Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Once a month or so I have the privilege of assisting my pastor at the weekly Mass for our parish school. On those occasions, Fr. René extends me the privilege of preaching to our wonderful St. Olaf's school community and our assembled parishioners. And so, on this Friday after Ash Wednesday, I preached. Below is my homily. As with all things I post here, it is offered with a prayer that, through the intercession of the patron of Καθολικός διάκονος, St. Stephen, it will be of some spiritual benefit to someone.

Readings: Isa 58:1-9a; Ps 51:3-6a; Matt 9:14-15

Throughout the history of the Church Friday has been observed as a day of penance. Just as every Sunday is a “little” Easter, so every Friday is a “little” Good Friday. Traditionally, the way Roman Catholics observe Friday as a day of penance is by not eating so-called “flesh-meat,” that is, the meat of warm-blooded animals. While not eating flesh-meat is a recommended way of observing all Fridays as days of penance, during the holy season of Lent not eating flesh-meat is obligatory, meaning it’s something our Mother, the Church, tells us we must do. It is certainly important to know and endeavor to live by the discipline of the Church, but not eating meat once a week will do little if anything in and of itself to conform you more to the image of Christ, to make you holy.

Isaiah took at least the elites of ancient Israel to task for observing days of fasting, but making their servants and employees labor hard on those days. In our first reading, the prophet addressed those who thought their fasting alone gained them favor with God. Isaiah even taunted them a bit by imagining those he addressed complaining to God, as saying, “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” (Isa 58:3)

Too often we make Lent about doing external things, like giving up chocolate, or soda pop, or ice cream. Giving up these things is fine, if done in the proper spirit. But what is the proper spirit? Our responsorial Psalm, taken from Psalm 51, known as the Miserere, which is Latin for “mercy,” and is the first Psalm for Morning Prayer in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours every Friday, tells us what is the proper spirit: “For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:18-19).

In our Gospel today the disciples of John the Baptist complain to Jesus that, unlike them and the Pharisees, his disciples do not fast. Our Lord explained that there was no need for his disciples to fast as long as he, the Bridegroom, was with them. But, after the Bridegroom was taken away his disciples would fast. So it is fitting, not just during Lent, but at other times, to both fast and abstain. Our fasting and abstinence, however, should be accompanied by increased prayer and selfless service to others. If it is not, then our fasting and abstaining is really just a weird form of spiritual dieting.

Without a doubt, here in the United States, we live in a wasteful culture of excess. The amount of food we waste, when so many go hungry, should cause us all to repent. As a result of living in a culture of excess, fasting or abstaining often seem to us like major sacrifices. In reality, how difficult is it really not to meat one day a week, or get by on one or two meals a day for a month-and-a-half, or to not eat at all two days a year? As Pope Francis often reminds us, there are many people in the world who are grateful to eat in one or two days what we consume in one meal. As Christians, this should concern us. And so one way of faithfully observing Lent is to eat one helping of what is served, eat it all, and then be done. Then serve your family by helping clean the kitchen after your meal.

God tells Isaiah the acceptable way to fast is basically to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy. What are the Corporal Works of Mercy? Feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; giving shelter to the homeless; visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison. All of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are depicted on the north wall of our Church. Doing one, some, or all of these things at some sacrifice to yourself will make your Lenten observance fruitful. It will cause God to take notice and bless your efforts by blessing those you serve. You see, Lent is not about you. Lent is about disciples of Jesus serving those in need for his sake and for the sake of God’s kingdom.

So, if you have not already, take home a Rice Bowl, which you can find at the back of the Church. Make it your goal over Lent to eat less and fill the Rice Bowl to overflowing with what you save from eating less. Also, pray more. Pray the Rosary, or at least one decade of the Rosary, every day. Don’t pray the Rosary for yourself, pray it for others. By doing these things Jesus will draw you closer to his Sacred Heart.

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