Sunday, March 22, 2020

Year A Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b.6-7.10-13a;- Ps 23:1-6; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we gather in a peculiar way. But then we’re living through peculiar times. This past week has been harrowing for all of us. Not only did we have to contend with our collective efforts to slow down and limit the spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19, we also experienced a fairly large earthquake and a series of unsettling aftershocks.

But, as Elijah learned, the voice of God is not in the earthquake. Rather, the voice of God is a barely discernible whisper.1 Therefore, you have to be quiet to hear it. Silence is utterly essential for the spiritual life. Each year Lent is what might be called a “time-gift.”2 This Lent, due to these unforeseen circumstances, many of us been granted more time. Therefore, it is important to use some of this time for silence.

Because here in Utah, while we have been asked to curtail unnecessary activities, to avoid public gatherings, to keep a safe distance from others, we have not been restricted to our homes, we have the opportunity not only to pray and fast but to help those in need. There are plenty of people in need, people for whom this coronavirus may be lethal, who could use help purchasing life’s necessities that can be safely left on their doorsteps. People who have lost or experienced a significant drop in their income could use your financial assistance. Even people who live alone and who are wisely self-isolating can perhaps use a daily phone call.

Today’s readings are about overcoming spiritual blindness. Samuel, ordered by God to go to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king for Israel due to the disobedience of Israel’s first king, Saul, demonstrated spiritual vision. In holding out until he was certain he found the LORD’s anointed, the prophet exercised great discernment. "Discernment" is just another word for spiritual sight.

Significantly, David was Jesse’s eighth son, the youngest, the least among his brethren, who was off tending the flocks. While seven is the biblical number of perfection, the number 8, at least for Christians, is the number of completion or maybe transcendence. From ancient times Christians have considered Sunday as the “Eighth Day,” the day beyond time, the eternal day. This is just one of the many ways to demonstrate that David is a messianic prototype.

Our responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23, is not about happiness in the by-and-by but in the here-and-now.3 Because it is about the here-and-now it points to the need to see with “true eyes.” To truly see is to see that God is good all the time, especially in dark, uncertain, or frightening times. In times like these, it is not enough- it should not be enough- to merely know that God is with you in some indiscernible sense, that is, in a way that makes no real difference. Circumstances like the ones we're now living invite each one of us to see just how it is that God accompanies us through the dark vale.

The blind man whom Jesus heals in today's Gospel, when pressed- he is more than pressed, he is raked over the coals, can only say, “I was blind and now I see.”4 To truly see is to grasp reality according to all the factors that together constitute it. For example, it is not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that the bread and wine, when consecrated, become Christ’s body and blood. But what someone can see is the difference participating in the Eucharist makes in the lives of those of us who do so.

In fact, our lives are the only empirical evidence, the only way to show that what we believe is really true. As Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped about Christians: “Better songs would they have to sing, for me to believe in their Saviour: more like saved ones would his disciples have to appear unto me!”5 Especially in these times, it is important for us to “look redeemed.” So, we must sing better songs, redemption songs. Optimism is not a redemption song and neither is pessimism. The song of hope, which can only be sung by the redeemed, is as beautiful and alluring as the song of a mythic Sirens. Instead of luring you into a trap, the redemption song seeks to bring the rattled traveler to safety.

If there is one lesson God teaches us in and through Christ, it is that hope lies on the far side optimism. Optimism will not save you now or in the long run. This is a difficult reality to face squarely. Sadly, a lot of what flies under the banner of "spirituality" is really just religious avoidance mechanisms, means of denial. Hope, which is the flower of faith, is not another form of denial. Rather, hope is what enables the Christian to face reality head-on.

Realism is not synonymous with cynicism just as optimism is not synonymous with hope. It was Nietzsche who also wrote: “And only where there are graves are there resurrections.”6 So, take heart. Spring is here. God's grace given us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is amazing. Good Friday means Easter is close.

1 1 Kings 19:11-12.
2 Trevor Hudson, Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days, Kindle Edition, Location 76 of 703.
3 Footnote 6 to Psalm 23 in The Hebrew Bible, “The Writings,” trans. Robert Alter, 71.
4 John 9:15.
5 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, XXVI “The Priests,” trans. Thomas Common.
6 Ibid., XXXIII Grave Song.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Third Friday of Lent: getting real

I don't know about you, but this Third Friday of Lent is feeling pretty penitential. We're only at the beginning of a fairly lengthy isolation period to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, I feel the need personally to "get real" for a moment.

