Week of Ash Wednesday

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Lent—Becoming a “Secret” Christian

Ash Wednesday (Year A)

Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” Matthew 6:1

One thing that offers us worldly satisfaction is public praise. We often want others to notice us for what we have accomplished. We want to be admired and can often go out of our way to let others know how much good we are doing. How about you? Do you regularly seek to elevate yourself in the eyes of others?

In the Old Testament, the seeking of worldly honors was common. In fact, the Law of Moses even spoke of these as “blessings” that would be bestowed as a result of obedience to God (See Deuteronomy 28). But a central tenet of Jesus’ New Law of grace was that earthly honors were no longer to be a goal in life. Instead, the interior treasures of holiness and the wealth stored up in Heaven were to be the focus. Today’s Gospel warns us that seeking human praise will result in the loss of recompense from the Father in Heaven. Giving alms, fasting and praying are best done in secret so that “your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

As we begin our Lenten journey, it is a good time to honestly examine the intentions and goals of your life of faith and charity. One goal we must have is to practice our life of faith and charity in a hidden way. There must be a certain secrecy to our life of faith. This does not mean we act as if we are not Christian or act as if we are ashamed of our faith. Instead, the “hidden” and “secret” practice of our faith means that we pray, serve, fast, and grow in our relationship with God because we love God and want to serve His will. It means that our greatest reward is the interior blessings we will receive from a relationship with God. We must look within and discover God dwelling there. There must be an interior intimacy with God that only we see. And this secret, interior and intimate love of God must become transforming and all-consuming. How alive is this interior relationship with God in your life?

The good news is that when we intimately enter into a relationship with our loving God in the secret depths of our souls, God will use us to touch others’ lives. We will not become the envy of others or have as our goal their admiration. We will not become the center of attention. Instead, God will use us to help others look into their own souls so as to discover the love God has for them. In a sense, we disappear in this hiddenness, and it is God Who makes a difference in the lives of others through us. This is authentic faith. This is authentic holiness. This is authentic charity. This is the reason we pray, fast and give ourselves to others. Not for our praise, but for the love of God, the holiness of our souls and the salvation of others.

Reflect, today, upon the simple fact that God wants to come to you in a very hidden and secret way this Lent. He wants to reveal His love to you, personally. Not so that you can tell everyone how holy you are. But so that you will know the love of God within you. Reflect upon this hidden and holy relationship God wants to have with you and know that if you allow it to grow, God will also be able to touch others through you in ways that are beyond your understanding.

My hidden Lord, You desire to come to me in the secret depths of my soul and to reveal to me Your love. May I meet You there every day and grow more fully in an intimate relationship with You. As You come to me this Lent, please also use me in many hidden ways to be an instrument of Your love for others. All praise and glory to You, O Lord. Jesus, I trust in You.

Lent—Taking off the Mask

Ash Wednesday (Year B)

“When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites…” Matthew 6:2, 5, 16

Hypocrisy is an ugly sin. Essentially, being a hypocrite is being a fraud. The word itself comes from a Greek word referring to a mask that actors wear to depict their character. The person behind the mask would pretend that they were the person depicted by the mask. Therefore, a hypocrite is one who pretends to be who they are not.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus condemns those who give alms, pray and fast for the wrong reasons. Their almsgiving is not done out of charity and a desire to help, but out of an attempt to win the praise of others. They babble prayers on the street corner in an attempt to make others think they are holy. And when they fast, they make sure that their appearance looks “gloomy” so that others are impressed. Performing charitable works, praying and fasting are certainly good actions. But these actions must be authentic. Otherwise, they are not what they appear to be, and the one doing them is nothing other than an actor wearing a mask of virtue.

As we begin our Lenten season, we are each invited to take off the masks we wear so that the real person shines forth. We are especially called to combat any spiritual hypocrisy we struggle with for two important reasons. First, when people wear a mask of holiness, pretending to be more virtuous than they are, they sometimes end up even fooling themselves. Just as an actor may become so caught up in their character that they temporarily take on that character’s thoughts and feelings, so we also can become blinded by the truth of who we are when we habitually wear a mask of holiness. When that happens, we lose sight of who we are, where we need to grow, what we need to change and even what good there is within us. Lent is an important time for regaining authentic self knowledge so that we can grow in virtue.

It is also important to take off the mask so that others will benefit from our true selves. A person who pretends to be charitable, or pretends to pray, or pretends to be holy, cannot benefit others. God cannot authentically work through a hypocrite. Though the facade of holiness may seem appealing at first, the truth is that the real you, the authentic you, is the person that others want to know and will benefit from the most. Even your weaknesses and failures, when honestly faced, will become a source of strength and blessing for others.

