Monday, March 10, 2014

1st Sunday of Lent, Year A: Do Good, Avoid Evil

At first glance we may ask, “What good could possibly come from Jesus’ actions today? He fasted for forty days and forty nights but then he was hungry. And why must we hear about Satan tempting him? It is so unpleasant for us to imagine. But, out of his great humility, Jesus submitted himself to these things to illuminate one of the most basic aspects of human life, one with which we are all painfully aware: the temptation to sin. He doesn’t just exhort us to do good and avoid evil from an ivory tower, unfamiliar with how difficult this can be. He enters this crucible himself, to show us how to pass the test. Only if we are willing to share in his suffering with him through Lent will we be able to share in his glory through Easter.

Every year at this time, the Church instructs us to pray more, to fast on certain days, to give up meat on others, to be more charitable in our support of the Church, and so forth. But equally important is the renewed commitment to avoid sin in our lives. It is a topic we don’t like to talk much about, but we must double our efforts to conquer the temptations to sin, which now more than ever assail us from every side because our sights are set on the Cross and the salvation that it brings. The devil hates to see us with our eyes fixed on the Cross and we can be sure he too will be doubling his efforts in order to turn us away from it. Indeed his temptations are quite horrible.

Let us not despair over being tempted, tempted to eat too much food, to spend too much money, to waste too much time, to love too little; no one is alone in these, and no one is immune from them. Even Jesus the Son of God, was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Mark’s Gospel says that “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” The Holy Spirit threw him right into the middle of temptation so that he could begin, in earnest, his life’s mission and so that we could one day see The Way through and out of temptation.

In our case, God allows us to be tempted out of compassion for us, so that we might grow in faith. God learns nothing by the trials he allows us to face. He is not sitting up in heaven waiting to see the results. But we certainly learn something, of the level of our commitment, our progress in the spiritual life, where our true affections lie, the nature of our desires, and the depth of our love for God and our brothers and sisters. Every temptation poses the question, “Am I for God or against Him? Will I say ‘Yes’ to Him or ‘No’?” Every Yes exercises our faith and makes it stronger. Every single choice for God rather than ourselves steeps us deeper in virtue and his gifts and burns away our affections for sin.[1]
Even though we are constantly tempted by the devil, by other people, by unfortunate circumstances in life that are outside of ourselves, God’s will is never thwarted by these occasions. Rather, he wills that every temptation be an occasion for grace. And with every temptation God always provides the way out, but we must have the courage to take it rather than rely on ourselves or give in. And we must build ourselves up with spiritual tools so that we will be able to choose the way out. We often choose sin time and time again, unable to bear the trial, because we come to the occasion crippled by our not being spiritually prepared.

My advice to you today would be that when you are tempted to sin, no matter what it is, great or small, turn the devil on his head! You can foil the devil, just like Jesus did in the desert. After every time Satan tempted our Lord he always replied with Scripture, the Word of God. Even when Satan tried to manipulate Scripture and quote it himself, to fool Jesus, Jesus quoted it right back at him, accurately and truthfully. The devil didn’t have a chance in the face of the Truth and he was forced to leave. Any time the devil’s temptation becomes an occasion for prayer or Scripture his knees are chopped out right from under him.

In the end, it is often not really about the object of the temptation at all. It is never about infidelity, or food, or alcohol or whatever, it is about something much deeper. What we often really want is simply intimacy, intimacy with God and the ones we love. What we really want is just to give and receive love. What we really want is to belong or to be happy, especially to be happy. But sometimes it is the case that we have chosen wrongly so many times that we forget how to properly satisfy these deepest desires (which are good and true). This Satisfaction is only Our Lord, Jesus Christ who never abandons us, especially in our times of greatest need. He truly can fulfill us, infinitely better than any act of lust, overeating, or overdrinking can.

This Lent, enter the desert with our Lord bravely, yet trusting that “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you” and “With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Enter Lent bravely and courageously, because you are humble and reliant on him. Enter Lent believing that this year, with His help, we can overcome our temptations, we can do better, we can be purified. Through our prayer, acts of charity, and penances, we will sacrifice and suffer with Him so that we can, even in this life, experience a share in his victory and his glory.

[1] Cf. Scott Hahn, Understanding “Our Father: Biblical Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, p. 56, 58, 60.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday–Don’t Just Offer Something Up, Offer Something For

This morning, as we enter into the Season of Lent, Jesus sets the tone for the attitude that we should have. He says, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” meaning, do not be self-satisfied our puffed up about what you do this Lent. Profound humility is the way to enter into and proceed through the Lenten Season.

Today I am struck by the words of the final blessing that I will offer at the end of Mass; I hope that you will listen for it. It says, “Pour out your spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.” That word “compunction” isn’t a word we hear very often. It has the same root as “puncture” and so praying that God will pour out on us a spirit of compunction probably means that we are praying for our inflated egos to be punctured so that we can be purified and disciplined for ongoing conversion. Lent is the great spiritual equalizer; no matter who we are, we are all together in need of the purification that this season brings. We are all together in need of practices that subdue our passions and impulses, practices that tell our bodies to take a step down so our souls can take a step forward. St. Leo the Great said, “Appropriate fasting and almsgiving, together called works of mercy, are praiseworthy and pious actions; in times of inequality of wealth and possessions, the souls of all the faithful may be one and equal in their desire for good.”

I think this “desire for good” that St. Leo says brings us all together during Lent is what it is all about. It sounds like Jesus in our Gospel is discouraging giving alms, praying publicly, or fasting while putting on ashes. But what he is trying to discourage is doing these things with impure motives, with an intention to be recognized rather than with a desire for good. We must certainly give alms during Lent, give gifts to the poor, or to those we love – but not in order to “win the praise of others.”

We must certainly pray publicly – Lent is filled with public prayer like the Stations of the Cross which can serve to motivate others to pray. But we must not do them simply “so that others may see them.” We must certainly fast during Lent and wear ashes today as so many of you have come to do, but not simply so that we “may appear to others to be fasting.” We must do these things only out of a desire for good. That good is our own ongoing conversion and the salvation of the poor and those we love.

This desire for good helps us to see that our Lenten prayers, almsgiving, and fasting aren’t only about us. Often Lent can become a very self-centered season – but then that just serves to inflate our egos, which, we remember, need to be punctured. When you pray, when you offer something up or do acts of charity, when you fast, do these not only to advance your own salvation, but the salvation of others as well. Don’t just offer something up, offer something for.

We are the members of the mystical Body of Christ with Christ as our head. He offered the ultimate sacrifice, His own Body and Blood, for us out of a desire for good, the spiritual good of our salvation. Because we are His members we too can offer sacrifice for the spiritual good of others. And we offer sacrifices, gifts, good things, to God in Lent, not sins. For example, if you want to purify yourself of laziness, pray “Lord, I will offer up to you not laziness but five minutes each day of Scripture reading for the good of my grandmother who is sick.” Or if you want to purify yourself of lust, pray “Lord, I will offer up to you not lustful actions but reading one article each day from the Catechism for my friend who I know is struggling with this.” Or if you want to purify yourself of gossip, pray “Lord, I will offer up to you not gossip but saying one nice thing about someone each day for the salvation of my son who has left the Church.”

Don’t just offer up sins, offer gifts for those you love. The very act works for good in us too. Instead of simply not doing some sin or excess in your life, start doing the opposing virtue. Let a desire for good motivate your Lenten practices. Being the Mystical Body of Christ makes this possible and gives us hope that if we share in His sacrifice then we will one day share in His glory.