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Posts Tagged ‘Lent 2017’

We have several of his Lenten homilies – I can’t find them all in English translation online, but what is there…is linked here. I think 49 is my favorite.

Reading these excerpts – or better, the entire homilies (it won’t take long – good Lent prep!) I’m struck, once again, by the continuity of human experience and, consequently, the continuity of the Catholic spiritual tradition which reflects that experience in dialogue with God and what God has revealed. “… for it is equally unhealthy to languish under empty delights, or to labour under racking anxiety.”

No less true today than it was 1600 years ago…

Sermon 39:

Relying, therefore, dearly-beloved, on these arms, let us enter actively and fearlessly on the contest set before us:  so that in this fasting struggle we may not rest satisfied with only this end, that we should think abstinence from food alone desirable.  For it is not enough that the substance of our flesh should be reduced, if the strength of the soul be not also developed.  When the outer man is somewhat subdued, let the inner man be somewhat refreshed; and when bodily excess is denied to our flesh, let our mind be invigorated by spiritual delights.  Let every Christian scrutinise himself, and search severely into his inmost heart:  let him see that no discord cling there, no wrong desire be harboured.  Let chasteness drive incontinence far away; let the light of truth dispel the shades of deception; let the swellings of pride subside; let wrath yield to reason; let the darts of ill-treatment be shattered, and the chidings of the tongue be bridled; let thoughts of revenge fall through, and injuries be given over to oblivion. 

40

Let works of piety, therefore, be our delight, and let us be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity.  Let us rejoice in the replenishment of the poor, whom our bounty has satisfied.  Let us delight in the clothing of those whose nakedness we have covered with needful raiment.  Let our humaneness be felt by the sick in their illnesses, by the weakly in their infirmities, by the exiles in their hardships, by the orphans in their destitution, and by solitary widows in their sadness:  in the helping of whom there is no one that cannot carry out some amount of benevolence.  For no one’s income is small, whose heart is big:  and the measure of one’s mercy and goodness does not depend on the size of one’s means.  Wealth of goodwill is never rightly lacking, even in a slender purse.  Doubtless the expenditure of the rich is greater, and that of the poor smaller, but there is no difference in the fruit of their works, where the purpose of the workers is the same.

42

Being therefore, dearly-beloved, fully instructed by these admonitions of ours, which we have often repeated in your ears in protest against abominable error, enter upon the holy days of Lent with Godly devoutness, and prepare yourselves to win God’s mercy by your own works of Leo the Greatmercy.  Quench your anger, wipe out enmities, cherish unity, and vie with one another in the offices of true humility.  Rule your slaves and those who are put under you with fairness, let none of them be tortured by imprisonment or chains.  Forego vengeance, forgive offences:  exchange severity for gentleness, indignation for meekness, discord for peace.  Let all men find us self-restrained, peaceable, kind:  that our fastings may be acceptable to God.  For in a word to Him we offer the sacrifice of true abstinence and true Godliness, when we keep ourselves from all evil:  the Almighty God helping us through all, to Whom with the Son and Holy Spirit belongs one Godhead and one Majesty, for ever and ever.  Amen.

46

We know indeed, dearly-beloved, your devotion to be so warm that in the fasting, which is the forerunner of the Lord’s Easter, many of you will have forestalled our exhortations.  But because the right practice of abstinence is needful not only to the mortification of the flesh but also to the purification of the mind, we desire your observance to be so complete that, as you cut down the pleasures that belong to the lusts of the flesh, so you should banish the errors that proceed from the imaginations of the heart.  For he whose heart is polluted with no misbelief prepares himself with true and reasonable purification for the Paschal Feast, in which all the mysteries of our religion meet together.  For, as the Apostle says, that “all that is not of faith is sin933,” the fasting of those will be unprofitable and vain, whom the father of lying deceives with his delusions, and who are not fed by Christ’s true flesh.  As then we must with the whole heart obey the Divine commands and sound doctrine, so we must use all foresight in abstaining from wicked imaginations.  For the mind then only keeps holy and spiritual fast when it rejects the food of error and the poison of falsehood, which our crafty and wily foe plies us with more treacherously now, when by the very return of the venerable Festival, the whole church generally is admonished to understand the mysteries of its salvation. …

Relying, therefore, dearly-beloved, on so great a promise, be heavenly not only in hope, but also in conduct.  And though our minds must at all times be set on holiness of mind and body, yet now during these 40 days of fasting bestir yourselves938 to yet more active works of piety, not only in the distribution of alms, which are very effectual in attesting reform, but also in forgiving offences, and in being merciful to those accused of wrongdoing, that the condition which God has laid down between Himself and us may not be against us when we pray.  For when we say, in accordance with the Lord’s teaching, “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors,” we ought with the whole heart to carry out what we say.  For then only will what we ask in the next clause come to pass, that we be not led into temptation and freed from all evils:  through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.