Reflect, today, upon who you are. As your soul stands naked before the face of God, what does God see? Who are you? What masks do you wear? What is behind that mask? Use this Lent to look more deeply into your soul so that you will discover the person you are. Don’t be afraid to discover your sins and weaknesses. And don’t be afraid to see your authentic goodness. Seek to be real this Lent, and God will be able to shine more brightly through you.

My authentic Lord, You wear no mask, have no facade. The purity of Your divine soul shone through Your human nature as You walked the Earth, and now You call me to share in that purity. Please help me to see the ways that I hide behind false virtue, so that I can discover my true self. As I do, please transform me and shine forth through my soul for all to see. Jesus, I trust in You.

Lent—Combating Sin with Virtue

Ash Wednesday (Year C)

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing…
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face…” Matthew 6:3; 6; 17

One Church Father explains that almsgiving, prayer and fasting are three acts that help us to combat the three temptations that Jesus overcame in the desert. First, our Lord overcame gluttony when the evil one tempted Him to turn stones into bread to satiate His hunger after fasting for 40 days. Second, our Lord overcame vainglory when the evil one took Him to the parapet of the temple and tempted Him to throw Himself down so that the angels of God would save Him, proving His divinity. Third, our Lord overcame greed when the evil one took Him up a high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, promising to give them to Jesus if He worshiped him.

Today’s Gospel identifies the three ways that we are able to overcome these same temptations of gluttony, vainglory and greed. Almsgiving, or generosity, is the cure for greed. Prayer within the “inner room” of your soul is the cure for vainglory. Fasting is the cure for gluttony.

As Lent begins, we are also invited into the desert for 40 days. We are invited to face the many temptations we endure in life so as to overcome them by the power of God. If you struggle with one of these above-mentioned temptations, all of them, or some similar temptation, the cure is found when the temptation is identified and the contrary virtue is embraced.

Do you struggle with greed? If so, consider being generous this Lent. God has promised to provide for your needs. He has not promised earthly wealth, but He has promised to care for you. There is great freedom found in believing that promise. One way to more fully trust in God’s providence is to generously give of your money to those in need. Don’t hesitate to do so if this is your struggle.

Do you struggle with a desire for vainglory and have an inordinate desire to prove your worth to others? If so, turn to prayer. It is in personal prayer, within that “inner room” of your heart, where God will meet you and reveal to you your true value and worth. As you discover your dignity in prayer, you will find you have no need to prove that dignity and value to others through prideful means.

Do you struggle with gluttony and seek to satiate your longings by the excessive consumption of food and drink? If so, the cure will be found in fasting. Denying your disordered appetites has great spiritual value. Fasting intermingled with prayer opens your soul to seek satisfaction only in God, and not in the flesh.

Reflect, today, upon that which needs to be your primary focus this Lent. What is it that keeps you from God? What temptations do you struggle with the most? Perhaps greed, vainglory or gluttony is among your struggles. If so, then do not hesitate to commit yourself to the cures this Lent. The end result will be that “your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

My freeing Lord, help me to see my greatest sins this Lent and to begin the process of overcoming them. Please reveal to me the virtues I need to embrace so as to be freed of these burdens and to grow more firmly in my love of You and others. Jesus, I trust in You.

Deep Love Casts Out Fear

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Jesus said to his disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Luke 9:22

Jesus knew He would suffer greatly, be rejected and killed. How would you deal with that knowledge if you somehow knew this about your own future? Most people would be filled with fear and become obsessed with trying to avoid it. But not our Lord. This passage above shows just how intent He was on embracing His Cross with unwavering confidence and courage.

This is just one of several times that Jesus began to break the news to His disciples about His pending fate. And each time He spoke this way, the disciples for the most part remained either silent or in denial. Recall, for example, one such reaction of Saint Peter when he responded to Jesus’ prediction of His Passion by saying, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).

In reading this passage above, the strength, courage and determination of our Lord shine through by the fact that He speaks so clearly and definitively. And what motivates Jesus to speak with such conviction and courage is His love.

Too often, “love” is understood as a strong and good feeling. It’s perceived as an attraction to something or a strong liking of it. But that’s not love in the truest form. True love is a choice to do what is best for another, no matter the cost, no matter how difficult. True love is not a feeling that seeks selfish fulfillment. True love is an unwavering strength that seeks only the good of the person who is loved.

Jesus’ love for humanity was so strong that He was driven toward His pending death with great power. He was unwaveringly determined to sacrifice His life for us all, and there was nothing that would ever deter Him from that mission.

In our own lives, it’s easy to lose sight of what true love actually is. We can easily become caught up in our own selfish desires and think that these desires are love. But they are not.

