As the first-fruits of our renewed humanity, Christ escaped the curse of the law precisely by becoming accursed for our sake. He overcame the forces of corruption by himself becoming once more "free among the dead." He trampled death under foot and came to life again, and then he ascended to the Father as an offering, the first-fruits, as it were, of the human race. "He ascended," as Scripture says, "not to a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the real one, but into heaven itself, to appear in God's presence on our behalf." He is the life-giving bread that came down from heaven, and by offering Himself to God the Father as a fragrant sacrifice for our sake, he also delivers us from our sins and frees us from the faults that we commit through ignorance.
The human race may be compared to spikes of wheat in a field, rising, as it were, from the earth, awaiting their full growth and development, and then in time being cut down by the reaper, which is death. The comparison is apt, since Christ Himself spoke of our race in this way when He said to His holy disciples: "Do you not say, 'Four months and it will be harvest time?' Look at the fields I tell you, they are already white and ready for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving his wages and bringing in a crop for eternal life."
Now Christ became like one of us; He sprang from the holy Virgin like a spike of wheat from the ground. Indeed, He spoke of Himself as a grain of wheat when he said: "I tell you truly, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains as it was, a single grain; but if it dies its yield is very great." And so, like a sheaf of grain, the first-fruits, as it were, of the earth, he offered Himself to the Father for our sake.
For we do not think of a spike of wheat, any more than we do of ourselves, in isolation. We think of it rather as part of a sheaf, which is a single bundle made up of many spikes. The spikes have to be gathered into a bundle before they can be used, and this is the key to the mystery they represent, the mystery of Christ who, though one, appears in the image of a sheaf to made up of many, as in fact he is. Spiritually, He contains in Himself all believers. "As we have been raised up with Him," writes Saint Paul, "so we have also been enthroned with Him in heaven." He is a human being like ourselves, and this has made us one body with Him, the body being the bond that unites us. We can say, therefore, that in Him we are all one, and indeed He Himself says to God, His heavenly Father: "It is my desire that as I and You are one, so they also may be one in us."
The Royal Banner forward goes, The mystic Cross refulgent glows: Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made, Upon the Tree of pain is laid.
Behold! The nails with anguish fierce, His outstretched arms and vitals pierce: Here our redemption to obtain, The Mighty Sacrifice is slain.
Here the fell spear his wounded side With ruthless onset opened wide: To wash us in that cleansing flood, Thence mingled Water flowed, and Blood.
Fulfilled is all that David told In true prophetic song, of old: Unto the nations, lo! saith he, Our God hath reignèd from the Tree.
O Tree! In radiant beauty bright! With regal purple meetly dight! Thou chosen stem! divinely graced, Which hath those Holy Limbs embraced!
How blest thine arms, beyond compare, Which Earth's Eternal Ransom bare! That Balance where His Body laid, The spoil of vanquished Hell outweighed.
O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide With us now in this Passion-tide: New grace in pious hearts implant, And pardon to the guilty grant!
Hail wondrous Altar! Victim hail! Thy Glorious Passion shall avail! Where death Life's very Self endured, Yet life by that same Death secured.
Thee, mighty Trinity! One God! Let every living creature laud; Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver, O guide and govern now and ever! Amen.
Translation from "The Psalter of Sarum": London 1852.
Tonight we sang this hymn, in translation of course. The hymn "Vexilla Regis" was composed by Saint Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) and considered by many to be one of the greatest of the sacred Liturgy. "Vexilla Regis" was composed for the reception of a Relic of the True Cross by Queen Radegunda for her monastery church at near Poitiers, France. A processional hymn "Vexilla Regis" is sung when the Blessed Sacrament is taken from the repository to the altar on Good Friday. It is the proper Vespers hymn sung from Passion Sunday to Holy Thursday and on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The Church sings it at Vespers from the First Vespers of the 5th Sunday of Lent until the Wednesday of Holy Week.
I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
I am that God to whom you will not pray.
I am your counsel, but you do not hear me,
I am the lover whom you will betray.
I am the victor, but you will not cheer me,
I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
I am your life, but you will not name me,
Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.
Charles Causley was born and has lived, apart from six years in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, in Launceston, Cornwall. In 1990 he was awarded the Ingersol/TS Eliot Award, given to authors "of abiding importance whose work affirms the moral principles of western civilization." This poem appears in Collected Poems, published by Macmillan. Dr. Ron Thomas assistant professor of theology at BelmontAbbeyCollege wrote the meditations for the Way of the Cross published this Spring (2009) and this poem is included therein.
