Nothing Left

There are many good and fruitful reasons for the practice of giving up something during Lent: strengthening our willpower (spiritual, mental and physical); ‘fasting’ in an attempt to follow Christ’s journey in the wilderness; offering this act of abstaining as a form of penance; and so on.  But there is one reason I rarely hear – I am giving this up, I am sacrificing, for the one I love – God.

Love, as St. Thomas Aquinas in His Summa Theologica discusses, is willing the good of another. For mankind to love like this we desire to forego ourselves for that other person; or as Ernest Hemingway puts it in A Farewell to Arms: ‘When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.[1] This pure love, that mankind strives to find and to give, is probably best shown in marriage; mutual self-sacrifice for the good of the other and of course both sacrificing for children.  But it is more than the desire of spouses and families, it is the hope of mankind in all its variations. It is a love that consumes one for the other, joyfully! Bishop Fulton Sheen describes it beautifully when he wrote: ‘Love (Charity) is to be measured, not by what one has given away, but by what one has left.[2]

In Lent we strive to come closer, by purification and reconversion to God – our truest love.  We hope to return to Him what He has given us; knowing that we could never reach that level – after all: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.[3] But we try nonetheless. We try to answer what St. Josemariá Escrivá asked most succinctly: ‘Christ died for you.  You…. what should you do for Christ[4].

So, when I hear people discuss what they are giving up for Lent I wonder if this reason, this act of love, is part of their sacrifice? In reflecting on the reasons why we give up something I have, over the years, heard a few rationales that has caused me stop and take note. But first, these observations are not to disparage the people who have followed these types of sacrifices; that they have attempted a sacrifice places them in the beautiful minority of Catholics who try – studies show most don’t try.

I have heard people say that they are giving up something that is sinful. I ask myself how is giving up something that is not only bad for the individual but for everyone sacrificing oneself for a loved one?  After all, sin does damage to the sinner and weakens and sickens the whole body of Christ; so giving up a sin isn’t a sacrifice it is a healing. To put it in other words: we shouldn’t be sinning anyway.

Others say that they are giving something up that (though not sinful) isn’t good for them. It might be something important to give up but if you know it is bad for you and you shouldn’t have it or do it – how is that in the spirit of love? It isn’t really sacrificing only for the good of the other – it is done primarily to help yourself – there are strings attached.

Some people have told me that they give up the same thing every year – which in and of itself doesn’t mean an act of love is missing; but it runs the risk of losing that act. What was a sacrifice in year one and two can become after that just a minor inconvenience and maybe even something to look forward to. There is even the chance of being pleased with yourself that you can handle it with no problem.  If that happens there is no true sacrifice for another. It becomes a spiritual version the old child’s game of seeing how long you can hold your breath.

No, for me, these decisions for giving something up for Lent don’t really have love of God in their reasoning; or run the risk of losing it.  Over the years I am finding that giving up something for Lent needs to be a privation of something in our daily lives, something that we would miss, and something that is hard to do. But most importantly our sacrifice for love of God needs to be felt and understood as a sacrifice for love of God. Christ did just that; He gave up His daily activities for love of you and me.  Though He did this by giving up His life, we can return His love by small sufferings of foregoing some normal routine, event or item; all the while offering them for love of Him.

Brothers and sisters, as we go forward not only on our Lenten experience but our journey towards God; let’s strip away the fear that blinds us and the pride that stops us from true and loving sacrifices. Let’s ask Jesus for the strength to offer sacrifices for love of Him.  Let’s give up parts of our lives for love of His life; so that, when our time comes and our love is measured there is nothing left.

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[1] Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
[2] Bishop Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ
[3] John 3:16 (RSV)
[4] St. Josemariá Escrivá, The Way #299

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‘Grey’ isn’t the Only Color

This weekend I saw a headline that said Fifty Shades of Grey overtook the Passion of the Christ as the best opening day for a February release for an R rated movie; talk about slicing the statistics.  I can’t help but feel this was just to show that the baseness of people is more popular than the goodness of mankind.

The media is constantly trying to marginalize faith.  When the Passion of the Christ came out they slimed it in hope of destroying its popularity. When ‘The Nativity Story’ came out the media focused on pregnancy of the 17 year old actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who played Mary; with undertones of pointing out self-righteous hypocrisy. But both movies defied the attempts of the ruling entertainment elite and were huge successes – even in their calculations.

What those in positions of power don’t understand is that as much as they think and pander to the debasement of mankind, thinking that these give mankind freedom (and also money their pockets); Catholics and other faiths don’t look at the ‘falleness’ of mankind and accept that level, we look to the elevated mankind, to mankind’s ultimate attainment and strive to help everyone climb to that destiny. Cardinal Ratzinger in a reflection on the Feast of the Ascension said: ‘We do not understand man when we ask only where he comes from.  We understand him only when we also ask where he can go.[1]

Brothers and sisters, in our society where gray is the desired color because it blurs true definition of vision – we are the ones who are called to bring the color to the human journey.  In our society where the overwhelming point of view is downward, or level at best – we are the ones who are called to lift mankind’s eyes to the heights.  Why? Because unlike other definitions of love we have the one that lifts the human spirit to the altitude that true love can attain – the freedom of God Himself.