Reflect, today, upon the unwavering determination of our Lord to sacrificially love us all by suffering greatly, by enduring rejection, and by dying upon the Cross. Nothing could have ever deterred Him from this love. We must show the same sacrificial love.

My loving Lord, I thank You for Your unwavering commitment to sacrifice Yourself for us all. I thank You for this unfathomable depth of true love. Give me the grace I need, dear Lord, to turn away from all forms of selfish love so as to imitate and participate in Your most perfect sacrificial love. I do love You, dear Lord. Help me to love You and others with all my heart. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Transforming Power of Fasting

Friday after Ash Wednesday

“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”  Matthew 9:15

Our appetites and fleshly desires can easily cloud our thinking and keep us from desiring only God and His holy will. Therefore, in order to curb one’s disordered appetites, it is useful to mortify them by acts of self-denial, such as fasting. But during Jesus’ public ministry, when He was daily with His disciples, it appears that self-denial was unnecessary for His disciples. One can only speculate that this was because Jesus was so intimately present to them every day that His divine presence sufficed to curb any and every disordered affection.

But the day did come when Jesus was taken away from them—first by His death, and then shortly after by His Ascension into Heaven. After the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus’ relationship with His disciples changed. It was no longer a tangible and physical presence. It was no longer a daily dose of authoritative teaching and inspiring miracles that they saw. Instead, their relationship with our Lord began to take on a new dimension of conformity to Jesus’ Passion. The disciples were now being called to imitate our Lord by turning their eyes of faith to Him interiorly, and exteriorly acting as His instrument of sacrificial love. And for that reason, the disciples needed their passions and fleshly appetites under control. Hence, after Jesus’ Ascension and with the beginning of the disciples’ public ministry, they greatly benefitted from fasting and all other forms of mortification.

Each one of us is called to be not only a follower of Christ (a disciple) but also an instrument of Christ (an apostle). And if we are to fulfill these roles well, our disordered fleshly appetites cannot get in the way. We need to allow the Spirit of God to consume us and lead us in all that we do. Fasting and all other forms of mortification help us to stay focused upon the Spirit rather than upon our weaknesses and fleshly temptations.

Reflect, today, upon the importance of fasting and mortification of the flesh. These penitential acts are not usually desirable at first. But that’s the key. By doing that which our flesh does not “desire,” we strengthen our spirit to take greater control, which enables our Lord to use us and direct our actions more effectively. Commit yourself to this holy practice and you will be amazed at how transforming it will be.

My dear Lord, I thank You for choosing to use me as Your instrument. I thank You that I may be sent by You to share Your love with the world. Give me the grace to conform myself more fully to You by mortifying my disordered appetites and desires so that You and You alone can take complete control of my life. May I be open to the gift of fasting and may this penitential act help to transform my life. Jesus, I trust in You.

Make the Radical Choice, Today

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him. Luke 5:27–28

Levi had a good life. He made good money and had steady employment as a tax collector. But in an instant, he gave that all up to follow Jesus, and his life immediately changed for the good.

This short story of the call of Levi is one that we should take note of. Though you most likely have already made the choice to follow Christ, that choice needs to be deepened each and every day. And the witness of Levi is one that should inspire you to do so.

Oftentimes, when we sense God calling us deeper and closer to Him, when we sense that He wants us to follow Him more completely, we might pause and hesitate. It’s common for people to want to think through such a decision and weigh the “pros and cons” before stepping out in faith. But don’t do that. The witness of Levi’s immediate choice to leave all else behind and follow Christ is given to us so as to invite us to do the same.

How is Jesus inviting you, today, to imitate the radicalness of Levi? What is He calling you to walk away from so as to more fully serve Him with love and totality? If you do not know the answer to that question, say “Yes” to our Lord anyway. Tell Him that you want to imitate Levi and that you want to wholeheartedly commit yourself to a complete and radical following of His holy will.

It’s also interesting to note that as soon as Levi made the choice to follow Jesus, he held a dinner at his house for Jesus and other tax collectors. Levi was not afraid to let others know of his choice, and he wanted to offer his friends the opportunity to do the same.

Reflect, today, upon the person and call of Levi. And as you begin this Lenten season, use Levi’s call and response as an opportunity to hear Jesus calling you. You may not be called to “leave everything behind” literally, but express your willingness to do so anyway. Put no conditions on your choice to follow our Lord and you will be eternally grateful you did.

My precious Lord, You call all of your children to follow You without reserve. You call us to be ready and willing to abandon all that this life has to offer so as to obtain so much more. Give me the grace I need to trust You enough to say “Yes” to You today, tomorrow and all days. My life is Yours, dear Lord. Do with me as You will. Jesus, I trust in You.

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