“When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. There were some who were indignant. ‘Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wager and the money given to the poor.’ They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, ‘Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.'” (Mk 14:3-9)
The gift of the woman at Bethany was not small. She came to Jesus with repentance and sincerity of heart; with her broken jar she anointed Him with the best that she had, holding nothing back. She gave to Christ from her heart.
Such sincere gift left her vulnerable in the eyes of others. They were irritated and criticized her gift. Why wasn’t she following convention? Why wasn’t she displaying kindness in the popular way?
Perhaps this woman knew what their reaction would be beforehand. Her actions were somewhat radical… but at the same time, they weren’t. Would one who truly loves hold anything back from the beloved? Nothing is wasted on Christ.
Amid the scoffing of the bystanders, Christ read the woman’s heart. “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me…She has done what she could.” These words must have been a wealth of consolation for the woman. She had the guts to run to Christ and now He was hiding her in His bosom, acknowledging that her actions were beautiful and pleasing.
The woman cared little for human respect and public opinion. She gave glory to God in the best way she knew how, and let the others think what they wanted.
The bystanders thought that she should love God through charity to the poor. But the woman went far beyond mere external actions- she gave God her heart. This woman gave all that was most precious to her to Christ, without bothering about people’s opinions and envious thoughts.
What is in my alabaster jar? What is my gift of priceless worth that I am holding back from God for fear of the opinions of others? Dear Lord, help me to break my alabaster jar and give my heart to You.
My outraged Jesus, / by the weakness You suffered in going to Calvary, / give me enough strength to overcome all human respect / and all my evil passions which have led me to despise Your friendship. / I love You, Jesus my Love, with all my heart; / I am sorry for ever having offended You. / Never permit me to offend You again. / Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me as You will. (The Way of the Cross according to St. Alphonsus Liguori)
The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father.
For which of these are you trying to stone me?”
The Jews answered him,
“We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy.
You, a man, are making yourself God.”
Jesus answered them,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, ‘You are gods”‘?
If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came,
and Scripture cannot be set aside,
can you say that the one
whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world
blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me,
believe the works, so that you may realize and understand
that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Then they tried again to arrest him;
but he escaped from their power.
When it came to listening to His sermons and watching His miracles, Jesus’s followers were totally on board. But when He proclaimed Himself the Son of God, none of the Jews listening to Him—as we saw in Friday’s Gospel—could accept such an outrageous claim. They were familiar with prophets, men who proclaimed God’s truth and channeled His power to perform miracles, but a man who was God? Blasphemy.
We, too, can be susceptible to this mindset of imagining God not as a Person but as a distant, lofty idea, a series of teachings and traditions to be practiced. The truth of the Church is deep and complex, something that we can really sink our teeth into and deeply reflect upon on a theoretical level—but first and foremost, truth is a Person. Jesus is not merely a representative of the truth, a preacher of God’s Word; He is truth. The people struggled to grasp this; they couldn’t comprehend how a man could be so arrogant as to think himself on the same level as God Almighty. What they didn’t consider is that God would deign to lower Himself to our level, to take on human flesh for our sake. Jesus is telling them not that a man is God, but that God is a man. And this proclamation is not blasphemy but love: that the heart of the universe beats within the chest of this humble, ordinary-looking man. This Jesus—ever loving and peaceful, drawing crowds and crowds of followers anxious to see Him and to touch Him—this is the face of Yahweh.
We are called not only to know and understand God but also to be His hands and feet, vessels of God in the world. Christianity is not merely about studying and preaching God’s Word; rather, it is about relationship with the living Word. It is about offering our whole lives to become the manifestation of God’s Word.
As we approach Holy Week, let us draw close to God, peeling away the sins and fears that separate us from Him. Let us experience His Passion, Death, and Resurrection from a perspective of intimate relationship with Him instead of just going through the motions. And let us pray that we might manifest God in the world, so that through our presence others may encounter the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Image: Icon of Christ Pantocrator, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai / PD-US
By now, you’ve probably been asked, “What are you doing for Lent?” And, whether you’re willing to share, you likely have an answer. You probably know what you did last year for Lent and may even be able to recall the most memorable or challenging thing you ever did for Lent. But what if the question were, “What is God doing for you this Lent?” I’m willing to bet that most of us never consider that question. For many of us, Lent is about what we’re doing – mostly what we’re “giving up”. Lent becomes a contest with ourself to see if we can make it the whole season without giving in. And we reward ourself by overindulging at Easter because we made it! When Lent is reduced to the acts of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving – with no other end in mind – then we really miss the whole point of Lent. We end up spending 40 days going through an exercise that amounts to … a 40-day exercise.