In the Bible the cross is the expression of a life that is completely being for others. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him. He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy.
In the New Testament the cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It does not stand there as the work of expiation which mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God's which gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about.
The reading at Lauds this morning is both apropos for Lent and for the Solemnity of Saint Benedict. Father Abbot, decorated with a beautiful pectoral cross of ancient days, read Sirach 2:1-18. Without knowing at first where the reading came from, I first thought it to be from one of the Fathers of the Church, or even Pope Benedict; all of what Sirach speaks of resonates strongly for me because it corresponds with what I've experienced and know deeply in my heart, and I hope it's the similarly for you. The text follows:
My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity. Cleave to him and do not depart, that you may be honored at the end of your life. Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.
Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him. You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy; and turn not aside, lest you fall. You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not fail; you who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for everlasting joy and mercy. Consider the ancient generations and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who ever persevered in the fear of the Lord and was forsaken? Or who ever called upon him and was overlooked? For the Lord is compassionate and merciful; he forgives sins and saves in time of affliction.
Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands, and to the sinner who walks along two ways! Woe to the faint heart, for it has no trust! Therefore it will not be sheltered. Woe to you who have lost your endurance! What will you do when the Lord punishes you? Those who fear the Lord will not disobey his words, and those who love him will keep his ways. Those who fear the Lord will seek his approval, and those who love him will be filled with the law. Those who fear the Lord will prepare their hearts, and will humble themselves before him. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, but not into the hands of men; for as his majesty is, so also is his mercy.
Liam Neeson, one of the leading international motion picture actors of our day, reads the Introduction, written by Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, and the 14 Stations of the Cross. The 14 Stations and prayers are taken from the classic text, The Way of the Cross according to the Method of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the great 18th century Italian saint, doctor of the Church and founder of the Redemptorists. This text is used by Catholics around the world to retrace the footsteps of Jesus Christ on Good Friday.
"I had heard about the Redemptorists and their missionary work in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil and in the slums of Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria," Liam Neeson said. "I was moved to help because the Redemptorists are living the Gospel message in some of the poorest parts of the world, offering hope to families who have been forgotten or abandoned."
The Very Reverend Father Thomas D. Picton, provincial superior of the DenverProvince said: "It combines the unmistakable voice of Liam Neeson, the glorious hymns of our founder, Saint Alphonsus Liguori (first time being heard in the U.S.), and the brilliant orchestration done by Ray Herrmann, a Grammy-award winner and arguably the world's finest Catholic recording artist."
Ray Herrmann, co-founder of Little Lamb Music, has spent the last 20 years playing with and arranging music for some of the biggest names in American music, including: Diana Ross, Chicago, Bob Dylan, Santana, LeeAnn Rimes, Stevie Wonder, George Benson and Herbie Hancock. Ray is also in the house band on the hit television show, American Idol.
Proceeds from the sale of the CD support the work of the Redemptorist missions in Brazil and Nigeria .
Attending to the daily round of the Divine Office the prayers of the psalmist start to make sense and have a certain impact on the soul. Trust in the words of the psalmist is not based on sentiment --that would be a waste of time-- but on relationship between faith and reason viz. our relationship with God. We reach out to God and God bends down to touch our hearts. Moreover, the various hymns we sing, especially the ones we frequently sing during a particular liturgical season, begin to have an impact on our spiritual and human life. If they don't, then we're wasting our time: empty words lacking conviction and human desire.
Fasting has never made any sense to me unless I made did it with the reasonableness of all of what I believed about the presence of Christ my life, and the relationship I share with Him. Fasting also lacks meaning unless it is rooted in sacred Scripture, of both Testaments, especially and essentially looking to Christ's own example as a model for me. Now I am a weak man and I rely on grace for much. I suspect this is true not only for me, but for others as well. Furthermore, feasting on sumptuous foods and fine wines is rather meaningless unless there's been a discipline fast from things that draw our hearts, minds and bodies which opens up our senses for the best the Lord has to offer. Of course, I am not advocating the doing of things that are impracticable, for Aquinas tells of the art of the possible.
A 6th century Latin hymn at Lauds today made me think of fasting given that the Lord had done so when he walked this good earth. The hymn's author states: "for Christ, through whom all things were made, himself has fasted and has prayed" and then he petitions the Lord: "Then grant us, Lord, like them to be full oft in fast and prayer with thee; our spirits strengthen with thy grace, and give us joy to see thy face." First we acknowledge the fact that the Lord engaged in fasting to focus His attention on the Divine Will and to ward off temptation. The implication is that we are to imitate the Lord's example while asking for the grace of strength in an attempt to do spiritual battle with the certain hope of beholding the face of the Redeemer.
