Prayer and Choice

Today, Jesus enters into Jerusalem a Hero, at least to those who are following Him. Of course not everyone is happy to see Him: the Sanhedrin is not happy; the Romans are nervous; of the citizens of Jerusalem, many of them are not pleased.  But His followers, those who profess Him as their Messiah are exuberant.  These followers choose to be with Him. They see in Him a winner, one who gives them the hopes they are desiring. But, in a few short days that exuberation will dissolve; they will flee from being followers; they will walk away from their choice and melt back into the people of Judah.

Brothers and sisters, we too have professed Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; we have chosen to be followers and we are exuberant.  We have, with special intensity, walked with Christ during this Lenten season and hopefully we have reached Holy Week stronger disciples.  Unlike almost 2,000 years ago where His followers fled on Holy Thursday I am confident that our intensity in our devotion to Christ will grow throughout the Triduum.  Our test will come after Easter. Will the fruits of our Lenten exercise remain with us once Easter is celebrated? Will our desire for a renewed closeness with Christ continue? Will we continue to choose Christ as our example and model for living our lives?

These are very important questions to ask ourselves. They are not questions brought about by fear of failure in as much as they are questions of love. God, who is Love, has given us freewill to choose Him or not; and Satan knows this all too well.  As members of God’s family, out of our love for them, we need to concern ourselves with our ability to live up to our familial responsibilities and to defend ourselves from the attacks of our powerful enemy. We should ask ourselves every day, if not more frequently, about our choice.  To not do so is putting ourselves in danger of drifting away from Jesus Christ; in effect turning our backs from our loving family.

This is made all the more imperative because the demands that society seemingly forces upon us makes living within our family very difficult. At times we can spend the extra effort and time to push society and Satan away, and Lent is a very good season to do this, but to do so continually is a very hard undertaking. How can we hope to live in the family of God when these pressures from Satan and society implant within us doubts about our capabilities?

A few years ago I spent five days at a Cistercian Monastery near Dubuque Iowa. At one point I was talking with the retreat house master about their life in the order.  During the conversation he said that He and His brothers choose with their feet every day; they could just up and leave whenever they felt like it. But he said – the intimacy of prayer was a great strength, beyond imagination.

As we transition from our Lenten journey and enter the great events of the Sacred Triduum and onward I urge us all to dive deeply into our prayer life and allow God to open our hearts to His wisdom and most importantly His Love. Let’s follow the words of that wise Cistercian brother and take advantage of prayer – this great strength that is beyond imagination.  It is the surest way to keep our choice of Christ ever first in our hearts like we are in His.

 

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Clearly

Brothers and sisters, we have made it to the threshold of the great events of our salvation. We have followed Christ throughout His and our Lenten journey. This is very important; Christ was the first to experience a Lenten Journey. Remember back to the first week of Lent when we heard proclaimed Christ being driven into the desert where He fasted and prayed and dealt with the devil. But His Lenten journey didn’t end as He left the desert; it continued until Calvary. His life among us was a Lenten journey and everything that Holy Mother Church teaches us about participating in Lent is the fruit of what Christ did first.

  • His Lenten journey was one of continual prayer, fasting and alms-giving in the form of miracles. Ours has, or should have had, the same emphasis: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
  • Christ’s movement was towards Jerusalem and His great act of love – His Pasch. Our movement is to embrace His Pasch and help others do the same.
  • Christ’s Lent was done in humble obedience to His Father. Our Lent should be exactly the same.
  • Christ’s Lenten journey was a great witness to His Father and so should be ours.

The difference between our journey and Christ’s is that He was one with His Father and our Lenten journey helps us to grow closer to our heavenly Father – to discern better His will and to strengthen our ability to live the life that He desires. In short, we have been trying to see God clearer.

Each week during this season we have journeyed with Christ as He moves decisively towards Jerusalem. We have been witness to His revelation of His Father’s plan and His part in it.  Hopefully, we have embraced His words and, step by step, come to understand them as they relate to each of us.