About three weeks ago, I seriously injured my arm. I was at work and was carrying some things when, suddenly, I felt a surge of electricity run through my arm and I dropped what I was carrying. I knew immediately that it was bad – bad enough to require surgery. I had damaged a major muscle and found myself broken in a way that I couldn’t fix. My wife picked me up from work and we headed straight to my doctor’s office. The next day and a half were spent seeing doctors, getting x-rays, pre-admitting for surgery, talking with insurance companies, and waiting. Thankfully, the surgeon was able to squeeze me in to his schedule just two days after the injury. I began that day well before daybreak, showered with surgical scrub, showed up right on time at the outpatient clinic, filled out even more paperwork, and signed the consent forms. In the end, though, none of what I did fixed me. Sure, I had to do lots of stuff, but I had to rely on the doctor to put me back together. My arm is now beginning to heal – not because I filled out some form, but because a skilled surgeon fixed what what was broken.
What we do for Lent is not the point of Lent. What God does is the point of Lent. We all find ourselves broken in a way that we can’t fix. It’s what we call the fallen human condition and none of us are exempt from it. We need to be healed and restored, but no matter what, we can’t do it by ourselves – we need God for that part. We have our part to do, but it will be Him who ultimately puts us back together. Lent is sort of like those two days before my injury and my surgery – we have to wake up (recognize that we’re broken!), clean up (fasting and confession!), show up (prayer!), and sign the consent form (give God permission to do what only He can do!).
In Luke’s Gospel, we read the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem during the time of Passover. He sends some of his disciples ahead to prepare a room for the meal (Luke 22:12). We all know the significance of that meal – it’s the one we call “the Last Supper”, the one we recall on Holy Thursday. It’s at that meal that Jesus institutes the Priesthood. It’s at that meal that He gives His command to serve, which He demonstrates by His own example of washing the feet of the disciples. The disciples that had been sent ahead were given an important job – prepare the room. They cleared a space, set the room, prepared a meal, and served it – but it was Jesus who did the real work!
We are often invited and allowed to play a role in God’s work – and often it is by preparing the room. We do this at Mass – we set flowers, light candles, sing songs, read Scripture, exchange a sign of peace, and so on. But Jesus does the real work! We set the space for Him to show up! In the end, it is not about what we do, but what HE does.
And so it is with Lent. Give something up for Lent – so that Jesus can fill up the space left empty through your fasting. Pray more during Lent – so that Jesus may transform your life. Give to the poor – so that Christ may meet you through them. Lent is about preparing room for Jesus to meet you in the deepest part of your heart, where He can heal and transform you. What you do for Lent matters only to the extent that it makes room for God to do the real work.
If you want this Lent to matter, look past the stuff you’re doing. Look at what God is doing. Don’t rush back to business as usual when we reach Easter – that’s likely when He is finally able to begin the real work once you’ve cleared some room for Him.
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
— John M. C. Crum, Now the Green Blade Rises
A number of my young friends have died, either from cancer or suicide. It is difficult saying goodbye to people who die in old age, and even more so when they die young.
However, we as Christians have a steadfast hope in the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting. Death no longer has the final word. This is the Good News which is the fruit of the Cross! It is this knowledge that enables us to meet even the most painful death joyfully with serenity, knowing that beyond it lies eternal life.
Lent is a chance to reflect on our lives, purify our souls, and prepare for a good death, however it may come. We should not be like the foolish virgins with no oil in their lamps, but rather, emulate the wise virgins who were prepared when the Bridegroom came (Matthew 25:1-15). Christ, the Bridegroom of our souls, awaits our entrance to the Wedding Feast which is Heaven, abiding in Love forever.
It is, of course, still very painful for those left behind; the grief is in proportion to the love bestowed. Yet, we can smile through our tears, knowing that in spirit, our loved ones are still near to us, and that one day we may meet again, never to part.