49

For as the Easter festival approaches, the greatest and most binding of fasts is kept, and its observance is imposed on all the faithful without exception; because no one is so holy that he ought not to be holier, nor so devout that he might not be devouter.  For who, that is set in the uncertainty of this life, can be found either exempt from temptation, or free from fault?  Who is there who would not wish for additions to his virtue, or removal of his vice? seeing that adversity does us harm, and prosperity spoils us, and it is equally dangerous not to have what we want at all, and to have it in the fullest measure.  There is a trap in the fulness of riches, a trap in the straits of poverty.  The one lifts us up in pride, the other incites us to complaint.  Health tries us, sickness tries us, so long as the one fosters carelessness and the other sadness.  There is a snare in security, a snare in fear; and it matters not whether the mind which is given over to earthly thoughts, is taken up with pleasures or with cares; for it is equally unhealthy to languish under empty delights, or to labour under racking anxiety.

And so, that the malice of the fretting foe may effect nothing by its rage, a keener devotion must be awaked to the performance of the Divine commands, in order that we may enter on the season, when all the mysteries of the Divine mercy meet together, with preparedness both of mind and body, invoking the guidance and help of God, that we may be strong to fulfil all things through Him, without Whom we can do nothing.  For the injunction is laid on us, in order that we may seek the aid of Him Who lays it.  Nor must any one excuse himself by reason of his weakness, since He Who has granted the will, also gives the power, as the blessed Apostle James says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, Who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him949.”  Which of the faithful does not know what virtues he ought to cultivate, and what vices to fight against?  Who is so partial or so unskilled a judge of his own conscience as not to know what ought to be removed, and what ought to be developed?  Surely no one is so devoid of reason as not to understand the character of his mode of life, or not to know the secrets of his heart.  Let him not then please himself in everything, nor judge himself according to the delights of the flesh, but place his every habit in the scale of the Divine commands, where, some things being ordered to be done and others forbidden, he can examine himself in a true balance by weighing the actions of his life according to this standard.  For the designing mercy of God950 has set up the brightest mirror in His commandments, wherein a man may see his mind’s face and realize its conformity or dissimilarity to God’s image:  with the specific purpose that, at least, during the days of our Redemption and Restoration, we may throw off awhile our carnal cares and restless occupations, and betake ourselves from earthly matters to heavenly.

V.  Forgiveness of our own sins requires that we should forgive others.

But because, as it is written, “in many things we all stumble,” let the feeling of mercy be first aroused and the faults of others against us be forgotten; that we may not violate by any love of revenge that most holy compact, to which we bind ourselves in the Lord’s prayer, and when we say “forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors,” let us not be hard in forgiving, because we must be possessed either with the desire for revenge, or with the leniency of gentleness, and for man, who is ever exposed to the dangers of temptations, it is more to be desired that his own faults should not need punishment than that he should get the faults of others punished.  And what is more suitable to the Christian faith than that not only in the Church, but also in all men’s homes, there should be forgiveness of sins?  Let threats be laid aside; let bonds be loosed, for he who will not loose them will bind himself with them much more disastrously.  For whatsoever one man resolves upon against another, he decrees against himself by his own terms.  Whereas “blessed are the merciful, for God shall have mercy on them:”  and He is just and kind in His judgments, allowing some to be in the power of others to this end, that under fair government may be preserved both the profitableness of discipline and the kindliness of clemency, and that no one should dare to refuse that pardon to another’s shortcomings, which he wishes to receive for his own.

VI.  Reconciliation between enemies and alms-giving are also Lenten duties.

Furthermore, as the Lord says, that “the peacemakers are blessed, because they shall be called sons of God,” let all discords and enmities be laid aside, and let no one think to have a share in the Paschal feast that has neglected to restore brotherly peace.  For with the Father on high, he that is not in charity with the brethren, will not be reckoned in the number of His sons.  Furthermore, in the distribution of alms and care of the poor, let our Christian fast-times be fat and abound; and let each bestow on the weak and destitute those dainties which he denies himself.  Let pains be taken that all may bless God with one mouth, and let him that gives some portion of substance understand that he is a minister of the Divine mercy; for God has placed the cause of the poor in the hand of the liberal man; that the sins which are washed away either by the waters of baptism, or the tears of repentance, may be also blotted out by alms-giving; for the Scripture says, “As water extinguisheth fire, so alms extinguisheth sin.”  

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"amy welborn"

This is the cover of a pamphlet introducing the new, stripped-down, freedom-o-the-Christian-centered Lenten framework for American Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is part of Notre Dame’s Catholic Pamphlet Collection, which was available on archive.org for a very short time – I discovered it one night, and then, it seems as if a couple of weeks later, it had been taken down, I presume because of copyright issues. 

