24 February 2007

What do you want from the Desert?

1st Sunday of Lent: Deut 26.4-10; Romans 10.8-13; Luke 4.1-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Luke Parish, St. Paul Hospital, Church of the Incarnation

[Fair warning: this is a strange one...I dunno...]


People of God! Where are you this morning/evening? Where are you? We stepped into this desert three/four days ago, looked up at the sun, put the first foot in front of the other, said a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and set our hearts and our feet on Jerusalem. The cross is there, somewhere. And Jesus. No. No, he’s here with us…somewhere, isn’t he? Yes. Yes, he is…somewhere. The sand is scratchy and hot. The wind is brittle dry and stinging loud. The first fast of this “going into the desert” was good, wasn’t it? The plan and promise was there; the spilling-over-wonder at our blessings, the nearly painful longing to please God with our small sacrifices, just one day’s offerings. Even the desert is bright and daring watching it from home, from settled comfort, and abundance.

You watched the desert, expecting this Lenten trek and you wanted…you wanted…something. Someone? What? Think back! Go back and see it! Ash Wednesday is like a barge on the church calendar, plowing through ordinary time to arrive like a liturgical bully at the dock of the altar. No sweet hymns. No decorative treats or cute secular totems. Just ash and a reminder: you are made from ash and to ash you will return. From dust to dust. At that moment, with that memory: what did you want? Now, what do you want? You need to know this. The desert knows. I mean, the time you spend these next 35 days or so wandering the desert of the spiritual life, what you most desire, that which we need most will come to you. And not necessarily in a form or fashion that you will recognize. Lent is not about avoiding temptations. Lent is not about fasting or prayer or being good. Lent is about wandering into the emptiness, the vanity, the wreckage we have made of our spiritual lives and finding one more time the stalwart presence of God, the inexhaustible workings of the Holy Spirit. Seeking and finding the face of Christ.

These forty days are a countdown for detachment, for unplugging. Lent is a time for us to detach from all the teats of our poisoned culture and to stop sucking at the breasts of market-tested nihilism and brand-name conformity; to stop the sewer-flood of Hollywood-funded debauchery and sadism into our homes; to speak the gospel Truth to the dark powers of “might makes right” moralities; to witness against the suicidal, all-you-can-eat buffet of liberal religious candy our children are fed daily...even in our Catholic schools. Lent is a time for you to remove your lips from the honeyed breasts of genetic science and its Faustian promise of near-immortality. You will live forever but not by murdering a child; you can be beautiful forever but not at the price of harvesting our children like melons.

Lent is a time for you to calculate with cold reason and a clean heart your commitments in this world. Where are you bound? To whom do you owe your money, your livelihood, your dignity…your soul? Who owns you? What ideas possess your mind? What passions fuel your heart? What images cloud your vision? What do you worry about and why? Here’s the question with which to examine your conscience before confession: exactly how would anyone know Jesus owns me body and soul?

Know the answers! You must. Because the desert knows and the desert will tell. The desert will tell the Devil and he will color in those drab images, season those dull fumes, stoke the fires of weak passion. He’ll parade your desires, sharpened and concentrated, parade them before you, lying to you, pampering you, telling you how much you deserve what you cannot possibly need and only vaguely want. When those ashes were traced on your forehead…at that moment, what did you want? Mercy? Forgiveness? Love? To be seen as pious? You will find it in the Lenten desert. But will your desires look like gifts among all that scarcity?

Pay careful attention to the gospel. Jesus went into the desert to pray, right? No. He went into the desert to fast, right? No. He went into the desert to start his new diet? No. Of course, he prayed and fasted. But he didn’t go into the desert to do those things. Rather he “was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.” He went to the desert so that he could be tempted. The devil tempted him with food, power, and worship. Jesus refuses each in turn. He quotes scripture and dismisses each temptation as a mere shadow of what His Father offers. The devil offers Jesus illusion, impermanence. And he will offer you the same. And you will accept his offer unless you understand with near perfect clarity and will what you want, what you desire as a faithful follower of Christ.