If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, sore undone, who keep
Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep.
For my sake – turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort other hearts than thine.
Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you. – A. Price Hughes & Mary Lee Hall
One Saturday morning I reached for my watch, my saint bracelet, my ring and my necklace — only to realize that the necklace wasn’t there.
“I’ve lost my necklace!” I cried in dismay over the phone to my boyfriend.
“It’ll turn up, it’s there somewhere,” he said comfortingly, which only served to increase my annoyance.
“No it’s not!”
Indeed, after searching high and low through all the places I had visited the day before, I had to concede defeat. It was especially saddening because I had worn that silver chain with a Miraculous Medal for almost 10 years, and the medal was a turquoise hue which is no longer stocked in the cathedral bookshop here. I also lost a Jerusalem Cross given to me on pilgrimage last year by a kindly Orthodox gentleman at Jacob’s Well.
“I hope that Miraculous Medal changes someone’s life!” I quipped to the man behind the counter of St Vincent de Paul’s (Vinnies) charity shop.
My friend Heather at the Cathedral bookshop took pity on me. “Have this instead, it’s been sitting here for weeks with no-one claiming it!” she said, handing me a Seven Sorrows rosary.
“And you can have this too — your boyfriend can fix it,” she said, fishing out a broken rosary bracelet.
“Oh, and take this as well…”
I lost two precious sacramentals, but I gained three beautiful rosaries in return. I guess God wants me to pray more this Lent, and practice detachment from material things, even though they be sacramentals! Also, now I may not have a Jerusalem Cross to wear, but I’m finally wearing a crucifix. Have you experienced similar blessings in losing things?
Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?
Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.
But must it be this way?
It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.
The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.
As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities? Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?
We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God. It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.
In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.
This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.
After arresting him they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest; Peter was following at a distance. They lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat around it, and Peter sat down with them. When a maid saw him seated in the light, she looked intently at him and said, “This man too was with him.” But he denied it saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A short while later someone else saw him and said, “You too are one of them”; but Peter answered, “My friend, I am not.” About an hour later, still another insisted, “Assuredly, this man too was with him, for he also is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “My friend, I do not know what you are talking about.” Just as he was saying this, the cock crowed, and the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly. (Luke 22: 54-62)
How did Jesus look at Peter? What was on his face that made Peter remember that he had denied Christ, just as Jesus had predicted? What did Jesus’ expression say that made Peter go out and weep bitterly?
Jesus could have looked at Peter with a smug face that said, “I told you so!” How many of us would give someone a smug expression after being proved right?
He could have looked at Peter with anger. “How could you deny me, after everything I’ve taught you, everything I’ve done for you!?!?” How many of us would respond in anger, upon discovering that someone we loved denied even knowing us?
Christ could have looked at Peter with hurt and sadness, where his eyes said it all: “All I ever asked from you was to follow me, and you can’t even do that when I need you the most…” How many of us would respond to being betrayed with tears in our eyes?
Jesus could have looked at Peter in any of those ways – they are all certainly human responses – and any of these responses could certainly lead Peter to weep.
But these looks don’t belong on the face of Jesus that Peter knew; the Jesus that we all know.
I believe that Jesus looked at Peter with love. When I read and reflect on this passage, I picture Jesus’ eyes saying, “I forgive you. I am with you to the end. I still love you, no matter what you do.”
And that kind of expression – that look of love, even when we feel unworthy of being loved – is what made Peter weep.
During the Lenten season, we seek to turn back from sin and to God. Each of the practices of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—helps us to do this. While Lent is not a season of merriment in the Church, it should nevertheless be a season of hope, and one of joy.
Sin is a turning away from God. It is disobedience to His will for us, and it is the preference of something—anything!—else to God. Indeed, because God is not composed of parts , these three statements are in fact one and the same statement. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives an analogy of a good life and a good society to the sailing of a fleet of ships. To reach the fleet’s destination, the ships must be well-sailed; they must be well-coordinated so as to not interfere with each other; and they must have a clear destination and route to reach that destination. Sin in this analogy takes on three forms—the individual ships may be badly handled; or the ships are collectively poorly coordinated, so that they stray apart (or crash together) regardless of handling; or they have the wrong destination in mind, so that they do not end where they ought .