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[1] Essay – Beginning of a New Nearness – The Ascension from Images of Hope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) 1976

The Center

The Center[1]

In the 1st Letter of Timothy we are told that God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth[2]. It is the desire of Jesus that we all come to be one with Him and the Father as we hear Him pray in the Gospel of St. John: ‘that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.[3] Our life was radically changed when we were baptized into His Mystical Body; and our life is, or should be, directed towards growing our relationship with Jesus, being closer to our Savior.

But to grow our relationship it is foundational that we get to know Jesus, understand Him better – know what makes Him tick, so to speak.  Scripture tells us much about Jesus and today’s Gospel reading highlights what is the center of His life – constant communication with His Father.  We hear it today, Christ who was busy healing and proclaiming made time to pray. ‘Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.[4] Again in Matthew: ‘And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.[5] His communication with the Father was done not only in private but also out loud in public – from Matthew: ‘At that time Jesus declared, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes;”[6] He even died praying: ‘“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”[7] In fact, His final words were communication with the Father: ‘Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.[8]  His whole passion and death was a prayer.  All in all there are around 30 New Testament passages that show us Jesus’ communication with the Father. It is very clear that the center of Christ’s life is constant communication with His Father; so much so, that theologians have posited that of all the names and titles given Jesus throughout two millennia – one stands out: ‘Son’[of God][9].

For us to come to a deeper understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ we need to enter into what is most central about Him – His prayer life.  This makes sense since humans are experiential; we come to better and deeper understanding of things by participation – book learning alone doesn’t do it.  In relationships we come to better understandings, and indeed love grows, as we participate in what is important with the other; so it is with our relationship with Jesus.

This participation in the central life of Jesus does more than deepen our relationship with Him; it opens ourselves up to our true self. To enter into this centrality of Jesus, to participate in His constant communication with the Father brings us into the unity of human and divine – it allows us to live within the Trinity – where we realize true liberation and freedom.

But it does even more; it brings us not only within Himself but it brings us to each other. We become part of a family of like-desiring people. As the reception of the Eucharist does par excellence; our prayers do as well – where two are within Christ they are with each other.

Brother and sisters, we have been given a chance to participate in the center of Jesus Christ’s life; we need to strengthen this part of our life. We need to give prayer the priority it deserves, the priority that Jesus gave it.  It is not like we are ignorant of what it means to pray; Jesus taught us to pray[10]. Prayer is all around us; He allows us to participate in His final prayer within the sacrifice of the Mass and He is with us in the Eucharist.  Our part is to take these gifts and dive headlong with each other into this participation – and together come to the heart of God.

                                                                                                                                                         

[1] Inspired by an address by Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) to a CELAM Congress on Christology in September 1982 ( found in the book ‘Behold The Pierced One’ 1986 Ignatius Press)
[2] 1 Tim 2:4 (RSV)
[3] Jn 17:21 (RSV)
[4] Mk 29:35 (RSV)
[5] Mt 14:23 (RSV)
[6] Mt 11:25 (RSV)
[7] Lk 23:34 (RSV)
[8] Lk 23:46 (RSV)
[9] ‘’Son’[of God] is a basic confession in the sense that it provides the key to interpretation, making everything else accessible and intelligible’ – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: ‘Taking Bearings in Christology’ – see footnote 1
[10] Mt 6:9 (RSV)

Light

Last weekend, while talking with some Catholics it was mentioned that Monday was the Feast of the Presentation.  In response, another in the group said that it was also called Candlemas. The first person asked why and was told because it was when we blessed candles used for the Feast of St. Blasé!  I was dumbfounded; I shouldn’t have been, but I was.  What ran through my mind was ‘this is why it is so important for Catholics to understand the liturgical calendar’ we need to know our faith and the traditions that help us live it.

Candlemas is a celebration that reminds us that Christ is the Light of World. That though darkness may be all around us we don’t despair because Christ is with us lighting our path and driving the darkness away from us.  Simeon understood this well when he saw Christ being presented at the temple.  His words of praise, called the Nunc Dimittis (Canticle of Simeon), have echoed throughout the milennia.

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
Your word has been fulfilled:
My own eyes have seen the salvation
Which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal you to the nations
And the glory of your people Israel.

For those of us who pray Compline from the Liturgy of the Hours; his words we make our own every night.  We acknowledge Christ, the light; we praise God for His light; we celebrate that we have seen it.

But there is more and the celebration of Candlemas gives weight to it. The candles that we bless during Candlemas are also lit and carried by us during the service and remind us that by our witness we help spread His light.  They are a call to holiness.  That these candles can also be used the next day on the Memorial of St. Blasé is just another example of the beauty of living the liturgical calendar.