A basic rule of life for many who seem uninitiated: shit happens. It's not the fact that shit happens that matters. What matters is how you deal with the shit that happens.

Stay calm. Control what you can. Help others when possible. Ask for help if you need it. Make the best of your situation. Yes, it's going to suck sometimes and you will have some challenges. When you falter pray. Ask God to help you persevere. When warranted ask forgiveness of others and be willing to forgive others their trespasses.

Photo by Scott Dodge©

It bears noting that God isn't in the business of making it all magically go away. Rather, God walks alongside us, even through the deepest and darkest valleys. Essentially, "Paraclete" means one who stands by your side.

It isn't enough for someone (like me) to tell you this (even though I am speaking from my own experience). In other words, it isn't so much that God is with you in some generic and indiscernible sense but how God is with you really and truly. The how is something you must experience for yourself. It is the potential for this revelation that can make these circumstances "apocalyptic." "Apocalypse means to reveal something previously hidden, or unveil something covered. May this be a time of unveiling.

Who knows? Maybe you'll learn what a lot of people have learned: you can grow as a person through adversity. Any new awareness born from this experience comes with labor pains. Time to put some of those cliches people love to post on social media into action or, more realistically to rest. Pious platitudes and exhortations not to worry and be happy wear out quickly. Test your thesis.

One fact remains that flies in the face of all fake positivity: hope lies well beyond optimism. This is a difficult reality to face squarely. Sadly, a lot of what of what flies under the banner of "spirituality" is really just religiously-couched avoidance mechanisms, that is, forms of denial. If you find that statement provocative, spend some time today looking at a crucifix.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Christianity is not essentially a morality

Readings: Exo 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2.6-9; Rom 5:1-2.5-8; John 4:5-42

During certain liturgical seasons- Lent being one of them- the Church endeavors to tightly harmonize all the scriptural readings for Sundays. Hence, it is important to consider more than just the Gospel. In normal times, beginning this Sunday (i.e., the Third Sunday of Lent), communities who have members of the Elect begin celebrating the Scrutinies. As a result, at least at the Mass during which the Scrutiny is celebrated, every year we read the readings for Year A of the lectionary. This year it presents no wrinkle because it is Year A.

And so, for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, in conjunction with the celebration of the Scrutinies, not only is the same Gospel read but the same reading from the Hebrew Bible and same epistle reading are also proclaimed.

The harmony between our first reading for the Third Sunday of Lent, taken from the seventeenth chapter of Exodus, and the Gospel are clear. The Psalm from which the Responsorial is taken is also easily harmonized because it cites the event that occurred at Meribah and Massah- the place of dispute and testing. Let's note that Israel failed the test. Lest you become puffed up, you fail too. In my view, it is very important to "fail" at Lent, particularly if you are approaching it as a time of self-improvement. But just as God does not spurn Israel for its failure, God does not spurn you or his sometimes unfaithful bride, the Church, for failures.

But what about the epistle reading, taken from the fifth chapter of Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans?

Too often, Catholic preachers actively avoid this Pauline passage (and many others- like one the week before last) because it refutes that moralism they wish to preach. Truth be told, the moralism doesn't hold up very well against the episode of the Samaritan woman at the well either. So, before turning to Paul, let's look at Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman.

To summarize: Jesus was somewhere he shouldn't have been (Samaria), speaking with someone with whom he should not have anything to do (not just a woman, or a Samaritan woman, but this particular Samaritan woman). On the telling found in Saint John's Gospel, Jesus knows about this woman's troubled past and yet is eager not only to engage with her but to reveal to her who he is. To know who Jesus is means to know what his mission is: salvation (which, he points out, "is from the Jews")1.

In essence, his question to her is "Are you thirsty?" Indeed, she is thirsty for the living-giving water. This water is not something offers in addition to or apart from himself. It is nothing other than his very self for the redemption of the world. Typical of John's Gospel, how Jesus speaks of redemption is bringing God's creation to its completion. Does he not tell his disciples: "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work"?2

Note something else: Jesus does not place conditions on the life-giving water he offers this Samaritan woman. In other words, she does not fall down on her knees, or prostrate herself before him, begging for forgiveness. Jesus does not instruct her to separate from the man with whom she is apparently living and to whom she is not legally and lawfully wed. One might say Jesus shares his knowledge of her intimate life as a way of verifying his claim to be the Messiah- the one who is coming. Not to judge or condemn her, even to "convict" her in her own mind and heart.