These three conditions for a good fleet correspond to three conditions found in a good life and a good society:
The well-run ship is akin to person’s own self-mastery.
The well-coordinated fleet is like the harmony between members of a society.
The proper destination for the fleet is an analog to both the individual’s and the society’s being “ordered” to the good.
The first condition means that each man has developed the virtues so that his intellect (captain) governs his will (bosun or boatswain ) which directs his passions (crew) and can overcome his desires or appetites (fears, obstacles). The second means locally that men will help each other to increase in virtue, that they will work together towards common (and sometimes individual) goals; and on a larger scale that laws will be just, that they will enable each person to do what is right and inhibit his ability to do what is wrong. The third condition is the defining principle or “final cause” of a good society and a good life. It means that both man and society must seek (and be guided by) the highest good, which ultimately means to discern and pursue God’s will for each individual and for society as a whole.
In his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas describes three sources of temptation. These are the flesh, the world, and the devil. While these three temptations a can strike at any level, they correlate most directly to each of the three conditions of the good life and the good society:
Temptations of the flesh strike at us directly attempting to ensnare us through the will, or indeed through the passions or the appetites. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the flesh tempts us by seeking “its own pleasures, namely, carnal pleasures, in which often is sin. He who indulges in carnal pleasures neglects spiritual things.” These temptations put us in internal discord. Several of the deadly sins strike us here—in particular, lust and gluttony, and to some extent sloth.
Worldly temptations are temptations towards a good which may not be ours to possess. According to St. Thomas, the word tempts us with “excessive and intemperate desire for the goods of this life,” and also with “the fears engendered by persecutors and tyrants.” These temptations put us at odds with our neighbors, with society as a whole, and even with the Church as a community. The deadly sins of avarice and envy are principally provoked by temptations of the world, and wrath may be our response to our neighbors when so tempted.
The devil is the subtlest tempter, as St. Thomas notes.
“The devil proceeds most cunningly in tempting us. He operates like a skillful general when about to attack a fortified city. He looks for the weak places in the object of his assault, and in that part where a man is most weak, he tempts him. He tempts man in those sins to which, after subduing his flesh, he is most inclined… he does not at once appear to suggest something that appears to us as evil, but something that has the semblance of good. Thereby he would, at least in the beginning, turn a man from his chief purpose, and then afterwards it would be easier to induce him to sin, once he has been turned away ever so little.”
These temptations lead most directly to discord with God and his Church as Magister. The principal deadly sins which are associated with these temptations are pride and wrath, and to a lesser extent acedia.
Three more things should be said here regarding these three types of temptations. The first is, all three can tempt us to do evil or to avoid good. Both are forms of sin, which is why our confession asks for forgiveness both for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. The second is that all three temptations can work together . The third is that any of the deadly sins may strike through any of these temptations or combination of temptations, even if some temptations lend themselves more closely to certain deadly sins.
Just as there are three sources of temptation—the flesh, the world, and the devil—so there are three Lenten practices which combat these temptations. These are the aforementioned practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Each of these practices helps us to better resist temptation in general, but we can also see that each one is especially good at strengthening us against a particular type of temptation:
Fasting helps us to gain mastery over our desires, and fights temptations of the flesh. Note that fasting here need not mean only “eating little” or even “eating less,” though this is the literal translation. It can mean giving up any thing which gives us pleasure, be it eating chocolate or spending time on facebook or reading dime comics and penny dreadfuls, etc. This is the reason behind the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” This is also why giving up something innocuous is still beneficial to us.
Almsgiving helps to order ourselves as members of a good society and fight temptations of the world. By freely giving away from what we have, we learn detachment from our worldly belongings, and are reminded that all we have—time, talent, treasure—are so many gifts from God. We become less covetous of that which we will give away.
Prayer helps us to discern the will of God for us, and it also helps to fight temptations of the devil. In prayer we turn back to God, we praise Him for his goodness, we thank Him for His blessings, we ask Him for His grace, and we request His guidance in our lives. Indeed, we pray that He will “lead us not into temptation,” which is different from asking that we will not be tempted. We are here asking that God will not withdraw His graces from us, because it is when He does this that we are most apt to actually consent to the temptation rather than resisting it.