Lent is not about avoiding temptation. Lent is about walking the hot sand of deprivation so that what tempts you worms its way to the surface. Discomforted, what tempts you selfishly proclaims its own praise, shouts it own name. Not yours. And then you know the truth: you are not your sin; you aren’t even the sum total of all your sins! Yes, you’ve fallen, given in, even welcomed Rebellion and Disobedience into your life. Praise God then that Lent is about clearing the wreck of your worldly life so that He Who moves you at your core, rises, speaks His name with authority, claims your soul, and makes your life among the things of this world a tireless prayer, a breathless hymn, and an inexhaustible fiat! This is more than a mere reminder of who’s in charge of your Christian life; it is a renewal of the bond of affection between Father and child, the rediscovery of an unshakable peace and infallible grace.

One foot, then another. The sand swirls. The desert is liquid hot, waving fumes above the dunes. We’re just four days in. Where are you? Where is your eager fast, that laughing prayer of praise? Evaporated already? No worries. Jesus is here with us. Not just somewhere but here. He’s with us here and now, and he waits for us at the cross. We choose to follow him. We picked up his cup. Shared his blessing. Ate his flesh and drank his blood. We’re more than his now, more than students or friends. We are his flesh and blood. The desert knows this. It will collect its tempting spirits and whisper to us of power, hunger, self-righteousness, revenge, violence, the many poisons we seem so eager to swallow. Listen carefully with the ears of Christ to the bargains and deals, the attempts to haggle and posture. And then what? Fight? Resist? No. Why? Why would you fight? Don’t fight the Devil! Why would you fight a defeated foe? Do what Christ does during his Lenten fast: call on the Word, confident in a victory already won, and teach this fallen angel who you are!

Don’t waste your forty days dieting. Spend this time in the desert ruthlessly paring away your allegiances, brutally assessing how you contribute to the preaching of the Word, to the spreading of the Gospel. What do you want, child of God? When you received your ashes and were told that you are mortal, what did you want to find in this Lenten desert?

How eager are you--exactly--to find the cross?

23 February 2007

Fasting vs. dieting (Round One)

Friday after Ash Wednesday: Isa 58.1-9 and Matthew 9.14-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation


[NB. The preacher preaches to himself first…]

More on fasting, uh? Well, it’s only right since it is Lent and all. But you’d think that we would have the whole fasting/contrite heart thing down by now, wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s not a difficult concept. It’s not like trying to grasp double predestination or the state of the soul before the general resurrection or the mystery of the theological Trinity. It’s just fasting. Don’t eat as much as you usually do and do this because it helps you to stay focused on what’s important in your growth in holiness: your total, undiluted, raw dependence on God for absolutely everything. Of course, we also fast to show honor, obedience, the strength of a beggar’s heart, humility in need, gratitude in abundance, sorrow and grief, solidarity with the suffering, a heart turned from sin and rushing to the Lord in tears.

Brothers and sisters, fasting w/o true contrition and true repentance is called Dieting. And the Lord wants us to understand the difference between the prophetic act of fasting and the often-times vain act of dieting. The Lord tells the prophet Isaiah to say to us: “Would that today—Friday, February 23, 2007—would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!” You bow your head like a reed and slob around all day in sackcloth and ashes! “Is this the manner of fasting I wish […] Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” So how do you fast today so as to make your voice heard on high? Isaiah cries out full-throated and unsparingly, like a trumpet blast: release those who have been imprisoned unjustly! Untie their yokes. Set free the oppressed. Share your bread with the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Clothe the naked. Help your own. Fast as the Lord wants you to fast! And your innocent verdict will go before you and God’s glory will come behind you and when you call on His name for help, He will say, “Here I am!”

So, will you fast or will you diet? Jesus says that we cannot fast so long as the Bridegroom is with us. Is he with us? Well, no. He departed for the throne and sent us his Holy Spirit. So, we can fast and mourn his absence. However, he’s with us now. Present because we are more than two and gathered in his name. He’s fully present in the Eucharist. So, we cannot fast or mourn. The Bridegroom has not been taken from us! Isn’t this the Christian life exactly? We are called to be prophetic witnesses, to stand up and shout out the truth of the gospel victory of sin and death. Yes, Christ is gone from us. And no, he is here. The battle is won and it is not yet fought. This is what it means to live in the meantime of God’s plan for us: we free the unjustly imprisoned now b/c they have all been freed by Christ in his victory. Their imprisonment is doubly unjust.