It being the first Friday of Lent, you’re probably going to herethere have been the usual minor rumblings about the purported relative ease of the fast for post-Vatican II Latin Rite Catholics.

Well, here’s my problem with that yearly ritual….

…(the apologizing and complaining, not the fasting, that is)…

The whole idea of the post-Conciliar changes to penitential fasting and abstinence was to present, as it were, a minimum on paper, with the expectation that the individual, flush with the glory of the Freedom of the Christian (and the Spirit of the Council), would take it from there.

The legal minimalism was supposed to unleash an internal maximalist lurking in all of us who had just been waiting to be treated like an adult instead of a child defined by adherence to rigid rules.

The rules are supposed to be minimal. That was the intention of the changes. 

And just a slight detour –

First, St. Francis de Sales had excellent advice on fasting. Read it here.

Secondly, a century and a half ago, people were complaining that the Catholic Lenten fast was too lax. John Henry Newman addressed it, and I talk about it here.  It’s startlingly prescient. Really…life and human nature does not change that much. These words could have been written today:

For example, in respect to curiosity. What a deal of time is lost, to say nothing else, in this day by curiosity, about things which in no ways concern us. I am not speaking against interest in the news of the day altogether, for the course of the world must ever be interesting to a Christian from its bearing upon the fortunes of the Church, but I speak of vain curiosity, love of scandal, love of idle tales, curious prying into the private history of people, curiosity about trials and offences, and personal matters, nay often what is much worse than this, curiosity into sin. … Hence this is the way in which we are called upon, with this Lent we now begin, to mortify ourselves. Let us mortify our curiosity.

So back to the issue of fasting and abstinence.

I think it’s a good idea to read Paul VI’s document on this, as well as the US bishops’.

From Paul VI, in February 1966

The US bishops, in November 1966.

I’m going to post excerpts in a second, but before we get lost in that, I’ll just venture to say that although I don’t think they should have eliminated the year-long Friday abstinence for any reason, in any way, these efforts to deepen a Catholic’s understanding of the practice are really not bad! In fact, Eamon Duffy, in his excellent article critiquing the loss of Friday abstinence, gives the American Catholic bishops a shout-out for offering a much more grounded articulation of the changes than the British bishops did, who, acccording to him, basically said, “We know this is a lot of bother, chaps, so you don’t have to do it anymore.”

In reading Catholic observers of the pre-Vatican II era, we do see concern with a distance between practice and understanding (that was the motive for the Liturgical Movement, as a whole, after all), and the rapidity with which Catholics after Vatican II ditched Friday abstinence without replacing it with any other penitential practice reveals that distance. Long ago, a Catholic blogger recounted his parents’ reaction to the lifting of Friday abstinence – they and their Catholic friends in the neighborhood celebrated by having a huge steak barbecue!

What I see then, is one more example of the misguided nature of the “renewal” of the Church. Instead of truly starting from where people were and what they already practiced, and trying to help people understand that, they moved to a state of minimalism, stripping the hard-to-follow and hard-to-understand stuff away, trusting in an ideal: people, flush in their mature Christian freedom, would just do what the deeper, yet now impenetrable intention of the “rules” had been guiding them toward through the centuries.

Perhaps for some that happened, but for the bulk it didn’t, and the other consequences were dire:

  • Loss of Catholic identity in that shared practice
  • A shaking of faith as Catholics, who had been presented with these practices as an expression of the solid, unchanging rock of the Catholic faith, were told, in essence: “KIDDING!” What was solid and worth taking seriously? What, that the Church taught, could be trusted?

Now, back to it. I’ll just end with two official documents detailing the changes in practice. They are worth reading, and honestly, when you are even lightly familiar with two thousand years of Catholic thinking and writing on fasting and other penitential practices, the call to go deeper than the minimal and just use that as a starting point that is the center of these documents, is not inconsistent with that tradition.

The mistake – and it was huge – was in, really, changing anything. It shouldn’t have been changed, for it stripped Catholic life of a deep connection to centuries of Catholic practice and was too idealistic about human nature.

From Duffy’s article:

The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting “good” and “bad” Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.

Now to the US Bishops, from 1966:

  1. Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called “Good” because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.
  2. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s ConstitutionPoenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.
  3. For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge, particularly during Lent, generosity to local,national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification.”

 

This paragraph relates to Vigils and Ember Days, but I think it succinctly summarizes the whole intent:

Vigils and Ember Days, as most now know, no longer oblige to fast and abstinence. However, the liturgical renewal and the deeper appreciation of the joy of the holy days of the Christian year will, we hope, result in a renewed appreciation as to why our forefathers spoke of “a fast before a feast.” We impose no fast before any feast-day, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.