I think that there are two things which are left to be said in this brief essay. The first is that we should, when undertaking penances, bear in mind the difference between self-discipline and self-punishment; between mortification and torture. The second is related to this, which is that we should therefore approach the Lenten practices and penances with some sense of Joy. Venerable Fulton J. Sheen writes in his reflection on the Seven Last Words that
The Christian fasts not for the sake of the body, but for the sake of the soul… The Christian does not fast because he believes the body is wicked, but in order to make it pliable in the hands of the soul, like a tool in the hands of a skilled workman….
We are to mortify bodily hunger and thirst, not because the flesh is wicked, but because the soul must ever exercise mastery over it, lest it become a tyrant…. When such surrenders of the superfluous food and drink are made for the soul’s sake, let it all be done in a spirit of joy. ‘And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that though appear not to men to fast, by to thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee” [Matthew 6:16-18].
We are, in addition, to cultivate a spiritual hunger and thirst. Mortification of the bodily appetites is only a means, not an end. The end is union with God, the soul’s desire.
Far from being a gloomy rejection of our pleasures, the penances of Lent are a joyful movement towards God. Part of this is becoming masters of ourselves, including of our bodies, and another part is in becoming a good society. We are undergoing a sort of spiritual growth, and with this comes some growth pains. We will expect some struggles in this, and it takes discipline. We will fail, perhaps often: but we will also draw ever nearer to our heavenly home, which is cause for joy.
As for our failures, our sins: they may be many, they may be grievous, but God’s mercy is more abundant. As John Henry Cardinal Newman notes in his Meditations and Devotions,
“Lord, our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by you. You count our sins, and, as You count, so can You forgive; for that reckoning…comes to an end; but Your mercies fail not, and Your Son’s merits are infinite.”
 Featured image is a photo of Ein Gedi, Israel, by Rob Bye, posted on Unsplash. I have cropped it slightly.
 That God is absolutely simple—and thus not composed of parts—is a doctrine of classical philosophy which has been adopted and expanded upon by the Church (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 43). The Fourth Lateran Council’sConfession of Faithbegins, “We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature.”
 To this might be added another situation, that they know where they want to go but do not know where they are. Discernment means learning not only the desired final state or outcome, but the “initial conditions,” and indeed the correct path to get from the latter to the former.
 I suppose to extend the analogy further, when the individual goes bad, the will becomes like the quartermaster of a pirate ship, complete with veto power of the captain (intellect) on behalf of the crew (passions etc.)
 In his science fiction short story, “The Feeders,” Michael Flynn has this brief dialogue between two characters (Heinrich, the main character, and his former seminarian comrade, Georg) on temptation:
“What are they,” he [Heinrich] whispered.
“What are what?”
He had not realized he had spoken aloud. “The three sources of sin,” he said, casting the first random thought into his mouth.
“Oh.” They walked a few paces further. “The world is one,” Georg said. “It provides opportunity. A pretty girl. An unwatched billfold. A careless enemy. Then, the flesh provides weakness. We call that Original Sin. It makes us prey to the temptations of the world. Then, finally: the Devil.”
“And what does the Devil do?”
“Why, as we stand there weakening before temptation, the little pumper-nickle creeps up behind us and gives us a push.”
If this is a sightly different synthesis of the three sources of temptation from what is offered above (and by St. Thomas in his Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer), it is one which compliments rather than contradicts what has been said above.
Ash Wednesday is a fairly busy day in many places. People cram into churches and receive ashes in the form of a cross (or a big blob, depending on who is distributing them) on their foreheads. Many churches offer small midday services with readings from Scripture and a distribution of ashes for people who cannot attend Mass that day. Also, as controversial they may be, some places offer “drive-thru” ashes so that people don’t even have to leave their cars to receive ashes!
I find it admirable that so many people begin Lent by receiving this outward sign of our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. Yet, I think it is important that we place our enthusiasm in the right places. I have heard a variety of stories in which Catholics focus more on getting ashes than receiving the Eucharist, and these stories make me a little sad. Then, I think about the times in my own life when the main motivation to get myself to Mass on Ash Wednesday was that afterwards, I would be able to compare foreheads with my friends—and I realize that I do not appreciate the gift of the Eucharist.
