Today's readings help us to prepare for Lent by reminding us of what it takes to be restored to God's image and likeness.
FALL RIVER, MA (Catholic Online). Today we are on the cusp of the holy season of Lent. It's a day on which, rather than getting "all of the sinning out of us" through Mardi Gras decadence, we're called to be praying about our Lenten resolutions so that, with God's grace in this Year of Faith, what begins tomorrow may be the best and most faithful Lent of our life.
Today's readings help us to get ready.
In the first reading, we see the end of the story of creation, in which God created the human person in his divine image and pronounced him "very good." But we know how quickly our first parents fell from that image. Lent is a time for us to recall that like them, we have not always behaved in a "very good" way and so it's a God-given chance to help us to come back to God so that he can recreate us in his holy likeness.
Lent is, in some ways, analogous to the spring training that baseball players are now starting in Florida and Arizona. The world's greatest baseball players are about to start fielding ground balls, catching pop ups, laying down bunts, working on pick-off moves, taking relays from the outfield, and practicing double-plays. It's not that they don't already know how to do this.
Spring training, however, is a time to return to the basics, since if they don't perfect the fundamentals, it's going to be a long year on the diamond.
Likewise, Lent is the time in which Catholics return to the fundamentals of the faith. It's an occasion to focus on our responsiveness to God's graces in our life, leading not just to a "slight course correction" in our behavior, but a thorough conversion, a death to our old ways so that Christ can rise from the dead within us.
It's a time to focus our attention for 40 days on things that we're supposed to be doing throughout the year but that we can often do sloppily or not at all.
Just as baseball players get ready to head to the warmer climates in the south and west, so we need to be getting ready with Jesus to go to the desert for the next 40 days.
Tomorrow Jesus will focus on the fundamental practices of prayer, fasting and charity. As we today finalize our resolutions with regard to each of them, it's important that we recognize that these practices by themselves won't necessarily restore us to the image of God we disfigure by our sinfulness. We need to engage in them in a way that unites us in love to God and others. Otherwise, rather than helping to renew us, even these practices can separate us from God.
That's what Jesus indicates in the Gospel today.
The scribes and Pharisees of his day were full of religious practices. Even the minutest things of daily life - from the way they washed their hands to the way the cleansed their cooking utensils - were in a sense meant to be done in religious obedience.
The problem for them is that many of the scribes and Pharisees thought that if they carried out these practices, everything was fine in their relationship with God. And they would often think that their religious practices and traditions gave them an excuse not to follow the commandments.
That's what Jesus mentioned at the end of the Gospel when he pointed out that they were setting aside the fourth commandment of honoring one's parents in order, supposedly, to dedicate all their belongings to God - as if God was the one who wanted them to neglect to care for their parents.
Likewise, to live a good and holy Lent, it's not enough for us merely to say prayers, or to skip meals, or to give sums to those who are needy. We need to have more than good practices on the outside. We need to orient ourselves by these practices to God on the inside, so that we may be a good tree naturally producing good fruit in acts of love for God and others.
So let's examine the practices Jesus will mention tomorrow so that we can make good resolutions today about them.
In Lent, Jesus, through the Church he founded, calls each of us to increase the quality and the quantity of our prayer. Prayer, as Pope Benedict likes to say, is "faith in action," but prayer is far more than merely "saying our prayers." It's meant to bring about a transforming, loving communion with God.
Good Lenten resolutions about prayer would be: to come to daily Mass, where Jesus teaches us with his Word and then feeds us with his flesh and blood; to pray the Stations of the Cross each Friday, in which the Lord strengthens us to pick up our daily Crosses and follow him all the way home to heaven; to make a holy hour each day and come to adore him in the Eucharist, as we accompany him in his prayer the desert and in Gethsemane.
The second practice that restores us to God's image is fasting. Fasting, as all Catholics are called to do on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by norm and each of us is called to do in a way we determine throughout Lent, helps us to recall that our body of dust and its desires are not the most important thing. "Man does not live on bread alone," Jesus will say to the devil in the desert, "but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4).
Sometimes we can live a life in which we just try to satisfy our hungers and desires, to go from one pleasure to another. We can shy away from the tougher parts of the living our faith. Fasting allows us to subordinate our bodily desires and needs to those of our soul. It allows us to control our desires rather than let them control us.
That is why oftentimes priests will encourage to fast those who are trying to overcome addictions - to alcohol, to drugs, to sex - because if they can learn how to control a desire that is necessary for survival, like eating, then they can also more easily grow to control desires for things that they don't really need to survive, like drugs, sex or booze. The more we acquire the ability to say no to our desires, in other words, the easier it is to say yes to God and to more important things.
The third Lenten restorative practice is to give alms. Very often the sins we commit flow from selfishness or egocentrism, from putting ourselves first. That is why the Lord commands us to give alms, which requires us to look toward others' needs, not just our own; to love others in deeds and not just wish them well; to take responsibility for the welfare of others, for as often as we fail to do something for them, we fail to do it to Christ (Mt 25:45).
Jesus, who gave everything for us down to his last drop of blood, tells us to follow him in this way, by giving of ourselves, our time and our material resources generously for others.
As we make our Lenten resolutions at the cusp of this 40-day interior pilgrimage, it's important, first, to keep all three of these practices in mind. Making Lenten resolutions is not meant to be a multiple-choice test in which we select only one of the three fundamental practices to work on.
We should make a resolution in each of these three areas, spurred on by a deep repentance for how we've so often marginalized God rather than prayed without ceasing; sought to satiate our desires rather than deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow Jesus; and ignored or used others rather than loved them as Christ loves us.
Just like baseball players in spring training need to work on all aspects of their game, one at a time, so we, too, need to focus on each of these fundamental areas of the Christian life. Otherwise we'll be no more effective than a ball player who fields fabulously but throws wildly.
Secondly, we need to recall what is the purpose behind all of these practices: to become holy, to become Christ-like, to become a saint. Just like spring training is meant to lay the foundation for what every baseball player desires, a championship, so Lent is supposed to train us for the full season of life so that we might make the eternal hall of fame, not merely individually, but together with the teammates God has given us.
The resolutions we make are meant to keep that in mind. Is giving up sweets or coffee during Lent a good penance? It's certainly not harmful, but it's hard to see how alone that will be enough to form the person on the road to holiness.
It also needs to be admitted that a great deal of pusillanimity has crept into the way many of us make our Lenten resolutions. Christ calls us, rather, to be bold. He gives us this time as an annual three-a-day training camp during which - after the failures of past seasons - to train for holiness.
It's not enough to give up "something," or to pray "a little more" or to fill up a rice bowl for those in need. It's a time to respond to the offer of the Lord's help to push ourselves beyond what we think capable, in order to be formed into the persons and team he created us to be.
It's a time to be formed into other Christs who pray, fast, give of themselves - who truly live by faith.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, MA and national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. His homilies and articles are found on catholicpreaching.com.
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