Christ and the Woman at the Well, by Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), ca. 1640-1641

If we want to draw a "lesson" from this encounter it must be something like "evangelism is neither an apologetic nor a morality. Timothy Radcliffe wrote about this very well:
The Church has nothing to say about morality until our listeners have glimpsed God’s delight in their existence. People often come to us carrying heavy burdens, with lives not in accord with the Church’s teaching, the fruit of complex histories. We have nothing to say at all until people know that God rejoices in their very existence, which is why they exist at all. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s pleasure in us, in everything that we are, body, mind and soul3
Jesus came to save you, to allow and enable you to become who God created you to be. In short, he came to complete or to finish you. This is good news, indeed!

Because Jesus is the life-giving water, it is not enough merely to take a drink, let alone a mere sip. No, when you are baptized you are fully and completely immersed in him. And to be immersed in Christ is to be immersed in the Paschal Mystery. To be immersed in the Paschal Mystery is to be immersed in the very life of God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

This, by a circuitous route, brings me to our reading from Saint Paul. Our epistle reading begins: "Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."4 Setting aside a huge discussion on the nature of justification, it is faith in Christ that "justifies." That said, it is important not to lose sight of the fact faith is a gift from God.

The Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer specific to the Mass at which the first Scrutiny is celebrated (or all Sunday Masses during Year A) for the Third Sunday of Lent puts faith as a divine gift into bold relief: "For when [Jesus] asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink, he had already created the gift of faith within her and so ardently did he thirst for her faith, that he kindled in her the fire of divine love"5

During Lent don't try to save yourself. Don't try to earn what you already have and could never merit. Jesus's temptations in the desert do not serve as a template for your own life. If you're anything like me (human, all too human), nine out of ten times you'll give in to the temptation. The one time you do not you will wind up being so very proud of yourself that it obliterates whatever resisting the temptation may have merited. In short, you are not your own Jesus, your own Savior. Saint Paul succinctly points out that "while we were still helpless, [Jesus] died at the appointed time for the ungodly."6 Who are these ungodly for whom Jesus died? You and me, my friend, you and me.

Like the thirsty Samaritan woman Jesus engaged at Jacob's well, Jesus freely offers you himself because he is God's love incarnate. "God proves his love for us," Paul continues, "in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" 7 Because of this "we have peace with God"8 It is through Jesus Christ that "we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand" 9

So much for moralism! As preached in far too many Catholic churches, particularly during Lent, such moralism would likely make even Saint Augustine's caricature of Pelagius blush.

1 John 4:22.
2 John 4:34.
3 Timothy Radcliffe, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition, Location 1154 of 4497.
4 Romans 5:1.
5 Roman Missal, "Third Sunday of Lent- Preface 'The Samaritan Woman.'"
6 Romans 5:6.
7 Romans 5:8.
8 Romans 5:1.
9 Romans 5:2.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Don't panic, be prudent and pray: UPDATED

Well, today is Friday the 13th, right? I should just now be wrapping up a 10-day trip to Rome. But thanks to COVID-19, I am sitting in my den trying to figure what to write for this Friday. My wife and I did manage to take a trip. Leaving last Thursday and returning early Sunday evening, we traveled to Torrey, Utah. This beautiful little town, which we hadn't visited for nearly 20 years, sits just outside of Capitol Reef National Park and not too far from the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument and Bryce Canyon. We had a very nice time hiking and relaxing. We attended Church at Saint Anthony of the Desert Mission in Torrey. With a congregation of 6 and one of my brother deacons presiding, we did Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest. I am hopeful we will make it to Rome in the not too distant future.

No sooner did I start typing this yesterday evening than, along with the rest of the clergy of my diocese, I received a memorandum from my bishop. It states that beginning Saturday, 14 March, all public celebrations of Mass will be suspended until 31 March or until further notice. Catholic schools are closed, religious education programs are suspended, etc.

UPDATE: In response to questions posed in a comment, I will add that since my bishop only has charge of the diocese in which I reside- the Diocese of Salt Lake City, which consists of the entire state of Utah- these measures are for my diocese only. I am not aware of what other dioceses are doing. I would clarify that my bishop has asked that churches and chapels be kept open for private prayer. Priests are to continue to be available for the sacrament of penance and anointing of the sick. Of course, priests administering these sacraments are to take prudent precautions. It is my sincere hope that priests will celebrate Mass everyday, even if by themselves or with a very small congregation.