To that end, I was pleasantly surprised to see today's essay on the First Things blog on fast and feast. Peter Liethart's essay "Keep the Fast, Keep the Feast" is a superb reflection on the meaning of a Christian's fast and feast in Lent.
What banquet are you are preparing to eat? Or are you going to eat from the dumpster? What does the fast and feast mean to you? Are you patterning your life according to Christ's example? In what ways is the Lord preparing you to fully enter into beatitude? Do these Christian practices bring you closer to Christ and the Christian proposal to fully live?
The gospel proclaimed at Mass today (if you are not doing the 3rd scrutiny) comes from Saint John's gospel which tells us of the Lord cleaning His Father's house. Many things can be said about the Lord's righteous anger, but let's stick to a few salient points. Consider the strong emotion of the Lord in His attempt to evoke and provoke his hearers to make a substantial change in life. The greater good that the Lord is trying to get us to see is what he sees: the immense zeal (fervor) for God the Father's house is so important that it moved Him (and it should us) to action; this zeal ought to provoke us to cleanse the temple of our hearts, of our minds, of our habits, of our imagination. What Jesus implores us to do is nothing short of making a total heart and mind. Some things to consider:
-Do we meet the Lord and others in humility?
-Are we faithful to the Lord as are able?
-Do we take time to know what the Lord is saying through the teaching of the Church, his sacrament on earth?
-When someone has a problem in understanding the faith, as we've seen recently in Connecticut S.B. 1098 and now with S.B. 899, do we take the time to understand the matter, look for the correct teaching and teach what the Church offers us for the good of our souls and for happiness?
-Are we deaf to the physical and spiritual, culture and social needs of our brothers and sisters?
-In watching the greed of Bernie Madoff unfold, can we might have to overturn the tables of our own greed? -What are the sacrileges that we cling to so mightily, blasphemies with names like, hate, indifference, unkindness, gossip, unreasonableness, and inertia?
-Do we know what's happening in our world well-enough to make changes where we stand? Would we be able to stop war, crime, violence, and abuse? The house of God Jesus cleans is not merely the Temple of long ago; it is our lives, and the areas of our lives that we inhabit, including the Church, politics and society. Is it possible to believe for a moment in the power of Jesus to cleanse the temples of our person? Can we even think of changing our attitudes so totally that we'd never look back to sin? If we don't have the strength of mind and heart and body and spirit, can we ask for the graces we need carry out the conversion needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
If we really believe the Lord's promises are true, can we rededicate ourselves to God today and accept the fact that the blood of Lamb -Jesus Christ--really saves us and urges us onward?
The Lord is not merely asking us to rearrange the furniture in our lives which may feel a bit comfortable TEMPORARILY, He's asking us to change the color of our room, the bedding, the artwork, and the flooring we stand on PERMANENTLY. But the permanence is only possible if we ask for the grace to follow the Lord. Zeal for God's house will consume me.
We know by experience that we have not sufficient strength in ourselves to bring to a successful completion our chief Lenten duty, which is to die fully to sin in order to live fully in the risen Christ. But Christ himself, before leaving his own, prayed to his Father to preserve them from evil and from the evil one (John ) - from the seductions of the world and the attacks of Satan.
He had taught them to ask: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew ). Obviously he did not intend that his disciples be spared every kind of temptation and danger, for this would be impossible in this life; besides, God himself permits it to test our virtue, but he wanted to assure them sufficient strength to resist. The evil from which he desired to free them was sin, the only real disaster, because it separates us from God.
"What does it mean to say: He was transfigured?" asks the Golden-Mouthed Theologian (Chrysostom). He answers this by saying: "It revealed something of His Divinity to them, as much and insofar as they were able to apprehend it, and it showed the indwelling of God within Him." The Evangelist Luke says: "And as He prayed, His countenance was altered" (Luke ); and from the Evangelist Matthew we read: "And His face shone as the sun" (Matthew17:2). But the Evangelist said this, not in the context that this Light be thought of as subsistent for the senses (let us put aside the blindness of mind of those who can conceive of nothing higher than what is known through the senses). Rather, it is to show that Christ God, for those living and contemplating by the Spirit, is the same as the sun is for those living in the flesh and contemplating by the senses. Therefore, some other Light for the knowing the Divinity is not necessary for those who are enriched by Divine gifts. (Saint Gregory Palamas)
O God, You commanded us to listen to Your beloved Son, deign to nourish us interiorly by Your word, so that, with our spiritual view having been purified, we may rejoice in the Presence of Your glory.
