8th Sunday of Ordinary Time
All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Mt 6:32-33
In just a few days now we will begin a new season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday the Church will begin once again to celebrate this holy season of self-denial and penance in preparation for her far greater celebration of the Paschal Mystery from which she was given birth from death, and the gift of Eternal Life which is the cause of her unquenchable joy at Easter. For twenty centuries Catholic faithful have begun this holy season by receiving the sacramental rite of ashes which reminds us not only of the inevitability of death but of the necessity of doing penance and works of self-denial as the preparation necessary for entering into final possession of that glory which awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is a most salutary reminder for us to receive these ashes, and the Season of Lent is a most salutary time if we actually spend this holy season according to its true spirit represented by this sacramental rite that begins it. Lent is supposed to be forty days of more intense prayer, of sincere works of penance and of greater generosity in our works of charity. All three of these, prayer, penance and charitable works are specifically mentioned in the New Testament as means by which we must struggle to overcome our sins, the sins for which Jesus died to save us. These Lenten practices are integral to the “way of the Cross” which we must be willing to take up and follow our Savior, if we wish to share His Glory. Lent, then, is surely a special time of Grace for us all since it renews in us the basics of our spiritual life.
While most of us recognize the importance of prayer in our Christian life – even if we often recognize it only in the breach – and while most of us also likely recognize the importance of charitable works such as almsgiving for making us better and more generous Christians, few Christians today seem to recognize the true indispensability of regular works of penance and self-denial, that is, their indispensability not just in Lent but throughout the year.
Perhaps we in the West are simply too tied to our material comforts to appreciate the roles that frequent acts of self-denial have in bringing us to maturity in the spiritual life. We spend so much of our time and energy in securing our comfortable style of life, often in contradiction to the important advice of Jesus in today’s Gospel, that penance seems like a denial that all that effort has any true value, and therefore of our life having any deeper meaning. We need to ask ourselves, regularly, does our way of life truly reflect a genuine Christian attitude toward the things of this world as expressed by Jesus, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing“? Certainly these things have importance, and Jesus recognizes this when he says, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” But the issue here is how do we effectively relate to the providence of God, that is, do we really trust that he has our needs at heart, and do we truly entrust ourselves to His care and seek more intently the much greater and more permanent things of His Kingdom?
The general attitude of our age is that such deliberate acts of penance and self-denial are way, way too negative and that they debase the person’s dignity. These things are seen as spiritual leftovers from another less enlightened age in which Christians tended to despise the body and to hate the world in general. Today, many Christians have come to believe that they are wiser than previous ages in that we would prefer to limit ourselves to the more positive Lenten practices of increased prayer and almsgiving and omit the negative way of penance.
But then how does one explain the Son of God coming into this world sinless, and living without sin all his life, and yet choosing to fast for 40 days and then going without food and water many other times, living a lifetime of self-denial? If the sinless one, who was nonetheless a true member of our race, living in a sinful world and beset by the temptations of the devil, subjected his sinless humanity to such discipline, will we be so bold as to think his command to do the same was not really meant for us modern sinful human beings? Jesus absolutely was, by virtue of his divine dignity, impeccable, and yet he did not choose to bypass the discipline of fasting and other works of self-denial as necessary means for any man to resist all temptation. Will we, then, dare to think that such “negative” means are not necessary for us who have fallen into sin so many times? Will we deny that these works are necessary not only to resist temptation in the future but to purge the remains of our own sins of the past, these very real “remains” that make us so vulnerable to the further onslaughts of the world, the flesh and the devil?
Sometimes I wonder whether people are perahps misled as to the need to practice penance by the merciful penances they receive in the Sacrament of Penance. Surely we should realize that these merciful penances are simply tokens of our willingness to practice regular penance for our sins, which Christ commands. Surely we do not think that whatever penance we are given in confession can always remit the full temporal punishment due to our sins. We must know that our compassionate, holy Mother Church does not want to make regular Confession a burden, and so the penances we are given are meant to be but tokens based upon our genuine sorrow, the acceptance of which signals our willingness to do all that is necessary in terms of penance, firstly, to overcome the remains of sin in us, and, secondly, to satisfy for whatever temporal punishment is due in justice for our sins.
In what seems to be a clear reference to Purgatory and the need to do real penance for our sins, the Lord once spoke of settling with our opponent before we reach the Judge, or, he said, we will be thrown into prison and we will not get our until the last penny is paid. Our life on earth is truly a journey toward the final judgment that Paul speaks about in the second reading today, the judgment that will reveal our whole life and in which God “will manifest the motives of our hearts” and especially our hatred of our sins and desire to overcome them by the works of penance and self-denial. This how we “settle accounts” before we reach the Judge, and hopefully avoid the purifying fires of Purgatory. For it is true that we will not enter into Heaven until we have “paid the last penny,” that is, been totally purified from all the temporal punishment which remains for our sins after our confessions. So how can it be, then, that we do so little penance here on earth? Are we without spiritual wisdom when it comes to the things of the Spirit?
Holy Mother Church, thus, gives us this holy season for our spiritual welfare. She only specifies two penitential practices during this whole holy season as legally required, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstaining from all meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. But once again, these are but tokens, things to get us started, the minimum to remind us that much more is required for our own good, and we are allowed to choose the penances for the other days of this season. Now I suspect that the Holy Father himself probably requires much moiré of himself and fasts throughout Lent, and he would do so not because he is a greater sinner than you or I, but because he is subject to the much greater temptations of his high office. You can also bet that Mother Teresa fasted even in the midst of the poverty she lived all her life. The saints have always feasted at times, but not as much as they fasted, and not before they fasted, just as Lent comes before Easter.
Lent is indeed a grace-filled season for all of us, a gift from our Holy Mother. Those who take Lent seriously each year will never be taken in by the world and its empty life of show in any significant way. They may fall for this world’s lies for a while, but each year this holy season comes around to remind them what their life is really all about. The words of today’s Gospel will find a resonance in the hearts of those who take Lent seriously: they will not serve money, but God; they will not worry about food and drink because they will freely deny themselves even these necessities of life during 40 days each year. They will not worry about the needs of tomorrow because they developed the habit of entrusting the needs of today to their Father in Heaven. That is what a good Lent can do for all of us, but only our willingness to make the effort will make it really good.