03 March 2009

Bountiful desert of Lent

First Week of Lent (T): Is 55.10-11; Mt 6.7-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

[NB. Also podcasted. . .right sidebar under "Roman Homilies."]

Our Lord says to Isaiah, “My word,” falling like rain and snow from the heavens, watering the earth, “shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it…[to give] seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats.” Rain and snow watering the earth. Bread to eat. Sowing seed on fruitful soil. Can we see the desert sands of Lent as rich, fertile ground, abundantly sown with well-watered seed? Is this how we should be imagining our fasting and prayer? Isn’t this a time for cutting away, cleaning up, setting aside, and trimming down? Aren’t we suppose to find ourselves wounded and weak, in need of rescue and restoration? Is Lent the proper time for us to be thinking about planting well-watered seed in fertile ground? As any good farmer will tell you: you cannot plant a field choked with weeds and brush…first, you have to clear the land, then you start to plant.

Let’s clear some spiritual land this morning! Starting with prayer. How do you pray? Jesus tells his disciples not to babble like the pagans when they pray. Don’t babble? That’s right, don’t babble. He says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” So, how then should we pray? We ask for what we need. Nothing more. Daily bread. Forgiveness. Rescue from temptation, deliverance from evil. And for these we are to give constant thanks and praise. Why ask for what we need when the Father already knows what we need? We are completely dependent on God for everything. Asking for what we need exercises our humility, thus making our prayer all the more fruitful for understanding ourselves as creatures loved by our Creator.

How about fasting? First, why are you fasting? Are you taking advantage of Lent to lose a little weight for summer? Maybe trim down for the beach? Are you fasting to acquire a good habit? Or perhaps to lose a bad one? Are you following the rules merely to follow the rules? If your fasting is something other than a means of clearing away the spiritual brush, a way of pulling the noxious weeds that strangle your fruitful growth, then your fasting is without good purpose. Fasting is a discipline, that is, it is a way of learning. What are you learning from your Lenten fast? Come Easter, what will you know about your life in Christ that you do not know now? What can fasting teach us? Like praying for our needs, fasting can teach us about our dependence on God, about our need to acknowledge our dependence and give God thanks for His generosity. Fasting is not about “going without” food or drink or shopping. Fasting is about “going with” God instead of food or drink or shopping.

The Lord tells Isaiah, “[My word] shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” If the Word of the Lord is to achieve its end for you, it must do so with you. The Word must find in your heart and mind a field cleared of strangling weeds and choking brush. The Word waters thirsty ground, and the seed finds welcome in rich soil. We have forty days to turn a Lenten desert into a verdant field. Pray, fast, and never forget, never forget: gives thanks, always give thanks!


  1. This is a question for this Lenten season that concerns "carrying our crosses." I am reading Matthew. In it Matthew tells us that Jesus says, "Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me." I've spent some time meditating on these invitations from Christ. As I was thinking about it, it occurred to me that it is so unusual that Jesus would refer to picking up a cross so long before His Passion. Not that He wouldn't know what was coming, He is God and knows what awaits Him. But is it possible that those listening might not know at all what this means until long after the Death and Resurrection? Was Jesus planting a seed for later growth? Like during His Transfiguration? Or was carrying a cross a typical phrase that His listeners would understand immediatley? Were the people He was preaching to accustommed to watching criminals carry the cross beams of their own crucifixions? If not, then Jesus' instruction must have been meant for understanding after His Passion. It's a timeline question (tricky thing with the Eternal God), I guess, unless I am unaware of the punishment customs of the time.

    How could I have gotten to 50 years of age and not know the answer to this question? The Gospels are an unfathomable source of faith and grace. Amen.

    Hope this isn't too simple a question for this awesome blog!

  2. "My Word, falling like rain and snow from the heavens, watering the earth, shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it…" ...takes me to an afternoon in the sun on my porch sometime after my moment of conversion when day after day after day I was 'getting' it. 'Getting' the analogies in THIS passage one afternoon is memorable.

    "...shall not return to me void..." can be likened to the action of evaporation following the watering of the earth. It compares to the ascent of our spirit in prayer to Him.

    "...shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it..." was particularly encouraging in terms of confidence in myself in this new life.

    Thanks for this, Fr. Philip:
    "Asking for what we need [when He already knows] exercises our humility..."

    And this:
    "Fasting is about going 'with God' instead of..."

  3. this is a fabulous homily!!

    unless you yell at me...I'm gonna link to it as I've gotten several questions about fasting here lately.