By canceling mass gatherings, public health officials seek to "flatten the curve" (see "How canceled events and self-quarantines save lives, in one chart"). What this means is that cancellation of events won't stop the spread of the virus and ultimately may not even limit it much in scope. The point is to slow the spread of this coronavirus to a manageable level, a level that does not overwhelm hospitals and local healthcare systems. Such slowing will save lives.

As a non-expert, the only advice I give is to calmly follow the guidance of officials at the national, state, and local levels. While it may be prudent to stock up on some non-perishable food items, it is not necessary to horde. The production and distribution of life's necessities should not be dramatically disrupted by what we're currently experiencing. Remaining calm and acting prudently is important in these situations.

In addition to doing the above (or not doing in the case of panicked purchasing), it is important to pray. Pope Francis has given us a prayer to the Blessed Virgin. Yes, it mentions the people of Rome. As Roman Catholics, can we not be counted among the populi Romani?

Over this past week, I have been praying an additional Rosary in the afternoon for the full recovery of those who have contracted the virus, for the repose of the souls of those who have been killed by it, for the safety and welfare of healthcare professionals who treat the sick, and for government leaders and public health officials that their decisions will be wise and prudent. My final intention is simply for the spread of the virus to be arrested.

If you're praying the Novena to Saint Joseph in anticipation of his Solemnity next Thursday, please entrust these or similar petitions to his intercession. For those who are physically able, in addition to praying also consider fasting for these intentions. While this should absolutely not be seen as a divine punishment, we can use this in a penitential manner both personally and communally. I believe the old phrase is "offer it up." We offer it up in the confidence that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross our offering will be acceptable to God.

I think many of us can seize this as an opportunity to draw to closer to God and strengthen solidarity in our communities. While limiting social contact, ensure that your elderly parishioners and neighbors, as well as those with compromised immune systems, like people suffering from cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy, are taken care of without having to expose themselves to unnecessary risks.

I can think of no more fitting traditio for this Second Friday of Lent than the great Maria Callas singing Ave Maria.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Year A First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 2:7-9.3:1-7; Ps 51:3-; Rom 5:12-19; Matt 4:1-11

Genesis begins with two creation stories. These stories are so different as to be irreconcilable. Because neither account was written to tell us how things came to be but rather to address the metaphysical and theological question “Why is there something rather than nothing,” there is no need to reconcile them.1

In fact, any attempt to blend these narratives into a single, unified account does violence to the sacred text and drains both accounts of their revelatory value. Literalism is the enemy of the scriptural interpretation. This is why the only way these two narratives are contradictory is if you read them in a literal, flat, two-dimensional way.

God did not drop the Bible out of heaven one day. The "Bible," a word that just means "book," is a collection of texts. The various books that make up the Bible were written over roughly a thousand years. Among the books of the Bible, sometimes even within the same book- Genesis is a good example of this, one finds various genres of literature: poetry, aphorisms, historical writings, novellas, etc. As with any other text, how you read the Bible is determined, at least in part, by the genre of what you’re reading.

The first creation story, which is the one with which you’re probably the most familiar, the one that frames creation occurring over six days followed by the sabbath, is a beautiful Hebrew poem. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the order of creation set forth in this first biblical creation account exhibits an evolutionary structure. God creates the heavens and earth. God then separates day from night, followed by causing dry land to emerge from the watery abyss.

At this point, beginning with its simplest forms, life begins to emerge, culminating with the creation of human beings, who, together as male and female, are “made” in God’s image and likeness. The distinction between being “begotten” and “made” that we profess in the Creed, in which we confess that Jesus Christ is “begotten” of and not “made” by the Father, indicates that he is “true God from true God.”2 In short, Jesus, despite being borne of the Virgin Mary, is not a creature.

By contrast, human beings, while made in God’s image and likeness, are “made” and not “begotten.” We are creatures. Our creatureliness cannot be overcome. We become God’s children through Jesus Christ when we are reborn through the waters of baptism. It is for this that we are made and redeemed. Baptism makes explicit what is implicit in everyone, highlighting the fact we are made in God’s image and intended to live in the divine likeness.

While the imago Dei (i.e., God’s image) which constitutes the humanity of each and every person, is ineradicable, our likeness to God is lost through sin. This divine likeness is restored by Christ through grace. This why in our second reading Saint Paul insists: “For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.”3

But the first part of our first reading today is taken from the second creation account. For lack of a better word, this account is the more “primitive” of the two. It is at the beginning of the third chapter of Genesis that the two stories converge. The picture painted in the inspired text before the ancestral sin is a world in communion. God and human beings have an immediate, that is, unmediated relationship. They speak to God and God speaks directly to them. There is a deep unity between the woman and the man as well as harmony between people and the rest of nature.