The Holy See has a webpage for Lent 2009. Among the offerings online are the papal letter for Lent, the information on the stational churches and selections of sacred music to help people worldwide to live this Lent with a spirit of prayer and reflection. Nicely done!
Saint Bernard, the great Cistercian Abbot, gave a Chapter talk to his monks during Lent. In it he admonished them:
"Observe carefully what you love, what you fear, what makes you rejoice, what causes you to be sad. See whether under your religious habit you have a worldly soul, and whether, hidden by the cloth of conversion, your heart is perverse. The whole of the heart is in these four affections and in these four is comprised, as I see it, all that is involved when you turn to God with your whole heart" (Sermo 2.3 in Quadragesima PL 183: 172D).
It is interesting the way Saint Bernard speaks of the heart. Our own Holy Father, Saint Benedict began his Rule for Monasteries by teaching us to listen with the ear of our heart. Listen to the love, fear, rejoicing, and sadness that lie in our heart. The life of the monk allows us to take seriously the heart, and to raise the heart in our prayer. Saint John Damascene put it this way in commenting upon the Transfiguration, an event the Church celebrates this coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent:
"Why did he lead his disciples up the mountain? Scripture in its moral sense refers to the virtues as mountains. The apex of all the virtues and, as it were, their citadel is charity.... Accordingly, it is fitting that we leave behind all worldly concerns of the earth and pass beyond the body of lowliness as we ascend to the highest and divine eminence. There we may behold at last those things that transcend every other view"(Homilia in Transfigurationem Domini, 10 PG 96: 561-2).
Part III of Mike Aquilina's "An Introduction to Lent"
Of the three marks of Lent -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- almsgiving is surely the most neglected.
And yet, in the only place where the Bible brings all three together, the inspired author puts the emphasis firmly on the last: "Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness ... It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life" (Tobit 12:8-9).
Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting. Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is "giving to God" -- and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving -- not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.
Jesus presented almsgiving as a necessary part of Christian life: "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" (Matthew 6:2-3). He does not say IF you give alms, but WHEN. Like fasting and prayer, almsgiving is non-negotiable.
The first Christians knew this. "There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need" (Acts 4:34-35).
That was the living embodiment of a basic principle of Catholic social teaching, what tradition calls "the universal destination of goods." The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly: "The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race" (n. 2452).
But they can't get there unless we put them there -- and that requires effort.
As with prayer and fasting, so with almsgiving. If we have a plan, we'll find it easier to do. Throughout history, many Christians have used the Old Testament practice of "tithing" as a guide -- that is, they give a tenth of their income "to God." In practice, that means giving it to the poor, to the parish, or to charitable institutions.
My friend Ed Kenna, an octogenarian and dad, remembers the day he decided to start tithing. "When I was a senior in high school, back in 1939-40, I read an article on charitable giving in a Catholic newspaper," he recalls. "And it had a lot of testimonies to the fruits of tithing. Breadwinners told how God provided whenever they were in need or had an emergency. I decided, then and there, to start tithing, and I've been doing it ever since."
For Kenna, those 65 years have had their financial ups and downs. He served in the military during World War II, went to college and raised a family of nine children. Through it all, he says, he was often tempted, but he never wavered in his tithing. "There were many times when I reached a point where I said, 'Something has to give -- but I'm not going to give up on my tithing.'"
It's a matter of trusting God, Kenna adds, "and God will not be outdone in generosity."
Jesus said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts ), but those who tithe often find themselves on the receiving end as well. "I worked as an industrial engineer through the highs and lows of American industry," Kenna recalls. "Twice my job fell victim to corporate mergers, but the phone always rang just in time. I never lost an hour of work to layoffs."
He sees the difficult times as God's test of our trust. "It's especially hard in the beginning. On your first paycheck, it hurts. On the second, the pain's a little less. At about the third or fourth, there's no pain at all. You get used to it. It's a habit. But you have to make that firm resolution: I'm gonna do it and not give in."
Kenna, like many others, interprets tithing to mean taking ten percent off the "first fruits" -- gross income, rather than net. He divides this up as "5 percent to the parish and 5 percent to other Catholic institutions." He also gives of his time and has, for many decades, been a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Indeed, many Catholics extend the concept of almsgiving beyond money to include time and talent as well, donating a portion of these to worthy causes.
