Saturday, February 21, 2015

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

Lent. Lent. Why does the Church observe this season of fasting and penance?

A friend of mine once gave a heart-felt and beautiful defense of Catholicism. He said, “Some people say that Catholics mourn their faith, but I've never felt that.”

Some people say that Catholics mourn their faith. I had never heard it put quite that way before, but I think I know what he meant. If someone were to just observe Catholics, watch what we do here at Mass, they'd think that we are indeed pretty good at mourning. Right? Last Wednesday this church was packed several times throughout the day with people getting ashes on their heads as they were told to “Repent!” and reminded that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then we come together again on Sunday, beating our breasts: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” In a few weeks' time on Good Friday we'll process up the aisle to kiss the Cross, the gruesome instrument of torture on which our Savior was executed.

And on top of all that, we're “giving up” something for Lent and doing penances. Why?

That friend of mine said, “Some people say that Catholics mourn their faith, but I've never felt that.” He was able to see that there was something behind all these practices of ours. Or better yet, he understood that there was something beyond all this, that these things we Catholics do have a purpose, a goal.

The season of Lent is not a time simply to do penance or fast or go without meat on Fridays as if these things were ends in themselves. The season of Lent is about preparing for Easter. The road that leads to the Cross goes on father, to the Resurrection. In the Collect prayer of today's Mass we asked God that “through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ.” There are riches—great riches!—in Christ, but they are hidden. We must find them, and to do this we need to go out into the desert with Christ. The richness of our faith, the purpose of our Lenten practice, is not always immediately apparent to the observer, just as the Resurrection of Christ was not believed in by all who had seen Him die. But if we look for the hidden riches of our faith we will find a treasure beyond our wildest dreams.

St. Peter said to us this morning, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. […] In the days of Noah […] a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which now saves you. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”

This is why the Church observes the season of Lent. Those preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil are making “an appeal to God for a clear conscience,” asking that the grace of the Sacrament may perfect their conversion, not only doing away with their guilt and washing away their past sins but also giving them the strength, from then on, to lead a life free from further sin. And for those of us who have been receiving the grace of the Sacraments for years, but so often fall short of having “a clear conscience”—how much more do we need this season of penance!

But it is always important to keep the reason for our penance in mind. If our goal for this Lent is to suffer a little and then to continue in Easter with business as usual, we might rightly be accused of mourning our faith. But if our goal for this Lent is, through suffering, to find the riches hidden in Christ; to grow closer to Christ, to grow in holiness and to be united with Christ both in the suffering of his Cross and in the triumph of his Resurrection, if this is our goal!  If this is our goal: Then as saints we shall reign in the glory of Heaven.

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