The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is symbolic. It symbolizes our creatureliness. It symbolizes that we are not gods, let alone God. The dialogue of the serpent with the woman is very instructive about how temptation works. The serpent asks the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?”4 Nothing could be further from the truth, as the woman’s response indicates:
We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die 5
At this point, the serpent, who symbolizes the devil, tells the biggest lie ever told. In addition to telling the woman she will not die if she eats the fruit, the serpent insists: “God knows well when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.”6 This, my friends, is the temptation that not only resulted in the original sin but in every sin in the history of the world! The original sin is rejecting your creatureliness and seeking to become your own god. Being your own god allows you to determine for yourself what is good and what is evil.

As soon as the woman and the man ate the fruit everything changed. The state of original grace, or communion, was lost. This is demonstrated in our reading by the instantaneous change in how they saw each other. While they had been naked and unashamed, they were suddenly naked and ashamed. They felt the need to cover themselves.7

Rather than fasting and praying in a lush garden, Jesus went into the wilderness, into the desert for forty days and forty nights. By resisting everything the devil threw at him, our Lord overcame human disobedience. As Saint Paul, in our epistle reading, insists: “just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all.”8

Do not be misled, the temptations Jesus faced were real temptations. To believe that he was utterly impervious to temptation is to deny his humanity, which is heresy. It’s important to know what is presented to us as Gospel today is not the enactment of a cosmic puppet show, a scenario in which the outcome was never in doubt. God is the ultimate risk-taker. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” the Scriptures tell us, “but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”9

Our Elect- Rachael, Stephanie, Amber, and Sawyer- are listening to and heeding the voice of God. As a result, they are on their way to the sacraments of Christian Initiation: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. By these sacraments, they will be restored the state of original grace, the state of communion, in which God created us to live.

Lent is a season of grace, not a season during which you try to get back into God’s good graces through strenuous effort. The apostle assures us that “the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned. For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation; but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.”10 Repentance and the good works that flow from it is an act of gratitude for the love God freely lavishes on you in and through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Be assured that right now, strongly affirming “our goodness and [with a] gentle understanding of our weakness, God is loving us… this moment, just as we are and not as we should be.”11 “Eucharist” means thanksgiving. We gather together to thank God and offer ourselves to him again. Because of Christ Jesus, we are confident our offering is acceptable.

What the Scriptures teach us on this First Sunday of Lent is that our own feeble attempts at obedience cannot save us. We are saved by Jesus, who was obedient even unto “ to death, even death on a cross.”12 Because of Jesus’s obedience unto death,
God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father13

1 See Genesis 1:2-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25.
2 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 18.
3 Romans 5:15.
4 Genesis 3:1.
5 Genesis 3:2-3.
6 Genesis 3:5.
7 Genesis 2:25; Genesis 3:7.
8 Romans 5:18.
9 Hebrews 4:15.
10 Romans 5:16.
11 Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God, 19.
12 Philippians 2:8.
13 Philippians 2:9-11.

Friday, February 28, 2020

First Friday of Lent

During Lent, I hope to take some time to re-think what happens in this cyber-space, when it happens, as well as how often it happens. I realize that blogging is now an old from of new media, which is fine. At least to me and for now, it seems like something worth doing. I will still post my homilies and reflections on the Sunday readings on those weeks I don't preach. I may add a note here or there on spirituality, theology, politics, philosophy, or any number of topics. I am thinking about posting something mid-week instead of on Fridays. The traditio may go.

I was slated to spend most of the next two weeks in Rome. But I am not going due to concerns over the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus. With children still at home, the possibility of being quarantined for two weeks beyond the time we were going to gone was not a risk we felt we could take. Keep in mind, Italy is one of the countries that is dealing with this disease, which I expect to be declared a pandemic. While I was a little anxious about the trip, I was starting to get excited. Hopefully, we can recoup some of our loss and make it another time in the not-too-distant future.

I am giving up going to Rome for Lent. So, apart from fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as well as abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays (I abstain from meat on Fridays year around, except on solemnities and during the octaves of Easter and Christmas) and contributing to the Lenten Rice Bowl, I don't plan to give up anything else or, frankly, take up much else this year for Lent.

