26 February 2018

Could be scary. . .or not

2nd Week of Lent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Conventual Mass

Of all the truly difficult things Jesus asks us to do, at the top of that long list would be: “Be merciful. . .Stop judging. . .Stop condemning. . .Forgive.” Right up there on that same list is another familiar command from the Lord: “Love God, love your neighbor.” You can always tell when Jesus knows that he's giving us a difficult job b/c he makes that job a command. He makes so that we really don't have much wiggle room when it comes to hearing and doing what he's asking us to do. We could see this as a slight – “He doesn't trust us with just a kind suggestion or a subtle hint!” Or we could see it as a gift – “Left on my own, I couldn't forgive you, but Christ commands it!” And just in case the command alone is not enough to move us toward mercy and forgiveness, Jesus adds this little trailer, “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” So, we not only have his command to forgive, we also have a preview of how we will be judged on the Last Day! When we get to the Lord's Prayer later in the Mass, pay close attention to the line that goes, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” You are asking God to judge you in the same way you judge others. Could be scary. . .or not.

Forgiveness is difficult b/c we carry with us many false notions about what forgiveness entails. “If I forgive her, I'm saying that what she did wasn't wrong.” If what she did to you wasn't wrong, there's no need to forgive. “If I forgive him, then he'll just do the same thing again.” So, by refusing to forgive you hope to prevent a future offense? Is that how God works with us and our sin – withholding His mercy until we're perfect? How about this one: “I like having something on her. I like feeling wounded and righteous in my anger”? Fine. Just remember: you will soon ask God to forgive you in the same way that you forgive others. Do you really want God holding a grudge against you? My personal favorite: “I have forgiven him. I just don't feel like I've forgiven him.” You've forgiven him, or you haven't. How you feel about it is an entirely separate issue. No where does the Lord command us to be happy about forgiving those who've sinned against. He simply commands that we forgive. If there's a season in the Church calendar that's better suited for a reckless spree of mercy and forgiveness than Lent, I don't what it would be. There's still time. Get out there and show your fellow sinners – all of us – some astonishing mercy!

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25 February 2018

But why do you sacrifice?

2nd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

God commands Abraham to slaughter Isaac, Abraham's only son, as a sacrifice. Let that sink in. Abraham has just the one son, Isaac. God wants Isaac's father to kill him as a sacrifice. I don't know what y'all have sacrificed for Lent, but I'm willing to bet that none of you will be offering a child on an altar in the wilderness. My own pitiful Lenten sacrifices pale in comparison to what Abraham is asked to do. I have no children of my own, so I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to hear God command a mother or father to sacrifice one of their own children. Fortunately, we know, that God's will was not that Isaac should die in sacrifice but that Abraham's obedience to God be tested. Whatever we may think of God's command or Abraham's willingness to obey Him, we must keep in mind that God the Father Himself does what He commands Abraham to do: He sacrifices His only Son, and He does it not to prove His devotion to us but to save us from sin and death. He gave us then and gives now us His Son in sacrifice so that we might come back to Him made perfect, and share in His divine life. Ask yourself and think carefully: what am I sacrificing this Lent, and why?

We need to be absolutely clear up front about how our Lenten sacrifices work in our growth toward holiness. First, our sacrifices do not “buy” us holiness. We are not purchasing degrees of holiness by giving up our favorite vices. Small sacrifices buy us small amounts of holiness, and bigger sacrifices buy us larger amounts of holiness. Second, we aren't changing God's disposition towards us by sacrificing our vices. We are not performing some kind of magical ritual that forces God to love us more when we abstain from a vice. Third, prayer and alms-giving during Lent aren't bribes to God to persuade Him not to be angry with us, nor are they goodies meant to entice Him to be happy with us. The very idea that anything we can do or say or think has the power to change God in any way is a pagan notion, and one we need to vigorously remove from our thinking. The pagan thinks in terms of appeasing the gods or bribing them into favorable action. The Christian – the human person consecrated to Christ – knows that every good gift, every blessing, every grace he will ever receive has already been given to him. Our Lenten sacrifices make it possible for us to see more clearly all that God has given us and more easily receive what He has given.

Lent is a time for us to clean our spiritual pipes. A time for us to sweep away the spiritual dust and cobwebs. It's a time to re-focus our time and energy on the only thing that matters to a Christian – Christ himself and his mission. Lent provides us with the time, the instruction, and the support we need to think deeply about and explore intensely how we relate to the one who sacrificed himself for us so that we might live. Our time in the Lenten desert becomes a time of temptation precisely b/c we shift our attention to God and away from self. This “shifting away from self” invites the Enemy to test us, to try us; we become more vulnerable to his attempts to stroke our pride and see us abandon Christ. By sacrificing a few vices or taking up additional prayer and alms-giving, we remove the Enemy's preferred weapons, making it more difficult for him to tempt us with our own weaknesses. By detaching ourselves from all those things that drain us of spiritual strength, we conserve all that makes us strong in the Lord. When the Enemy tries harder to break our bond with Christ, we respond by sacrificing more, by sacrificing until it hurts. And it does hurt. But only for a little while.

Paul writes to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? [. . .] It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?” We are shown what God's support and acquittal looks like. On the mountain Jesus is transfigured in the witness of the apostles. He is changed into his glorified body – the body he will have in heaven, standing in the immediate presence of the Father's glory. We are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and b/c we are so baptized, we follow Christ in his death and resurrection. Along the way, we wrestle with temptations, failures, victories, and we do it all with Christ beside us. We do all this as men and women on our way to becoming Christs. Our sacrifices – big and small – keep us detached from the things of the world and attached to the things of heaven. If we sacrifice in love, for the good of another, we not only strengthen our bond to Christ, we also strengthen the Church, the whole body of Christ. So, again, I ask: what are you sacrificing this Lent, and why? The why is more important than the what. Sacrifice b/c you know that you need Christ. Sacrifice b/c you know that the Church needs Christ. And remember: “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”

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