In the late fourth century, St. John Chrysostom looked at the good life people were living in the imperial court, and he was filled with righteous anger. In the name of God, he raged against those who owned toilet seats made of gold, while other people starved in cold hovels.
While our commodes may be made of less precious materials, many Americans today enjoy a better standard of life than any Byzantine emperor ever knew. Central heat, central air conditioning, electric lights, consistently safe food and water, antibiotics, and even aspirin -- these are luxuries beyond the dreams of our ancient ancestors.
We are living high, but are we giving high?
It's a good question to ask ourselves during Lent. It is a scandal, after all, for Christians to have closets overstuffed with clothing when there are families who are shivering because they can't pay their heating bill. It is a scandal for Christians to be epidemically overweight when they have near neighbors who go to bed hungry.
We need to give to God -- whom we meet in our neighbor -- until these problems go away. Whatever we give, whether it's a tenth or a twentieth or half, is symbolic of the greater giving that defines the Christian life. As God gave himself entirely to us, so we give ourselves entirely to Him. In the Eucharist, He holds nothing back. He gives us His body, blood, soul and divinity -- everything He has. That's the giving we need to imitate.
Charity begins at home, where we daily make the choice to give our time, our attention, our affirming smile, and give generously. But charity must not stop there, because for Catholics "home" is universal, and our family is as big as the world. We need to dig deep and give much where much is needed. But, whenever possible, our charity should also involve personal acts, not just automatic withdrawals from our bank account. Pope John Paul asked us to see, and be seen by, "the human face of poverty."
We give what we have till we have nothing left to give. My friend and sometime co-author Regis Flaherty remembers his sister Pat as a woman who practiced giving all her life, to her sibilings, her husband, her children and her friends. To the end, she gave what she could. "When she was dying she was in and out of consciousness, but whenever she looked up at us, she would invariable smile -- absolutely amazing considering how much she was suffering."
Sometimes all we can give is a smile, but sometimes that is the greatest sacrifice, the greatest prayer, and indeed the most generous and most sacrificial alms.
From March 1-7 you won't be seeing too much Vatican activity since many, if not all, of the curial officials (the people who run the various Vatican offices for Pope's apostolic ministry) are making their annual Lenten retreat. This year the retreat is being preached by Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on the theme of "The priest encounters Jesus and follows him."
Cardinal Arinze was interviewed by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano about the retreat. The following comments have been excerpted from that interview, translated by NCRegister correspondent Edward Pentin.
Why did you choose this theme for the retreat of the Pope?
Cardinal Francis Arinze: I thought that in the meeting and following of Jesus, we are able to see a summary of all Christianity. On one side there is Jesus who calls us. On the other, we have with us our response: the encounter, so we follow and this becomes a program for life. It was like that for the first apostles: Jesus saw them and told them to follow him. In the following there includes listening to his teaching, miracles, prayer.
We can say that the apostles have completed three years in seminary and the rector was the Son of God. But the call of Jesus is not only for the priests.
Certainly, the reflections that are offered to the Pope are not only for priests but apply to everyone, because Christianity is about the encounter of Jesus with everyone. Everyone can apply it to himself, according to his vocation and mission. And each can give a different answer.
Among the disciples, there were those who immediately left their nets and became his disciples. But there were also those who remained attached to material things, asked for time, and wanted to first return to their loved ones before leaving.
Since then, two thousand years have passed. Can the man of today still meet Jesus?
If you want to, you can meet him, but always two major obstacles must be overcome. The first is superficiality, distraction. And the second is fear. Pontius Pilate is the paradigm of those who are afraid to face the truth. Jesus speaks to him, but he's afraid. He says, "I have come to bear witness to the truth." And Pilate asks, "What is truth?"
But his question is not that of a philosopher who is awaiting the reply. It's one asked without listening, without waiting, without realizing that the truth is right in front of him. Even today many people are missing an appointment with the truth, because they are afraid of what Jesus is and his message. They do not realize that faith is not an obstacle to existence, but a promise of life and truth that goes beyond what is contingent.
Where can this meeting take place?
One of the key places -- not physical but spiritual -- is prayer. Prayer is to leave a space of silence for God, not only externally, but especially internally. You listen. The meditations I am giving the Pope will speak particularly of this, and will remember the long hours of prayer that Jesus spent alone, and will emphasize that the question the disciples asked: "Lord, teach us to pray".
Another meeting place is in scripture: Jesus is the Word of God who became man. Scripture is the written Word of God. When we read the Bible and when we proclaim it during the liturgy, it is God who speaks. The Gospel is not a dusty book of the past. It is the voice of God today.