And so we come to today, this 5th Sunday of Lent, where we are turning the corner towards Holy Week (next week is Palm Sunday when Christ arrives in Jerusalem). At this point in His journey He has a large following traveling with Him and He can feel the expectations of this throng – which includes us.

Today’s Gospel places us in this journey and it gives us what seems to be an odd exchange. It starts with a simple request: ‘Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”[1] But Christ’s answer seems strange, disconnected: ‘“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.[2]

Though His answer seems strange it cuts right to the heart of who He is, and our deepest needs.  The Greeks want to see the man Jesus, they are in awe of this Galilean because of the spectacle that He has been for the past three years or so. Jesus Christ knows this – he has been dealing with groupies since His baptism.  He knows that they are missing, what the French would say is His ‘raison d’être’ His reason for existing – but hopefully they won’t much longer.  In less than two weeks He is going to offer Himself for them; He is going to suffer and die for them; He will pay their ransom. He will be the grain of wheat and fall to the ground by being placed into a tomb, and by doing so He will produce the fruit of salvation.

This is the Jesus these Greeks truly desire in their heart; not the miracle worker; not the charismatic anti-establishment hero. It is the Jesus we desire to see as well; the Jesus that loves us more than anyone, even ourselves. But both the Greeks and we have to come to that awareness; and to be able to do that we have move past our self-centeredness; we have to open ourselves to God.

Our entire Lenten exercise has been to come closer to Jesus, to clear the lens of our heart so that we can see Him clearer, understand Him better.  Like the Greeks we can easily fall into the trap of seeing the Jesus we want to see. We need to allow the real Jesus to penetrate our hearts – and Lent is the time we set aside to do this with special intensity.

Brothers and sisters, in less than two weeks Christ will give each of us a chance to easily see Him. He is going to climb high on the cross to give us that view. Are we ready to understand what we will see? Has our Lenten exercise cleaned our heart’s lens so that we see Him as He truly is?  It is not too late to make sure our view is clear.  It is not too late to move further away from our self-centeredness. We just need to start and all that takes is for us to turn to God and from the depths of our heart humbly cry out ‘Father, I have sinned against you[3] and ask for forgiveness.

Why not start now?  In a few short minutes Calvary will be here before us.  We will watch as Christ offers Himself for each us on this altar – we will participate in Calvary. I urge each of us, when Father Holds up the Body and then Blood of Christ and the bells ring – in the silence of our hearts lets cry to God ‘Father, I have sinned against you[4] All of us need to say these words; some of us hold within mortal sins which require the Sacrament of Reconciliation (ask our priests, they will help). While all of us hold within us shortcomings such as venial sins and doubts.  These words are important for everyone; they are the key to our Lenten journey – without this disposition our view remains clouded.

Let’s do this – all of us – so that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, when Holy Week comes we are not the among those in the Gospel who only heard thunder, nor even the ones who thought they heard angels – but people who clearly hear and see our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

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[1] Jn 12:20-21
[2] Jn 12:23-24
[3] Lk 15:18
[4] ibid

Holy Remorse

Lent is reaching its half-way point – this Thursday we are there.  This season is where Holy Mother Church, and that includes us, looks with a particular intensity within to reach a conversion of heart.  Where each of us, in our own way, turns back towards God and rushes towards Him as the prodigal son does in the parable. And as the prodigal son did in the parable we too must start this return with same remorseful admission ‘Father, I have sinned against you[1]  If we complete our journey this Lenten season without these words then we are run the real risk of failing in our efforts.

