Saturday, February 28, 2009

"In defense of giving something up for Lent" - a homily for the first Sunday of Lent

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, given at the 12:30 Extraordinary Form Mass, March 1, 2009:

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

This week, Holy Mother Church enters into the great season of Lent. Once again, we assume our penitential practices as we prepare for the commemoration of the holiest events of our faith: the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord.

Lent is a season of fasting, abstinence, and self-denial. It is the Church's traditional practice for us to give something up during this season. A small convenience; a small enjoyment; some small pleasure. This practice, however, has become more and more of a foreign concept to many in our world today. Things such as doing penance and fasting are seen as something of a vestige from the past... something that serious "modern people" don't do. After all, our world is all about gratification: the more the better. "Life is short," the modern man would remind us, best to "live it up" while we can. "Eat drink and be merry," the old saying goes, "for tomorrow we die." While our modern world encourages us to live for today, doing penance, in a certain fundamental way, is a recognition of eternity: that you and I are meant for something more than just this world.

Sadly, voluntary self-denial is becoming more and more of an oddity of the past. Even more sadly, this attitude has crept even into Catholic circles, even amongst some priests. Fasting and penance is something increasingly foreign to them, and they attempt to explain these things away, in favor of a "more modern" approach to the season of Lent. "Better to do something extra than to give something up" they usually say. They say things like: "instead of giving something up, pay more attention at Mass... make a donation to a homeless shelter... go visit your elderly neighbor..." While performing acts of charity are indeed a vital part of our spiritual lives, it would be a betrayal of the fundamental purpose of Lent to simply do this in favor of eliminating true acts of penance altogether. After all, shouldn't we be performing acts of charity all throughout the year, not just during Lent? In spite of what some might say, the practice of performing penance is still praiseworthy and even required of us by the Church. More than just simply "focusing" upon something we should already be doing throughout the year, Lent is a time to do more. We mustn't be afraid to challenge ourselves to an even more radical self-denial than what we should already be doing.

Canon law "binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way" (c. 1249). In achieving this end, Canon law specifically recommends works of piety and charity, as well as acts of self-denial. Not to perform some act of self-denial would be in some way a betrayal of what the Church, in her motherly care, asks of her children.

But we may ask ourselves: "why?" Why does holy Church ask her children to suffer, even if only in some small way? The answer to this question lies in her concern that in this life we give proper place to our relationship with God. For we are reminded each Lent that the true purpose of our sacrifices is not that the Church merely wants us to suffer a little bit by avoiding those things we enjoy, but to remind us of our ultimate need for God. For in the coming weeks, when that craving hits us for whatever it is we might have given up, that craving we experience is meant to remind us of the hunger we should have for God in our lives. If only we craved God in our lives as much as we will crave those certain things which we give up... If only we craved God as much as we crave the little comforts of this life, then we all would be better off indeed.

We give up those little things so that we can, if only in some small way, become more like Christ, who gave up His very life for us.

The practice of doing penance is ultimately a practice of stripping away: of stripping away the little comforts and conveniences of this life that can buffer us from entering more deeply into the life of Christ. Eternal life, which you and I are both called to enjoy, is a state of being in perfect union with God. It is an existence where nothing comes between me and God. Attaining to eternal life, then, entails a process of radical self-abandonment, where those things in us which do not pertain to our relationship to God are stripped away: our own human ambitions, our own prerogatives, our own pursuits. All these are stripped away, to make room for that more perfect relationship with Christ. This, the Church reminds us, is the ultimate purpose of the teaching on purgatory: a process that can be likened to a period of penance: of stripping away from us all those things which prevent a more perfect union with God. Our penances this time of year are meant to be a small participation in this purgatorial process, in anticipation of our own destiny as human beings to be united perfectly with God who is the author of our being and who desires to be united with us completely. A good penance, then, shortens our purgatories and achieves in us a more perfect union with God.

This Lent, then, let’s pray that God might give us the strength to live up to our commitments to penance, abstinence, and prayer. Let’s take advantage of those opportunities such as prayer and fasting, the Stations of the Cross, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Eucharistic Adoration, as means to a deeper recognition of our need to change our lives. Let’s pray that we will be prepared to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection with renewed meaning this year.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great homily Paulus!!
I am going to print it out and pass it on to my future mother in law who is a recent convert. I think this will help her understand why we do penance in this season.
Please, please post more of your homilies... they are wonderful.
I still want to see the "groovy" one though!
- Heather Yater