On the Friday abstinence, year-round:

  1. Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.
  2. Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
  3. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
  4. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.
  5. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
  6. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

 

Back to Duffy:

The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor; the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is both fundamental and structural. By making fasting and abstinence optional, the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and the prophetic witness of the whole community—the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.

 

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"amy welborn"

(As with all the graphics I create – although not with my personal photos! – feel free to copy, share and use as you wish.)

A few of St. Augustine’s sermons on Lent have come down to us. This is a translation published in 1959 – you want sermons 205-211, that start on p. 185.  I am not sure of the dating or specific context – they seem to have been preached in different years, since the themes carry over from sermon to sermon – such as the repeated reminder that if you abstain from some food or drink, it then makes no sense to replace what you have sacrifice with something that either is more costly or affords you as much or greater pleasure.

I appreciated this, from Sermon 207. Forgive the formatting – go the original for a better view, in the format of your choice!

By the help of the merciful Lord our God, the temptations of the world, the snares of the Devil, the suffering of the world, the enticement of the flesh, the surging waves of troubled times, and all corporal and spiritual adversities are to be overcome by almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.

These practices ought to glow throughout the entire life of a Christian, but especially as the Paschal solemnity approaches which stirs up our minds by its yearly return, renewing in them the salutary memory that our Lord, the only-begotten Son of God, showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us. As a matter of fact, eleemosyna in Greek signifies mercy in Latin. Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made Him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He, our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He, our Strength, might be weakened; that He, our Health, might be injured; that He, our Life, might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be sold, the Exalted be humbled and the Reviver be killed?

In regard to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to the hungry,  but He first gave Himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry. We are commanded to receive the stranger; for our sake He ‘came unto his own and his own received him not.’  In a word, let our soul bless Him who becomes a propitiation for all its iniquities, who heals all its diseases, who redeems its life from corruption, who crowns it in mercy and pity, who satisfies its desires in blessings.  Let us give alms the more generously and the more frequently in proportion as the day draws nearer on which the supreme almsgiving accomplished for us is celebrated. Fasting without mercy is worthless to him who fasts.

 Let us fast, humbling our souls as the day draws near on which the Teacher of humility humbled Himself becoming obedient even to death on a cross.  Let us imitate
His cross, fastening to it our passions subdued by the nails of abstinence. Let us chastise our body, subjecting it to obedience, and, lest we slip into illicit pleasures through
our undisciplined flesh, let us in taming it sometimes withdraw licit pleasures. Self-indulgence and drunkenness ought to be shunned on other days; throughout this season, however, even legitimate eating is to be checked. Adultery and fornication must always be abhorred and avoided, but on these days special restraint must be practised even by mar-
ried persons. The flesh, which has been accustomed to restraint in regard to its own satisfaction, will readily submit to you when there is question of clinging to another’s goods. 

Of course, care must be taken to avoid merely changing instead of lessening pleasures. For you may observe that certain persons seek out rare liquors in place of their ordinary wine; that they, with much greater relish, counterbalance by the juice of other fruits what they lose by denying themselves the juice of grapes; that, in place of meat, they procure food of manifold variety and appeal; that they store up,
as opportune for this season, delights which they would be ashamed to indulge in at other times. In this way, the observance of Lent becomes, not the curbing of old passions, but an opportunity for new pleasures. Take measures in advance, my brethren, with as much diligence as possible, to prevent these attitudes from creeping upon you. Let frugality be joined to fasting. As surfeiting the stomach is to be censured, so stimulants of the appetite must be eliminated. It is not that certain kinds of food are to be detested, but that bodily pleasure is to be checked. Esau was censured, not for having desired a fat calf or plump birds, but for having coveted a dish of pottage. 5 And holy King David repented of having excessively desired water. 6 Hence, not by delicacies obtained with much labor and at great expense, but by the cheaper food found within reach, is the body to be refreshed, or, rather, sustained in its fasting.

 

So, no, the parish Lenten All-You-Can-Eat Fish Fry would probably not fly with St. Augustine. Or any other the saints, I’m guessing.

For you see, traditionally, Catholic spirituality emphasizes frugality, simplicity and an appropriate level of asceticism, for all, not just religious. This was undoubtedly a more organically experienced reality in times in which most people lived in survival mode most of the time anyway. Our more generally prosperous times have undercut this sensibility, narrowed it and domesticated it, so that any call to bodily mortification and sacrifice is presented as a possibly helpful lifestyle choice rather than what all Christians should be striving for, since all Christians (as Augustine notes) live in imitation of Christ and his sacrifice and humility.