Dieting will not help them. Dieting will break no yokes, cancel no debts, fill no empty stomachs, nor will dieting free anyone from Satan. In fact, Satan counts on us spending this Lenten season dieting. It’s his best time of year for ripe self-righteousness and hypocrisy. John’s disciples and the Pharisees are worried about Jesus’ liberal band of party animals—why aren’t they fasting like we do?! Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t worry. They are my disciples and they will fast when I am gone.” We know what that means; what it means for his friends to drink his cup, to carry his cross, to die preaching and teaching the Good News of God’s mercy. Our Father wants a humble and contrite heart. Not a diet plan. He wants obedience and service. Not mumbled prayers and luke-warm sentiments. He wants laborers for his Lenten and His Easter fields. Not religious dilettantes and mystic wannabes.

Take your diet. Turn your heart and mind to the service of God in humility. And change that diet into a fast worthy of your soul! Thirty-eight days and counting...and the cup is yours is bear...

21 February 2007


Ash Wednesday: Joel 2.12-18; 2 Cor 5.20-6.2; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


What does the Lord want from us? He wants now what He has always wanted: the sacrifice of our contrite hearts. Keep the burnt offerings, the bulls and rams, the incense and flowers. He wants your heart, split open, artfully arranged, freshly washed and anointed; your heart repentant, rueful, intensely sorry, and wounded by love. He wants your clean heart and mind placed on the altar, freely given, offered up in praise, turned forever to His will for you. God wants your fasting, your weeping, your mourning; He also wants your feasting, your laughter, your joy. He wants a heart rent top to bottom in true sorrow for your sins, so rend your garments if you must, but know that torn garments, smudgy foreheads, and dour faces, though signs of a proper contrition, are not contrition in themselves. It is better to be truly contrite and happy about it than to be faking contrition and hiding behind public displays of piety!

Playing at religion is a very dangerous thing, brothers and sisters. God wants our hearts and minds; He wants us to return to Him whole and entire. Do you think He can’t see through the layers of religiousy junk we sometimes slathered over our miserly souls? Do you think He can’t smell the failure of our public piety, or the rank odor of desperation in that good work we did to curry favor before Lent? Jesus himself could not be clearer than he is this morning: give alms in secret so that only the Father knows you give; pray in secret so that the Father may properly repay your trust; fast privately without being gloomy, without neglecting your appearance; anoint your head and WASH YOUR FACE! Do you think the Lord is going to smile on your grand sacrifice of walking around with ashes smudged on your forehead today? Tell me what a great witness that is and I’ll tell you to do it everyday!

Here’s your proper public Catholic witness on Ash Wednesday: first, wash your face in all humility and resist the Devil’s temptation to strut around as a “Proud Catholic.” Then look to the Lord in the desert. He goes out from the crowds. Away and into the desert. He withdraws to be with His Father. And finds himself confronted by the Devil and his lies. With what would you confront the Devil in the desert? How would you repel his seductions and deflect his temptations? Jesus is God. You aren’t. Would you fight Satan with false piety? Theatrical religiosity? Would you ward him off with some sort of amulet or spell? Let me suggest that there is no fight with the Devil when one’s heart is truly contrite, filled with grace, given over wholly to the Father as a sacrifice of praise, and lifted up on the altar.

Why am I being so hard on the public witness of piety? I know from personal experience the seduction of believing that I am accomplishing something good for God by playing at being religious. Jesus is also worried about us and how easy it is for us to confuse show and substance. This is an acceptable time for us to be truly reconciled with God, but that reconciliation is done through a heart and soul converted to God’s law of love not a smudge of ashes or a much-discussed fast or a grand gesture of almsgiving. If your day to day life at work or school or the office fails to give a faithful witness to God, then a dot of dust or an unusual bag of carrot sticks for lunch won’t change minds. In fact, more than anything, without a daily witness of true service that dot of dust says, “I’ve decided to trot out my religion today for your consumption. Isn’t it cool?”

Yea. That’s what Jesus died for. Cool. Fortunately, we have forty days to figure this out. Forty days to live intensely in the presence of the Lord. Forty days to sit at his feet and learn humility. Forty days to learn to be happy and purged, joyful and emptied. Forty days to cleave our contrite hearts, stoke the fires of sacrifice and offer our very selves to him. So, wash your face and clean your heart.