St. John Paul the Great wrote in 1980:‘If it is true that sin in a certain sense shuts man off from God, it is likewise true remorse for sins opens up all the greatness and majesty of God, his fatherhood above all, to man’s conscience.  Man remains shut to God so long as the words ‘Father, I have sinned against you,’ are absent from his lips, above all while they are absent from his conscience, from his ‘heart’’[2]

In this writing he talks about the power of these words ‘Father, I have sinned against you’ and how when spoken from our heart we can ‘truly enter the Mystery and Resurrection of Christ, so as to obtain the fruits of Redemption and Grace from them[3]

This is a most important realization for each of us at this half-way point; it is not by our actions, nor by our words, that we fully reap the gifts of Lent – it is by our heart.  We were told this back on Ash Wednesday: ‘“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”[4]

Ultimately, our hope is that by our Lenten practices we can enter into the love of God more fully; that we can invigorate and strengthen our relationship with Love Himself; but our fear is that God will not reciprocate – it is a needless fear.  Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our garments; he also tells us ‘Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.[5]  God will never reject our heartfelt contrition, He is always there waiting for us. Christ tells us as much in today’s gospel ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[6]; which He proves this with His life.

Brothers and sisters as we now turn towards Holy Week let’s be guided by the light shining from the resurrection, the light of true love; and hunger for it, desire it above all else.  Let’s strip away the self-built barricades of our sinful and prideful ego and shout from the depths of our hearts ‘Father, I have sinned against you’ and rend our hearts in remorse for failing to return God’s love for us; so that when we come to those days where we walk with the Lord in His passion we can obtain the fruits of Redemption and Grace that St. John Paul the Great wrote about.

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[1] Lk 15:18
[2] St. John Paul the Great 3/16/80 taken from: Prayers and Devotions 365 Daily Meditations p124
[3] ibid
[4] Jl 2:12-13a
[5] Jl 2:13b
[6] Jn 3:16-17

A Lenten Life

Two weeks ago we talked about how love for God should be the basis for all our Lenten actions. Last week we talked about how our Lenten journey should also include a community aspect – a sharing of our Lenten journey with others and sharing theirs as well. This evening I want to touch on a third aspect of Lent that isn’t reflected on much.

Lent should be viewed more as an intensity than a period of time because our lives should always be Lenten.

Most people who actually take the time to participate in Lent seem to think that their participation starts on Ash Wednesday and ends at the Easter Vigil.  But this misses the point that what we do in Lent should be what we do all year long – just at an elevated state.  Our journey towards our heavenly reward isn’t episodic; where we do things and then not do things, where we turn on some virtue and then turn it off.  Our journey is a constant progression that, if done well, continues to build on itself.  The Lenten Season’s emphasis on internal reflection and conversion of heart by use of prayer, alms-giving and fasting is the path to a better understanding of truth and a closer and more meaningful relationship with Christ and each other.  It is the path of a disciple’s life. It is the path that Christ showed us with His whole life. It is the path that He commanded us to live when He said: ‘And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.[1] He tells us, Lent should be a constant in our life for everyone who loves Him.

We started Lent with Christ’s temptations in the desert.  It is easy to see a Lenten aspect to this; He fasts, He sacrifices and He prays. However, He does this throughout His ministry, His life revolves around sacrifice, charity and prayer. St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians confirms for us that by becoming man Christ reveals His desire for a Lenten life. His incarnation was a great self-sacrifice; a giving up of something: ‘Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’[2]

His journey through Judah and Samaria proclaim loudly a Lenten life with His continual doing without for the people, His healing of the needy; His continual prayer to His Father.  All of this is done to live what He told the Pharisee lawyer: ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’[3]

Jesus shows us that a life lived fully in God’s embrace is one of self-surrender, one of charity, one of solidarity with others, one of peace and joy – a Lenten life. That a Lenten life entails struggles is a given; but the struggles that come with this life are the struggles against our fallen nature and Satan’s constant interference and they are struggles that can be overcome as Jesus shows in the desert, in villages, on the water and upon the cross.

For us to respond in kind we need to train ourselves to constantly offer back to God, as best we can, the gift of His love.  We need empty ourselves of our selfish attitudes and be filled with the unity that the Holy Spirit brings; we need strengthen our ability to live a life of prayer. We need to live a life of Lent. We need strengthen our ability to live a life of prayer.  The season of Lent is a time to reenergize this life, to intensify our efforts to live this life.  Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote in 1977: ‘We must awaken our consciences. We must give fresh vigor to our sense of duty and to our desire to respond, in a practical way, to the demands of a genuine Christian life.[4]

As we enter the second half of our Lenten journey let’s pray for the grace to fully appreciate this overlooked aspect of Lent. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit for the wisdom to understand and appreciate that a life lived for God is a Lenten Life.  Let’s ask for the strength to follow Jesus’ life and make our own the obligations and responsibilities of a life lived this way.  Let’s make the most of this Lenten intensity and by doing so come closer Christ who showed us the way and awaits us at home.

