We celebrate today the first Sunday in the season of Lent. We began the season with the marking of ashes; reminding us of both our mortality and our need to renew our lives and so if we truly entered into this season with those two things in mind, we should be ready for humble introspection and reflection. That too, is an important part of this season for all of us. It is part of the circle of life.
The circle of life happens whether we want it to or not; we are born, we grow quickly absorbing, learning, growing, developing until we reach full growth and then while the growth and development may slow down, it is either made sweet and healthy by humble reflection and introspection or it’s made bitter/maybe bittersweet by scepticism, cynicism and pessimism. We are either filled with hope or mired in hopelessness.
Friends, Lent is about wanting the best for ourselves and for each other. If we’re mindful that death will come to us all, we aren’t meant to be dire, downcast or gloomy about this, but to realize we’re on a timeline and while we ought to appreciate, enjoy and savour our lives – we are called to live the lives we’ve been given with meaning and purpose. If we acknowledge we are called to “turn away from sin [selfishness and living for ourselves in the moment] and turn towards the [hope-filled] Gospel; our lives get better and our lives stay better!
That is the foundation, the fertile ground I hope we are all allowing ourselves to be rooted in as we begin Lent. In today’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus in His desert experience, taking on temptation and suffering, being pulled away from God and remaining committed and resolved to stay close to the Father. We hear of His temptation in the desert followed by His Proclamation that begins a Lenten experience for Him and His followers. Believing in the Gospel comes with a price. Turning away from sin doesn’t make life easy in any way. Meeting temptation with resolve is not an easy thing to do. All three of these statements are absolutely true and they ought to be essential and real statements for the Christian; for the Disciples of our Lord. They are true, they are not easy to swallow – but they are only part of the story. The greatest part of the Christian “story” or life is in what is received. That – is more profoundly great than absolutely anything given by us for it. We have to remember that.
As we prepare this Lent for more humble introspection and reflection, let us stop and consider our own lives lived up to this very moment in time and let us ask ourselves what more are we prepared to do, to receive the love of God and a deeper faith into our hearts, minds and souls.
I must admit that I wish (and I’m sure every other Vocation Director is with me on this) that vocation work in the Archdiocese of Toronto was as easy as it seems it was for Jesus with Levi (it seems). Of course, the Gospels give us the account and we have to remember there were many other things happening that we can’t know for certain that Levi followed Jesus immediately but it was a pretty fast moving conversion and discernment. There are many obvious reasons why my work can be more challenging; one of them being – I am not Jesus! I am not the Son of God! And so I’m working within my own limitations and trying my best to convey His Way, His truth and His life. As a “work in progress” and an imperfect instrument myself, I need the words of our Lord and have my own limits in conveying them to others. Hopefully not too many and fewer as I (hope to) grow in holiness myself. “Teach me your ways, as I walk in your truth!” It is absolutely true that it is in fact, Jesus that everyone who is called, follows: but they do so through and with those who inspire them and are instruments of Jesus in their day to day life. So I’m not Jesus, but neither are the other people in the discerners’ life either.
We are called to give it all to the Lord as Levi does. Once the Truth penetrates our hardened hearts, we are meant to surrender and so today we reflect upon that, each of us for ourselves. Where have we not allowed the Holy Spirit and the Love of God to penetrate our hearts and souls? Where have we not surrendered ourselves to the Way we are called to live as Disciples? Today’s Gospel gives us cause to pause and reflect upon that. And I shall reflect upon it too. There are areas of my life that require greater surrender. And if I’m not prepared to surrender everything, I ought not to be asking those whom, I meet that are discerning to do the same!
During this season of Lent, as we continue to “turn towards the Gospel”, may each one of us in our own daily lives and in our vocation look to surrender it all in a greater way.
Life is about balance. This is not only what I remind myself as often as I possibly can, but it is what I offer seminarians and those discerning: that everything we do, we must seek to do in balance. Especially for those who minister to others and find themselves sharing or even imparting (but it should be more about sharing) personal wisdom and experience of one’s Christian life – we need to be striving for balance. That means balance in all things. If a seminarian is praying all the time; not exercising, not socializing with other seminarians or friends inside and outside of the seminary, not resting enough or not working hard enough on his studies – that’s not finding balance. If he’s doing any one or more than one of these things and neglecting anything else in his life – again, a lacking in balance and he’s not going to find in his life and through his vocation, what he searches for, what God desires for him. And he has to work harder. Having an appropriate perspective though, would mean that he has enough of a sense that his faculty members, his brothers and sisters in Christ…and most especially his Vocation Director are on the same journey and quest, and not necessarily ahead of him in any way!