A third place is the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. He himself has chosen this as the first pillar, he has given his guarantee that she will always be with you and has promised her the Holy Spirit. In the meditations I will emphasize this dimension: the Church is the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head. This is reflected in the liturgy where we meet Jesus, really and substantially, through Eucharistic communion. It is recognized in charity, especially towards the sick, the elderly, refugees, the poor. Jesus can speak in all these situations. Paul told us that the Church looks at the face of every suffering person and sees Jesus. We do not expect that Jesus will appear, because we are already close to him.
If for the Christian encountering Jesus means to follow Him, what happens when such an attitude of discipleship is missing from the priest?
It is Jesus who gives meaning to the life of the priest. Without him, the priest cannot understand, he no longer makes sense. I would say that his vocation becomes like a farce. For those who, in fact, celebrate, preach, and work?
St. Paul said: "For me, to live is Christ." The priest is Christ's ambassador. So if it is necessary for every Christian to follow Jesus, the more so for the priest. His testimony is before the eyes of everyone, especially those who do not believe.
Of course, it is possible that there are deficiencies in priests. Not all priests have been, and are, saints. The Gospel does not hide the weaknesses and falls of the disciples of Christ. There were those who asked Jesus to set fire to a city of Samaria, or who attributed themselves the right to be the first among all.
And then there is Judas Iscariot, who was with Jesus, but didn't love him. He hardened his heart, closed it to him. This demonstrates that the human heart can fail, that the freedom given by God can be misused. In the history of the Church, unfortunately this has happened other times.
Can the penitential dimension of Lent help a priest renew his experience of his encounter with Christ?
Yes, starting with the act of receiving the ashes, which means to accept being sinners. The Church asks to pray a lot during Lent not only as a sign of adoration to God but also to repent of sins committed. It is not enough to receive forgiveness from God, we must also recognize that we have offended the love of God.
And then there is fasting to which the Pope has dedicated his Lenten message. It is today seen just as a gesture, but it should be understood in the proper meaning. Its true meaning is doing something pleasing for others such as sharing goods with the poor.
Solidarity with the suffering is also a way to show the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebration. At the end of Mass the priest says: Go and live what has been celebrated, heard, meditated and prayed. Helping those who are elderly, alone, imprisoned, disabled, is a way to live the Eucharist.
Benedict XVI clearly says this in Deus Caritas Est: If the Eucharist does not translate into works of charity it is fragmented, incomplete.
But shouldn't we still recall the sobriety with which the Pope has re-launched his message of this year?
To fast is to accept that we are sinners. You do without something. It is also a means of spiritual 'training', similar to what athletes practice in order to succeed in a sport.
Then there is the most dynamic dimension, which is precisely that of helping the poor. Spend less and help our brothers who have not: it is the lifestyle advocated by the Pope in his message for World Day of Peace this year. The Christian spirit must go in the opposite direction with respect to unfettered consumerism.
Having beliefs and cabinets that are full -- full of things that often we do not need or use just a few times -- is an insult to the poor.
Here's part II of Mike Aquilina's "An Introduction to Lent."
The question came from a non-Catholic Boy Scout in my son's troop. We had spent a long, soggy weekend in the middle of the woods. And now, Sunday morning, the adults announced that breakfast would be delayed so that the Catholics could keep the Communion fast. He was not a happy camper.
His question comes to mind again as Lent begin, because fasting is the most distinguishing practice of the season. On two days in Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics limit their eating to one full, meatless meal. On all the Fridays of Lent we abstain from meat.
Why do Catholics fast? Our reasons find firm grounding in the Bible.
When we fast, we follow holy example. Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before going into God's presence (Exodus 34:28, 1 Kings 19:8). Anna the Prophetess fasted to prepare herself for the coming of the Messiah (Luke 2:37). They all wanted to see God, and they considered fasting a basic prerequisite. We, too, wish to enter God's presence, so we fast.
Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:2). And since He needed no purification, He surely did this only to set an example for us. In fact, He assumed that all Christians would follow His example. "When you fast," he said, "do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting" (Matthew 6:16). Note that He did not say "IF you fast," but "when."
And WHEN is now. In Lent the Church extends the idea of fasting, beyond the minimal skipping of meals, to a more far-reaching program of self-denial. Jesus said: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself ... daily" (Luke 9:23). So we "give up" something that we'd ordinarily enjoy: sweets, soda pop, a favorite TV show, or the snooze alarm.