At least to some extent and relative to past years, I am giving up Lent for Lent. Besides, given the start we're off to in 2020, life has a kind of Lenten feel for me right now.

While I've used it before, albeit years ago, I think U2's "Walk On" is a good, very good, traditio for this First Friday of Lent.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51:1-6b.12-13-14.17; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2: Matt 6:1-6.16-18

In light of what we just heard from Matthew’s Gospel, the irony of coming forward and having ashes smeared on your forehead should not be lost on you. Is it a contradiction? Is it a contravention of Jesus’s command? While it is good and right to begin the holy season of Lent by participating in Mass, it might surprise you to learn that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.

Something else that bears noting is that the ashes you receive as a mark of your desire to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” while blessed last Palm Sunday, have no magical powers.1 It is also important to point out something Jason Micheli, a Methodist minister noted this week: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” isn’t “a verse from 'Circle of Life.’ It’s not an observation about your mortality. It’s a recitation of God’s curse.”2

As a result of their disobedience, God tells Adam and Eve- “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”3 You see, there is no circle of life in God’s creative plan. “Death is not natural. Death is a consequence.”4 As a result, Ash Wednesday is not about what all can know apart from revelation, the fact of our mortality, but what only Christians can know by revelation, that death is the wage owed to the Pharaoh called Sin.”5

In addition to being a mark of our desire to repent, receiving ashes is an act of hope. You see, we don’t enter into Lent pretending that Easter has not already happened. We begin Lent in the knowledge and with the assurance that Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead to pay the debt we owe.

We are not just marked with ashes. We are marked with the sign of the cross. This tells us that “we are infinitely more than dust. We are God’s beloved, and nothing—not even death—can separate us from God’s love through Jesus Christ.”6

In an Ash Wednesday homily delivered many years ago, Passionist Father Harry Williams insisted that
It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are
Far from despising you, God, who reveals himself as Father through Jesus Christ, loves you. He couldn’t love you more than he loves you right now, just as you are. “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”7

Have you ever had a teacher, a coach, a boss, a friend who inspires you to be a better person not by goading you or urging you to be better, let alone criticizing you in the hope you will take her criticisms to heart and change, but by loving you because you’re you, encouraging you, rooting for you? This is how friendship with Jesus works. As Saint Paul wrote to the Christian community in ancient Rome:
For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us8
This is why I suggest that you subject any Lenten discipline you undertake to a threefold criteria:

1) “Is this practice going to bring me to a place of deeper preparedness for Good Friday, for Easter Sunday, for the mystery of Easter? Is it going to help me enter into this mystery a little more deeply?”
2) “Is it going bring a helpful intensity to my relationship with Christ?”
3) “will it deepen the quality of my relationships with other people, particularly those closest to me and those perhaps in pain.”9

Lent, as our readings indicate, is about intensifying practices in which we should be engaged all the time: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. What about fasting? While today is not a holy day of obligation in terms of participating in Mass, Catholics are obligated to fast. Are you fasting today? If so, Why? If not, Why not?

The best reasons for fasting during Lent is to pray better and to serve others more. Hence, you should fast from those things that stand in the way of doing those things, foregoing that which inhibits your relationship with Christ and with other people, especially those closest to you and those who are suffering.

The point of Lent is not just to “be good” for six weeks or so and then return to your old way of life. The purpose of Lent is to repent in anticipation of renewing your baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil when you will be asked: “Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his empty show?”10

To repent, then, means to live the new life Christ gave you in baptism when you died, were buried and rose with him to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.11 As we prepare to receive ashes as a sign of hope, may we, by the power of that same Spirit, convey that hope by walking in newness of life.

1 Roman Missal, “Ash Wednesday.”
2 Jason Micheli, “Chocolate? Fuggedaboutit – This Lent Choose Failure”; Roman Missal, “Ash Wednesday.”
3 Genesis 3:19.
4 “Chocolate? Fuggedaboutit.”
5 Ibid.
6 Trevor Hudson, Pauses for Lent: 40 Word for 40 Days, “Day 1- Ash Wednesday”; Romans 8:38.
7 1 John 4:10.
8 Romans 5:6-8.
9 Renovaré podcast, Trevor Hudson- “The Litmus Test for Lent.”
10 Roman Missal, “The Easter Vigil,” sec. 55.
11 Romans 6:4- part of the epistle reading at The Easter Vigil.

Year A Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1b.6-7.10-13a;- Ps 23:1-6; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 On this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we gather in a peculiar way. But the...