It is also a fundamental orientation that lived alongside the Catholic embrace of the Incarnation and God’s goodness as experienced through creation: that is the Feast, alongside the Fast. They coexist, sometimes uneasily and in tension, questioning and challenging each other in spiritual writings, traditions, liturgy, church law and the lives of ordinary Christians. They do so vividly this week, as Carnivale tumbles into Ash Wednesday.

Together we feast, together we fast, on our way, letting Jesus teach us what it is we are really hungry for.

 

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From my favorite old-school 7th grade catechism, With Mother Church. 

EPSON MFP image

From B16 in 2007

It is a moving experience each year on Palm Sunday as we go up the mountain with Jesus, towards the Temple, accompanying him on his ascent. On this day, throughout the world and across the centuries, young people and people of every age acclaim him, crying out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But what are we really doing when we join this procession as part of the throng which went up with Jesus to Jerusalem and hailed him as King of Israel? Is this anything more than a ritual, a quaint custom? Does it have anything to do with the reality of our life and our world? To answer this, we must first be clear about what Jesus himself wished to do and actually did. After Peter’s confession of faith in Caesarea Philippi, in the northernmost part of the Holy Land, Jesus set out as a pilgrim towards Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He was journeying towards the Temple in the Holy City, towards that place which for Israel ensured in a particular way God’s closeness to his people. He was making his way towards the common feast of Passover, the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt and the sign of its hope of definitive liberation. He knew that what awaited him was a new Passover and that he himself would take the place of the sacrificial lambs by offering himself on the cross. He knew that in the mysterious gifts of bread and wine he would give himself for ever to his own, and that he would open to them the door to a new path of liberation, to fellowship with the living God. He was making his way to the heights of the Cross, to the moment of self-giving love. The ultimate goal of his pilgrimage was the heights of God himself; to those heights he wanted to lift every human being.

Our procession today is meant, then, to be an image of something deeper, to reflect the fact that, together with Jesus, we are setting out on pilgrimage along the high road that leads to the living God. This is the ascent that matters. This is the journey which Jesus invites us to make. But how can we keep pace with this ascent? Isn’t it beyond our ability? Certainly, it is beyond our own possibilities. From the beginning men and women have been filled – and this is as true today as ever – with a desire to “be like God”, to attain the heights of God by their own powers. All the inventions of the human spirit are ultimately an effort to gain wings so as to rise to the heights of Being and to become independent, completely free, as God is free. Mankind has managed to accomplish so many things: we can fly! We can see, hear and speak to one another from the farthest ends of the earth. And yet the force of gravity which draws us down is powerful. With the increase of our abilities there has been an increase not only of good. Our possibilities for evil have increased and appear like menacing storms above history. Our limitations have also remained: we need but think of the disasters which have caused so much suffering for humanity in recent months.

The Fathers of the Church maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields. First, there is the force of gravity which pulls us down – towards selfishness, falsehood and evil; the gravity which diminishes us and distances us from the heights of God. On the other hand there is the gravitational force of God’s love: the fact that we are loved by God and respond in love attracts us upwards. Man finds himself betwixt this twofold gravitational force; everything depends on our escaping the gravitational field of evil and becoming free to be attracted completely by the gravitational force of God, which makes us authentic, elevates us and grants us true freedom.

Following the Liturgy of the Word, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer where the Lord comes into our midst, the Church invites us to lift up our hearts: “Sursum corda!” In the language of the Bible and the thinking of the Fathers, the heart is the centre of man, where understanding, will and feeling, body and soul, all come together. The centre where spirit becomes body and body becomes spirit, where will, feeling and understanding become one in the knowledge and love of God. This is the “heart” which must be lifted up. But to repeat: of ourselves, we are too weak to lift up our hearts to the heights of God. We cannot do it. The very pride of thinking that we are able to do it on our own drags us down and estranges us from God. God himself must draw us up, and this is what Christ began to do on the cross. He descended to the depths of our human existence in order to draw us up to himself, to the living God. He humbled himself, as today’s second reading says. Only in this way could our pride be vanquished: God’s humility is the extreme form of his love, and this humble love draws us upwards.

Seems appropriate that this will be my reading for the week:

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On the Second Sunday of Lent, every year, no matter what the liturgical cycle, we hear the narrative of the Transfiguration.

(There is also a Feast of the Transfiguration, on August 6)

We only hear of the actual moment on the mountain, but what precedes it is important, too, and perhaps your homilist alluded to it today.

Before Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain, he had been conversing with them and the other apostles. It was the moment when he asked them Who do people say that I am?  And Who do you say that I am?  Peter had, of course, responded in faith and truth: You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. 

The conversation doesn’t end there, for Jesus continues, telling them about the way of this Messiah, his way – a way of suffering. Peter can’t believe it, Jesus rebukes him, and lets his friends and disciples know that anyone who wishes to follow him will be taking up a cross.