Fasting has its health benefits, but it's not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body.
The Bible spells out specific spiritual benefits of fasting. It produces humility (Psalm 69:10). It shows our sorrow for our sins (1 Samuel 7:6). It clears a path to God (Daniel 9:3). It is a means of discerning God's will (Ezra 8:21) and a powerful method of prayer (8:23). It's a mark of true conversion (Joel 2:12).
Fasting helps us to be detached from the things of this world. We fast, not because earthly things are evil, but precisely because they're good. They're God's gifts to us. But they're so good that we sometimes prefer the gifts to the Giver. We practice self-indulgence rather than self-denial. We tend to eat and drink to the point where we forget God. Such indulgence is really a form of idolatry. It's what St. Paul meant when he said, "their god is the belly ... with minds set on earthly things" (Philippians 3:19).
How can we enjoy God's gifts without forgetting the Giver? Fasting is a good way to start. The body wants more than it needs, so we should give it less than it wants.
Saint John of the Cross said that we cannot rise up to God if we are bound to the things of this world. So we give up good things, and gradually we grow less dependent on them, less needy.
All of this is part of our preparation for heaven. For we're destined to lose our earthly goods anyway. Time, age, illness and "doctor's orders" can take away our taste for chocolate, our ability to enjoy a cold beer, and even the intimate embrace of a loved one. If we have no discipline over our desires, then these losses will leave us bitter and estranged from God. But if we follow Jesus in self-denial, we'll find a more habitual consolation in the ultimate good -- God Himself.
How is it that some people are able to remain serene and cheerful amid extreme suffering and even when facing imminent death? It's not just a matter of temperament. They've prepared themselves for the moment by giving up the things of this world, one small thing at a time. They've grown so accustomed to small sacrifice that the big one isn't such a stretch.
No one says that fasting is easy. In fact, says Benedictine Father Thomas Acklin, author of The Passion of the Lamb: God's Love Poured Out in Jesus. "Fasting can seem very hard, and it can seem that if I do not eat I will become weak and will not be able to work, or pray, or do anything.
"Yet there is that marvelous moment," he adds, "when, after some hours have passed, my stomach has stopped growling and I've even forgotten what I've given up, when there is a lightness, a freedom, a clarity of the senses and a brightness of attitude and feeling, an incomparable closeness to the Lord."
Lent is a special season, but God wants these forty days to have a lasting effect on our lives. So, in a sense, fasting is for always. Father Rene Schatteman, an Opus Dei chaplain in Pittsburgh, says that he received this lesson directly from a canonized saint. "I learned from St. Josemaria Escriva, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, that a person should make some small sacrifice at each meal, always, and not just during Lent."
Fr. Schatteman emphasizes the importance of little things, and the big effect they can have: "We should all feel the need to help Christ redeem the world by practicing self-denial in everyday, ordinary eating and drinking ... to take a bit less, or a bit less of what we like most, to avoid eating between meals, to skip a snack or dessert, etc., without making a big deal of it."
A Pittsburgh businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me of his longtime practice of fasting on Fridays, "a 12-15 hour fast from food, water-only." He said, however, that this can be difficult to carry out, not because of the hunger, but because it can disrupt family life. "It's very hard to sit at the family table and not eat. It's not so much a question of resisting the temptation of the food. I always felt like I was breaking fellowship. My fasting actually felt selfish, like I was taking something away from our time together as a family."
He has since modified his fast, "to be broken at the family dinner in the evening."
Why do Catholics fast? Our anonymous businessman put it well: "It's medicine for my biggest problem -- selfishness and lack of self-control. To force myself to curb my appetites, to not satisfy my desires -- even for a short period of time -- this is a good thing. To offer up the little sacrifice to God, for my family, for people who are hungry through no choice of their own, this I think is also good."
Mike Aquilina's 2007 "An Introduction to Lent" is a helpful reminder of what we ought to thoughtfully (and prayerfully) consider doing .... Here is part I:
It's not so much by the ash mark on your forehead or fish marks on the calendar. Tradition tells us that Lent has three distinguishing marks: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
This three-part series will examine those practices. Prayer is surely the best place to begin, because it's the one that unites them all. Fasting and almsgiving are themselves just forms of prayer.
There are two classic definitions of prayer. The one in most catechisms comes from St. John of Damascus (eighth century): "Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God." The other comes from St. Clement of Alexandria (third century). He defined prayer as "conversation with God."
In prayer we talk to God, and He talks to us. As in any relationship, this conversation takes many forms. Think of all the ways a husband and wife communicate: formal marriage vows, casual chat, winks across a crowded room, affectionate caresses, and phrases they never tire of repeating.