Many of us get enthusiastic to receive ashes each year as Lent begins, but we pay no attention to the fact that we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ each week—or several times a week. Should we be proud of this fact?
Personally, I am ashamed of myself. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with taking Ash Wednesday selfies or comparing foreheads with others, but if I’m placing more of my focus on this external marking than on our Eucharistic Lord, I think there is a problem. I cannot count how many times that I have focused more on ashes or some other external aspect of Mass than the gift of the Eucharist!
Ash Wednesday is long gone, and we won’t receive ashes again for many months (that’ll be a nice Valentine’s Day present in 2018!). Yet, while we won’t receive trendy crosses on our foreheads for quite some time, we have the opportunity to receive Jesus Christ. Will we open ourselves up to the graces that He wants to pour out on us? Will we let ourselves be changed as we eat His flesh and drink His blood? The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that:
“Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.” (#1416)
Isn’t this amazing?
Receiving ashes on our foreheads is cool, but consuming Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is infinitely better.
Nearly every Sunday, I see it happen: During the Sign of Peace, parishioners near me smile and reach over to shake my baby’s hand. They peer at my him, trying to make eye contact and perhaps be rewarded with a toothy baby smile. I continue to see this fascination when I go on walks or run errands with my son. Friends will hold out their fingers and coo at my baby, waiting for him to look their way and touch them. They yearn to feel my son’s fingers on their skin and to see his blue eyes look up at them. Sometimes, he looks over and grabs their fingers. On other occasions, he doesn’t even notice them. He’s a baby still growing in his awareness of others and the world, so this is to be expected.
The way that other people react to my son makes me think of the woman in the Gospels who suffered from hemorrhages.
“She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.'” (Mk 5:26-28)
This woman longed for the touch of Christ two thousand years ago, and we yearn for His touch today. How often do we feel like we’re in a crowd of people, trying to draw close to God so that He will hear our petitions? How many times do we call out to God, hands outstretched, like those who encounter my baby boy? Just as people will make funny faces or noises in trying to attract my son’s attention, we will do anything to make God look over and touch us. We will pray louder, piling on more prayers, penances, and devotions. If we don’t feel His presence in our lives, we can become exasperated. We think that, like a baby distracted by his many surroundings, God is preoccupied with other matters and is not paying attention to us.
However, God does not operate in this way. He does not ignore us from afar while we clamor for our voices to be heard. He is not oblivious to our needs and petitions. He knows what we need, even before we ask Him.
“Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Lk 12:7).
When we call out to God, it can be frustrating when we don’t think that our prayers are being answered. We don’t feel the touch of Christ, and we don’t sense that His gaze is upon us. The beautiful reality, though, is that faith is not about our feelings. Even if we don’t have an emotional experience and feel consolation from God, we need to trust that He loves us, cares for us, and is listening to (and answering) our prayers. As we embark on our Lenten journey, let us remember to focus on having faith in God both when it’s easy to see our prayers being answered and when we can’t see visible fruits of our sacrifices and petitions.
One good plan for Lent is to spend some minutes a day studying the faith more, or at least one aspect of it, like the sacraments. In fact, it is recommended that Catholics continuously study and review the faith throughout their lifetime, in order to acquire what St. Josemaria Escriva calls “the piety of children and the doctrine of theologians”. Given the richness of the Catholic faith, there is always something new to be discovered about it every time one studies it.
However, admittedly, the prospect of studying the same thing again and again can initially be unappealing. Fortunately, there are always new ways to approach the same old topics. For example, while most of us have learned the basics of the Catechism either in RCIA or in school or from our mothers’ lips, it is a good idea to revisit the Catechism, this time learning its biblical basis and context.
For those who want to use this approach in studying the sacraments, one good resource is the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies’ video series on “The Bible and the Sacraments”. (Full disclosure: I was given advance access to it, as well as a free copy of the accompanying participants’ workbook.)
Starting Ash Wednesday, the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies will give free access to its video series on “The Bible and the Sacraments” for a limited period of time. The series consists of eleven lessons, each lasting 25 minutes on the average, on the biblical roots of the sacraments as explained by author Matthew Leonard. Two lessons will be posted every week, and will be available for two weeks each. DVDs of the video series are available for sale, but the shipping will start after Easter.