And then they climb the mountain.

******

"amy welborn"

I went to Mass today at the convent where my sons often serve. It was a small congregation, as usual. Sisters, friends, family members. There were two older men in wheelchairs, several children, a developmentally disabled young man, and concelebrating with the friar, a hundred-year old priest with his walker, his pillow, his handkerchief and his glass of water.

Hearts, minds and spirits bore crosses, too, not visible, but no less real, I’m sure.

Life is serious, challenging and hard. It’s rugged and scars you.

Jesus doesn’t promise a bountiful best awesome life on earth to his disciples. He promises – promises  – a cross.

Why is liturgy formal and serious?

Because life is serious.

God didn’t make it so – we did – but God enters this life as it is, as our sin has made it,  and God redeems it and takes up that Cross we have fashioned on himself.

Up the mountain.

We follow him, all of us carrying crosses and burdens, and there atop the moment we are blessed with a gift: light, love and glory.

It awaits, we are promised, but there on the mountain, we see something else. That gift isn’t just waiting ahead – it’s here now. It’s here in this Body of Christ, in the gift of Word and Sacrament, a glimpse of what awaits, an anchor and a hope.

It’s a gift that’s not dependent on us. It’s not dependent on how much we understand or know, or how well we speak or see, how quickly we can move, or how rich or poor we are.

Formality and ritual makes this clear. Redemption awaits, and it is offered to you and each of the wildly different people around you, each trudging up the mountain under their own cross, but it is one thing – the love of God – and it is sure, definite, solid and glorious.  No matter who you are or what you can do, God offers it, and offers you a chance to respond the best way you can, in whatever way your soul can move, love and say yes, it is good for me to be here.

"amy welborn"

 

"amy welborn"EPSON MFP image

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Reprint from last year, but still timely. 

A most interesting sermon from Blessed John Henry Newman on the First Sunday of Lent – which has always featured the Temptation in the Desert as its Gospel.

In this sermon, Newman speaks of the consequences of fasting – quite honestly, as it happens. For, he acknowledges, we are often assured of the good fruit of fasting. But as he notes, it was his fasting that exposed Jesus to the possibility of temptation. So it is with us. That is – it’s not all roses:

THE season of humiliation, which precedes Easter, lasts for forty days, in memory of our Lord’s long fast in the wilderness. Accordingly on this day, the first Sunday in Lent, we read the Gospel which gives an account of it; and in the Collect we pray Him, who for our sakes fasted forty days and forty nights, to bless our abstinence to the good of our souls and bodies.

We fast by way of penitence, and in order to subdue the flesh. Our Saviour had no need of fasting for either purpose. His fasting was unlike ours, as in its intensity, so in its object. And yet when we begin to fast, His pattern is set before us; and we continue the time of fasting till, in number of days, we have equalled His.


temptation of Christ
There is a reason for this;—in truth, we must do nothing except with Him in our eye. As He it is, through whom alone we have the power to do any good {2} thing, so unless we do it for Him it is not good. From Him our obedience comes, towards Him it must look. He says, “Without Me ye can do nothing.” [John xv. 5.] No work is good without grace and without love.

(Source)

….

Next I observe, that our Saviour’s fast was but introductory to His temptation. He went into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, but before He was tempted He fasted. Nor, as is worth notice, was this a mere preparation for the conflict, but it was the cause of the conflict in good measure. Instead of its simply arming Him against temptation, it is plain, that in the first instance, His retirement and abstinence exposed Him to it. {6} Fasting was the primary occasion of it. “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterwards an hungered;” and then the tempter came, bidding Him turn the stones into bread. Satan made use of His fast against Himself.

And this is singularly the case with Christians now, who endeavour to imitate Him; and it is well they should know it, for else they will be discouraged when they practise abstinences. It is commonly said, that fasting is intended to make us better Christians, to sober us, and to bring us more entirely at Christ’s feet in faith and humility. This is true, viewing matters on the whole. On the whole, and at last, this effect will be produced, but it is not at all certain that it will follow at once. On the contrary, such mortifications have at the time very various effects on different persons, and are to be observed, not from their visible benefits, but from faith in the Word of God. Some men, indeed, are subdued by fasting and brought at once nearer to God; but others find it, however slight, scarcely more than an occasion of temptation. For instance, it is sometimes even made an objection to fasting, as if it were a reason for not practising it, that it makes a man irritable and ill-tempered. I confess it often may do this. Again, what very often follows from it is, a feebleness which deprives him of his command over his bodily acts, feelings, and expressions. Thus it makes him seem, for instance, to be out of temper when he is not; I mean, because his tongue, his lips, nay his brain, are not in his power. He does not use the words he wishes to use, nor the accent and tone. He seems sharp {7} when he is not; and the consciousness of this, and the reaction of that consciousness upon his mind, is a temptation, and actually makes him irritable, particularly if people misunderstand him, and think him what he is not. Again, weakness of body may deprive him of self-command in other ways; perhaps, he cannot help smiling or laughing, when he ought to be serious, which is evidently a most distressing and humbling trial; or when wrong thoughts present themselves, his mind cannot throw them off, any more than if it were some dead thing, and not spirit; but they then make an impression on him which he is not able to resist. Or again, weakness of body often hinders him from fixing his mind on his prayers, instead of making him pray more fervently; or again, weakness of body is often attended with languor and listlessness, and strongly tempts a man to sloth.

