what Catholics mean by �marriage� are radically different, and that what the state means by �marriage� is wrong.

Personally, I need to think more about this. I would welcome the thoughts of others.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Year A Homilies for Fourth Sunday of Lent):

Best Lent Ever Week 4: Become a Continuous Learner (2017)
Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 4 (2014)
Sight (2011)
Small Gesture with Enormous Promise (2008)
Seeing and Knowing (2005)
Men Who Went Blind (2002)
Fatal Blindness (1999)

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