You will need to register to get access to the free videos. Those who register will get discounts on the supplemental materials, which consist of a participant’s workbook, a leader’s guide for those who want to study the materials in a group, and copies of Scott Hahn’s Swear to God and Jacob Wood’s Speaking the Love of God.
In my opinion, these additional materials are not necessary to take full advantage of the lessons. However, based on my experience with the free Bible courses from the website of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, which are accompanied by review questions, I would recommend getting at least the participant’s workbook for The Bible and the Sacraments. The participants’ workbook contains review questions, discussion questions, memory verses, lists of the biblical references, and recommended additional readings from the two books mentioned above and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Personally, I find the review questions most valuable, because I find it helpful to take down handwritten notes based on the review questions. This practice helps me actively engage with the material and remember it better. Of course, each one can and should use the materials according to his or her personal learning style.
I would recommend The Bible and the Sacraments to anyone who wants to understand the sacraments better. I think those who would especially appreciate it are those who already have a rudimentary understanding of the Church’s teachings on the sacraments but who would like to “level up” their study of the subject matter, perhaps rooting it deeper in the Scriptures. However, The Bible and the Sacraments is easy enough for beginners to understand. On the other hand, those who want a more scholarly treatment of the subject matter will be satisfied just the same.
Lent is all about penance, almsgiving, and prayer. Studying the faith facilitates all three. We can offer up the effort we exert in studying the faith to atone for the time we waste in idle curiosity. Studying the faith equips us to give spiritual alms to those who have questions or doubts about it. Above all, studying the faith makes us know God more, and thus helps us relate better with Him in prayer. For these reasons, I look forward to watching the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies’ videos on The Bible and the Sacraments this Lent.
Each time I hear this phrase at Ash Wednesday, I think of a little prayer that was given to me by a sister a while ago. It was created by St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, as a member of the Third Order of the Admirable Mother.
My Lord Jesus Christ
I am nothing,
I can do nothing.
I have nothing but sin.
I am a useless servant, by my nature a child of wrath.
The last of all creatures and the first of sinners.
To me therefore shame and confusion
and to You alone honor and glory forever and ever.
Without some reflection, Lent can start out by me feeling pretty worthless. While it is important that we are reminded of our lowliness from time to time, sometimes I dwell too much on my dustiness. As Lent progresses and I start to fail at my resolutions, it seems that I just live up to the words spoken at the beginning of the season. What are we supposed to do with the reminder that we are undeserving and contemptible? How do we make the correlation between the nothingness of ourselves and Christ, on the cross? We must own our dustiness and discover how we are precious at the same time.
Our Creator is wise because in many cases where construction or growth is involved, the dirt is a good place to start. Though we are simple, our gift of free will allows us to sin. Our bodies age and decay, merely going back into the ground. As is the trend with God, the lowest material was chosen. He then allowed us to retain His image. The result was a body and a soul that held so much potential but in so much need of guidance and aid.
We are precious because of our capacity to so desperately need God and to reflect His image at the same time. We belong to God in every way, and nothing in this universe harmonizes as much as a soul and its Creator. He rejoices when we cry, “Lord, I need you so much. I have so little understanding and ability”. It is an intimate moment when we recognize Christ as our perfect home. We were made to intensely desire Him. Lent is a time to rediscover our worth by forgetting false hopes and embracing our emptiness. If we know we are barren, Christ can enkindle His light and grace in us so that we can reflect Him as our souls were fashioned to.
Christ even became empty in every sense of the word just so we would have a blatant example to follow. What if we did simple things to gradually join Him at His crucifixion? If we echo the cross, will we not echo pricelessness? We will never be alone because He did it first. He waits for us every hour of every day, especially when His sacrifice is magnified each time at Mass.
So for Lent maybe we can simply make a little list of ways to crucify ourselves with Jesus. That imagery may be difficult to picture, but in the true meaning of the phrase, we can drain ourselves of pride, close our eyes to the attention of the world, or understand the pain of others. When we fail, we can be happier still because it will give us another opportunity to tell Christ how much we thirst for Him, as He does for us.