Therefore let us be, my brethren, “not ignorant of their devices;” and as knowing them, let us watch, fast, and pray, let us keep close under the wings of the Almighty, that He may be our shield and buckler. Let us pray Him to make known to us His will,—to teach us our faults,—to take from us whatever may offend Him,—and to lead us in the way everlasting. And during this sacred season, let us look upon ourselves as on the Mount with Him—within the veil—hid with Him—not out of Him, or apart from Him, in whose presence alone is life, but with and in Him—learning of His Law with Moses, of His attributes with Elijah, of His counsels with Daniel—learning to repent, learning to confess and to amend—learning His love and His fear—unlearning ourselves, and growing up unto Him who is our Head.

Here is another Newman sermon on the First Sunday of Lent. In this one he tackles a different issue: the relative laxity of “modern” fasting practices.

It is quite predictable that at the beginning of every Lent, the claimed laxity of Catholic fasting and abstaining is decried – I’ve seen it all around Facebook this year, and I’ve done it, I’ve thought it, too.  We’re weak in comparison to past generations, Latin Rite Catholics are amateurs when compared to Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox.

Well, critics have been saying the same thing for about four hundred years, it seems. The Middle Ages was Peak Fast for Latin Rite Catholics and it’s been downhill ever since, they’ve been saying for centuries.

But is it really?

Newman makes the same observation – about the decline in physical demands – but has a different take:

I suppose it has struck many persons as very remarkable, that in the latter times the strictness and severity in religion of former ages has been so much relaxed. There has been a gradual abandonment of painful duties which were formerly inforced upon all. Time was when all persons, to speak generally, abstained from flesh through the whole of Lent. There have been dispensations on this point again and again, and this very year there is a fresh one. What is the meaning of this? What are we to gather from it? This is a question worth considering. Various answers may be given, but I shall confine myself to one of them.

I answer that fasting is only one branch of a large and momentous duty, the subdual of ourselves to Christ. We must surrender to Him all we have, all we are. We must keep nothing back. We must present to Him as captive prisoners with whom He may do what He will, our soul and body, our reason, our judgement, our affections, {64} our imagination, our tastes, our appetite. The great thing is to subdue ourselves; but as to the particular form in which the great precept of self-conquest and self-surrender is to be expressed, that depends on the person himself, and on the time or place. What is good for one age or person, is not good for another.

Even in our Blessed Lord’s case the Tempter began by addressing himself to His bodily wants. He had fasted forty days, and afterwards was hungered. So the devil tempted Him to eat. But when He did not consent, then he went on to more subtle temptations. He tempted Him to spiritual pride, and he tempted Him by ambition for power. Many a man would shrink from intemperance, {68} of being proud of his spiritual attainments; that is, he would confess such things were wrong, but he would not see that he was guilty of them.

Next I observe that a civilized age is more exposed to subtle sins than a rude age. Why? For this simple reason, because it is more fertile in excuses and evasions. It can defend error, and hence can blind the eyes of those who have not very careful consciences. It can make error plausible, it can make vice look like virtue. It dignifies sin by fine names; it calls avarice proper care of one’s family, or industry, it calls pride independence, it calls ambition greatness of mind; resentment it calls proper spirit and sense of honour, and so on.

Such is this age, and hence our self-denial must be very different from what was necessary for a rude age. Barbarians lately converted, or warlike multitudes, of fierce spirit and robust power—nothing can tame them better than fasting. But we are very different. Whether from the natural course of centuries or from our mode of living, from the largeness of our towns or other causes, so it is that our powers are weak and we cannot bear what our ancestors did. Then again what numbers there are who anyhow must have dispensation, whether because their labour is so hard, or because they never have enough, and cannot be called on to stint themselves in Lent. These are reasons for the rule of fasting not being so strict as once it was. And let me now say, that the rule which the Church now gives us, though indulgent, yet is strict too. It tries a man. One meal a day is trial to most people, even though on some days meat is allowed. It is sufficient, with our weak frames, to be a mortification of sensuality. It serves that end for which all fasting was instituted. On the other hand its being so light as it is, so much lighter than it was in former times, is a suggestion to us that there are other sins and weaknesses to mortify in us besides gluttony and drunkenness. It is a suggestion to us, while we strive to be pure and undefiled in our bodies, to be on our guard lest we are unclean and sinful in our intellects, in our affections, in our wills.