Our communication with God includes a similar range of expressions -- set phrases, quiet conversation, gestures such as the Sign of the Cross, and the intimate embrace of the sacraments. Just as a man and woman grow in love by repeating "I love you," so we Christians grow in love by repeating the Church's prayers.
Prayer comes in many forms and styles. These are usually divided into "vocal" and "mental" prayer. The categories are helpful, but not watertight. All prayer, after all, should involve our mind; so, in a sense, all prayer is mental prayer. Modern writers sometimes speak of the two types as formal prayer and spontaneous prayer.
Again, such distinctions are useful; we should, however, step beyond them for a moment. When we look at all prayer as conversation, it can change the way we go about it. Thinking of prayer as conversation can help us also to overcome obstacles -- such as distractions, dryness, inability to focus -- because all these things also come up in human conversation.
Prayer is a conversation that never ends. In the Scriptures, St. Paul says: "Pray at all times" (Ephesians ); "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:1); and "be constant in prayer" (Romans ). He saw prayer as endless conversation.
That seems to be asking a lot, but it's really the best way to think about it. If we are to pray this way, we have to form the habit of prayer. And, like any good habit or skill, prayer requires a sustained effort, over time, with much repetition.
Many people bristle when they hear about discipline in prayer. They think prayer should always be spontaneous. And sometimes prayer does come spontaneously, as when we experience some great joy or great sorrow. But spontaneity is most often the fruit of discipline. It is usually the best-trained musicians who are able to improvise freely. To do anything well takes time, dedication and patient endurance through sometimes-tedious exercises.
The most effective way to discipline our prayer life is by following a program, a schedule of sorts -- what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called "a game plan for the Christian." The best time to set up such a plan is during Lent.
A "plan of life" is a firm but flexible program that schedules our prayer amid the ordinary duties of work, family life and social activity. A daily plan should include some vocal prayers, such as the Rosary or other devotions; plus reading of the Bible and some spiritual book (the writings of the saints are best); attendance at Mass (at least on Sundays and holy days, but more often if possible); and quiet time for more focused conversation with God in mental prayer. The best place for this prayer is in church, before Jesus in the tabernacle.
"Prayer first means God is speaking to us and not the other way around," says Father Kenneth Myers, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. "That requires silence -- the art of listening carefully to the Lord. And the best place to do that is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament requires real effort and commitment, but even when our hearts are dry and it seems fruitless to keep on praying, being before the Eucharistic Lord is like being in the sunlight -- even by doing nothing we still absorb those powerful rays of light."
Our plan should also include weekly or monthly practices, such as confession, fasting, almsgiving and so on.
It helps to set standard times, or to key each practice to other activities, so that we never forget. We can keep our spiritual book by the coffee pot and read while the java is brewing every morning. We can use the beginning of our lunch hour as a reminder to say the Angelus. We can pray the Rosary while waiting for the bus home in the evening. We can listen to ten minutes of the Bible on tape as we drive.
We should plant prayers throughout the day like vines. Put one here, one there -- and pretty soon, like ivy on a wall, our prayer will cover our day.
This is how Jesus modeled prayer for us. His own prayer life was rich and varied. Sometimes He offered formal prayers (Mark , ). He kept holy days, made pilgrimages and attended the rich liturgy of the Jews (John -14). He also prayed spontaneously (John -42). He made time to pray alone in silence (Luke -22). Yet He also prayed together with His friends (Luke ). He fasted, and He studied the Scriptures.
The first Christians followed their Lord in all these practices, and so do we.
Not that it's always easy to do. But the formal quality of prayer helps us know what to do when we meet with obstacles. "Never, Never, never, never give up!" says my friend Steve Galvanek. A systems analyst, husband and dad, Steve says his plan sustains him even when he's tired and preoccupied. "If in my feeble attempts to say a Rosary, I manage just one or two heartfelt Hail Marys, that's far better than if I hadn't tried at all"
Even the more unpleasant and difficult things in life can become reminders to pray. The key is to think of them as opportunities rather than obstacles. Another friend of mine, Sarah Scott, admits that it's hard to find time to pray. She's a mother of five, owner of a home-based business and volunteer at her children's Catholic school. "It helps to offer everything up all the little things that you don't like to do," she says. "I hate folding laundry. But, instead of getting annoyed about it, I try to offer it up and think about what other people have to deal with. Efforts like this keep me talking with God throughout the day."
Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.