1st Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
I've been teaching in one form or another since I was 22yo. This May I will turn 57. It took a while, but I finally figured out that the best teachers never stop being good students. The best teachers know what they know, and they know what they don't know. More importantly, they aren't afraid to keep on learning right along with their students. Same goes for the Christian. Perfection in holiness doesn't happen for us in an instant of flashy enlightenment, or one emotional outburst after conversion. Neither does it come with hours of study or advanced academic degrees. Holiness is learned and practiced by the diligent student. It's taught and demonstrated by the accomplished teacher. What does any of this have to do with the 1st Sunday of Lent? Think of these 40 days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as an intense, short-course in growing in holiness. Christ is our professor. And here's the first homework assignment: get up every morning and pray, “Make your ways known to me, O Lord; teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me.” Go to bed every night, praying: “Thank you, Lord, for making your ways known to me; for teaching me your paths; and for guiding me in your truth.” Holiness begins in humility and is made perfect in gratitude.
So, how do we cultivate humility and gratitude during Lent? We have the three traditional Lenten practices to help us – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. All three of these practices draw our attention to the poverty of our human condition. I don't mean poverty as in being financially poor. I mean poverty in the sense that we are totally, utterly dependent on God for everything we have and everything we are. We are impoverished in the sense that nothing we have is really ours and nothing we are is really our doing. Everything we have and are is a gift from God. Everything! Knowing this truth and living this truth in the world is what we call humility. I own nothing. I know nothing. I am nothing. . .except that I own, know, and am who and what God has given to me for my use. Returning everything I have and everything I am to God with praise and thanksgiving is what we call sacrifice, making holy by surrender, leaving nothing as our own. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving put humility into daily practice. “Teach me your paths, O Lord; guide me in your truth and teach me” to fast, pray, and give alms.
Fasting can be as simple as eating just one meal a day. But eating just one meal a day can also be called dieting. What distinguishes fasting from dieting? Ask yourself: what's my goal in eating just one meal a day? Why am I doing this? If you are doing it to lose weight so you can fit into your Easter dress or your Easter suit, then you're dieting. If you are skipping meals to prepare yourself to receive the graces of Christ's Passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, then you're fasting. You are acknowledging and putting into practice the humility necessary to grow in holiness. You are saying, in word and deed, “I am ALL yours, Lord! I am getting myself ready to receive all you have to give me!” Fasting and abstinence from meat on the Fridays of Lent is a requirement of the Church, an ancient practice long known to promote holiness. But why is it required? We are members of the Body. Each one of us contributes to the Body. Your holiness makes the whole Body holier. Your humility and gratitude makes the whole Body more humble and grateful. The holier the Body as a whole, the holier the members are individually. “Teach me your paths, O Lord; guide me in your truth and teach me.”
So, you have 40 days to take an intense, short-course on holiness. Who will be your teacher? Who will you turn to for help when things go sideways? Who will you look to as an example? Well, who's your teacher during the rest of the year? Who do you invite into your life, your family, your home, your job every day to show you how to be holy?Are you learning to be a holy Christian from social media? Politicians? Actors? Athletes? Maybe you're learning from Celebrity Priests and self-appointed Popes on the internet. If so, I urge you to drop those classes and enroll in Prof. Jesus' class. He shows us how it's done. He shows us how to live lives of loving sacrifice. He shows us how to fast and how to pray. And on the Cross, he shows us how to give, how to give everything. There is no better teacher. He's not going to scratch your itchy ears with what you want to hear. He's going to teach you that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Not b/c he needs to teach but b/c we need to be taught. His way is The Way. His truth is The Truth. His life is The Life, the life we all need to flourish and grow in holiness. “Make your ways known to me, O Lord; guide me in your truth and teach me.”