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And then more from With Mother Church: The Christ Life Series in Religion, a vintage 7th grade Catholic textbook:

Lent

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Lent

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I had intended to get this up this morning, but that didn’t happen. It’s still Ash Wednesday, though, so it still applies.

How did I happen up on this? In the usual, wandering way. I went to archive.org and typed in “ash wednesday” in the search box, and after wading through a bunch of sermons and pamphlets (including one had written!), I happened upon this, and stumbled into a huge rabbit hole.

In that rabbit hole I was introduceed to one Baron Ferdinand de Geramb, (probably) born in Lyons, but of Hungarian descent. An adventurer, a soldier, a prisoner of Napoleon, and eventually…a Trappist. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In 1808 he fell into the hands of Napoleon, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Vincennes until 1814, the time when the allied powers entered Paris. After bidding farewell to the Tsar and Emperor of Austria, he resolved to leave the world. It was at this time that he providentially met the Rev. Father Eugene, Abbot of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval (France), of whom he begged to be admitted as a novice in the community. He pronounced his vows in 1817.

After having rendered great services to that monastery, he was sent, in 1827, to the monastery of Mt. Olivet (Alsace). During the Revolution of 1830 de Géramb displayed great courage in the face of a troop of insurgents that had come to pillage the monastery; though the religious had been dispersed, the abbey was at least, by his heroic action, spared the horrors of pillage. It was at this time that Brother Mary Joseph made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return in 1833, he went to Rome, where he held the office of procurator-general of La Trappe. He soon gerambgained the esteem and affection of Gregory XVI, who, though he was not a priest, named him titular abbot with the insignia of the ring and pectoral cross, a privilege without any precedent.

Abbot de Géramb is the author of many works, the principal of which are: “Letters to Eugene on the Eucharist”; “Eternity is approaching”; “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”; “A Journey from La Trappe to Rome”, besides many others of less importance and of an exclusively ascetical character. They were often reprinted and translated. His style is easy and without affectation. The customs, manners, and incidents of the journey which he describes, all are vividly and attractively given, and the topographical descriptions are of an irreproachable accuracy. Even under the monk’s cowl the great nobleman could occasionally be seen distributing in alms considerable sums of money which he had received from his family to defray his expenses.

I spent a good deal of time skimming through the book to which the search took me: A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria.  It is quite evocative, as this excerpt about Ash Wednesday shows:

 On the 20th I was awake long before dawn. I went
out of my tent, and seated myself at the entrance. My
Bedouins, at a little distance, were sleeping around some
half-extinct embers. At the slight noise which I made
their camels raised their heads, but laid them down
again immediately on the sand. Silence reigned around
me. It was Ash- Wednesday, a day specially set apart
by the Church, to remind its members of the curse pro-
nounced against the first man after his fall, and in which
his whole posterity is involved. I picked up a handful
of the dust of the desert, marked my brow with it, and,
giving myself the salutary warning which it was not pos-
sible for me to receive at the foot of the altars of Christ,
from the lips of one of his ministers, I pronounced these
words : — ” Recollect, O man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”

Then, joining in spirit and in heart the Christian
people, who, on this day more especially, beseech the
Lord ” to have pity upon them according to his great
mercy’ I waited for sunrise, meditating upon that
awful sentence of death pronounced upon the human
race, the execution of which none can escape, and which
it will by and by be my turn to undergo. It has often
been the case, my dear Charles, that I have felt deeply
moved and violently torn from the things of this world,
while listening to the powerful words demonstrating
their nothingness, issuing from the pulpit amidst the
doleful solemnities with which the holy season of penance
commences ; but I declare to you that this desert, where
the plant itself cannot live ; this soil, which is but dust,
and from which the blast sweeps away in the twinkling
of an eye all traces of the footsteps of man, telling him
that thus shall he be swept away by the blast of death;
this universal silence, not even interrupted like that of
the grave by the voice of grief or the song of mourning;
those ruins, and those empty sepulchers ; those carcasses
of kingdoms and of cities, which had just passed before
my eyes ; and that holy Bible, which related to me the
crimes of generations upon the spot where they were
committed, explained to me the transitory nature, the
paltriness, and the term of human life, and showed to
me, as still dwelling in the heavens, Him who will have
man know that he is the Lord, and that He infallibly
overtakes by his justice the presumptuous mortal who
disdains his mercy — all this spake to my soul in much
stronger language, in a language the energy of which
no words can express.

 

 

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