Balance eludes many of us, but the reality we must open our eyes to is that what makes Christians different is that we don’t give up and we don’t accept that “what we have failed to do” is in any way a defeat and that we do not displease God. I am no more an expert on God than anyone else, BUT what I feel I can say knowing the Lord is that what would disappoint God is if and when any of us give up trying to please Him, trying to find that balance in all things that are the ingredients of a well-lived life for the Lord and for others.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of how and when to fast and how and when to celebrate. He imparts His Divine Wisdom to us of living a balanced life. We are not a Holy Church of Penance exclusively or of Celebration exclusively. We are both and. We are both a People of the Cross and Resurrection. Sometimes we can lean more on living our lives as a penance, suffering a punishment perhaps than the true gift that our life is, no matter our circumstances. Sometimes we can lean too much on living our lives in the moment, for only the good things, the pleasure and be rather oblivious to the fact that we are a “work in progress” in need of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and embrace. In need of it, and needing to extend it to others.
On this holy Lenten day, let us embrace both our moments of fasting, and our moments of rejoicing celebrating the Lord who loves us, and may we never give up striving for the balance God desires for us day by day.
I’m living in a world where the essence of Jesus’ message and today’s Gospel are the essence of consideration: “…pick up your own cross, deny yourself and follow the Lord”. This is the essence of a vocation, any and all vocations and this is what we want from someone discerning – to “own” these words for themselves. Whether we are living out our Christian Discipleship or coming to discover what our vocation is (how we will uniquely and completely live out that Discipleship) we need to prepare ourselves for these three things.
Picking Up Our Cross(es). Our lives will be filled with joy and blessing, we will feel “in sync” with the world around us when we have a good sense of what our meaning and purpose in this world is as Christians. But we must remember that while the greatest part is joy and fulfilment, the crosses we carry are every bit as important a part as the more positive stuff. We are actually formed more by our crosses and hardships than we are by the successes we experience in life. People that find success in everything they do and accustom themselves to only that, or don’t suffer along the way tend to have a hard time dealing with the hardships when they come (and they will come). Fear may keep us at first from embracing the crosses but we must remind ourselves that fear is a barrier to a truly Christian life. Pushing through our fears will lead us to the treasure of true and real faith and the treasure of holiness.
Denying Ourselves. Often we think our vocation or the Discipleship we are called to live is for ourselves – what is God’s plan for me! A vocation, Christian Discipleship is for others and the only way we can truly and fully give ourselves totally and completely for others is to deny ourselves in the process. We are not being called to give everything away and have nothing for ourselves; even Jesus took care of Himself as He ministered to others, but if we’re not prepared to deny ourselves we will deny others instead. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to give, to be available – for others. And in doing so, we encourage others to do the same.
Following Christ. Last but most certainly not least is to follow Christ. The first two actions precede following Christ. In order to follow Christ we need to be like Him. He picked up His cross, not only just before Golgotha, but at Cana – when He began His ministry. He was prepared by God for that and then picked up the Cross. We know He denied Himself throughout the Gospel as He experienced the attacks from all sides and He followed God’s plan as we do.
In these holy days of Lent, as we consider our Lord’s plan for us, may we make this here our motto: Picking up Our Cross, Denying Ourselves & Following Him!
When I was in the seminary, I read a book entitled Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussaude. It was a good book which helped me and has helped many of us to experience God in every day actions and experiences of our lives. We go through ups and downs, consolations and desolations, hardships and challenges and triumphs all the time; but we are called to slow down to nearly a stop from time to time to reflect upon our lives; where we are going and how we are getting there – but to reflect on the journey and appreciate the journey itself.
Ash Wednesday begins again another time for us of spiritual renewal. We hear these or similar words as we are marked with the ashes “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel!”
It is not that we are not always trying to turn away from sin in our lives or we don’t otherwise believe in the Gospel – we are reminded that we need to consider how we do. It should also occur to us that if we are turning away from one thing, we are by rights turning towards something else. That something else is God. We need to see God in our every moment and action of our lives and become more intentional Christians – more intentional Disciples. We look forward to the Lenten season to help us do that.
Today we begin and we pick up a Lenten practice; a sacrifice or adding a practice that will call to mind each and every day that we must be intentional in our faith. Hopefully we form new and good habits, and we turn ourselves away from our bad habits. It is said that it takes 21 days to break a habit, so we must look at Lent and the 40 days we have as forming and reinforcing good habits. And may the Lord who has begun the good work in us, bring it to fulfilment.
Turn away from sin, but turn towards God. None of us will regret that we have.