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[1] Luke 9:23 (RSV)
[2] Philippians 2:5b-8 (RSV)
[3] Matthew 22: 37b-39 (RSV)
[4] Blessed Pope Paul VI, Lenten Message 1977

Lenten Community

Last week we reflected on the first of three aspects of Lent that I find are not prominent in our current Catholic Culture; tonight, we delve into the second.

Lent is a season that should be the hinge for the liturgical year. Christmas and Easter are the premier seasons of the Liturgical because they celebrate our reason for hope, peace, and joy.  They are the book-ends of God’s revelation and our salvation. But Lent – Lent is when we look within and measure our ability to fully embrace Christmas and Easter.  Lent is when we take inventory of our shortcomings in loving God and take efforts in strengthening ourselves to improve our relationship.  The readings we hear during Sunday Vespers during Lent highlights the kind of effort we should be making – it is spiritually athletic and much energy is needed.

To help us with this, the Gospel readings for the first Sunday in Lent brings us face to face with Christ in the desert.  This reading shows two very important aspects of a Lent: one rather obvious, the other mostly overlooked. In this reading we see that Christ starts His ministry by participating in Lenten exercises.  Christ walks before us in Lent; His fasting and prayer are lessons for us. He is the example, the guide that we need.  But what goes almost unnoticed (in regards to Lent) is that at the end of this event Christ returns to His community – the reason He went into the desert was ultimately for His community – Lent is a community exercise as well as private.

Let’s take a look at another Lenten Gospel reading, the Ash Wednesday Gospel – first Gospel of Lent:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[1]

We hear Christ teaching us the importance of a private and personal relationship with the Lord.  How important it is to not just go through the motions of public demonstration but to embrace totally God’s desire to be with us, lead us, love us, and affect us profoundly.  But what is also important is that Christ is explaining this to His followers. He is helping His community; He participates with them so that they can grow and continue to walk with Him. This important part of the Lenten experience was commented on by Pope Paul VI, in his 1973 Lenten message, indeed he starts the message with it: ‘Lent is a time of self-denial and penance; but it is also a time of fellowship and solidarity.[2]

Brothers and sisters, we are called to interior conversion so that we can grow closer to God.  What better time to start this than in Lent, when we pay special attention to the threefold Lenten exercise plan of prayer, alms giving, and fasting.  But what we can’t ignore is that this interior exercise is not done in isolation – we are community.  By community I mean we are a family journeying this exercise together, we can and should help each other, give strength to each other as a physical trainer does for his client.  We have the need and obligation to participate as a family in these exercises so that all of us will grow in both giving and receiving help.

The obvious part about this community experience is that we need to give of ourselves to those in physical and material need.  We are called to humble ourselves, lower ourselves to help raise those who are the most vulnerable and needy.  But, as important are those who are on the journey and can’t find the path; those, who though aren’t in physical and material danger, are floundering in their spiritual growth.  In short we need to bring, and re-bring them the good news – WE NEED TO EVANGELIZE! Christ tells us to go into our inner room to pray but He also tells us: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”’[3]

By a participation in public Lenten events we make a statement to those who are wavering and about to give up.  By open discussion about our Lenten journey we bond with those who are also trying. In other words; we minister to each other in our Lenten exercise of intense prayer, alms-giving, and fasting. So my friends, as we experience our Lenten desert exercises let’s be for each other like the angels who ministered to Jesus; so that, when our time has come to reenter the community we can bring Christ to our neighbors and our neighbors to Christ.

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[1] Mt 6:1-6 (RSV)
[2] Pope Paul VI; Lenten Message 1973
[3] Mt 28:19-20 (RSV)