Wednesday, March 5, 2014
The Meaning of Sacrifice
Today, the Church embarks on her 40-day Lenten journey. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday challenges us to rend our hearts to God, imploring His mercy. The ashes imposed on our foreheads (or sprinkled on our heads) remind us that we were all formed from the dust of the earth and our mortal bodies will eventually return to that state.
One of my Facebook friends wondered why the Church encourages "giving stuff up" for Lent. My friend is not the only one who has raised that question. Not a few Protestants raise that issue year after year. "Why do you give up meat on Fridays?"
I spoke to one of my dearest friends who is a prelate. In the homily that he preached at this evening's Mass, he shed some light and offered insight into this ancient tradition of the Church. "Lent is not about the mind," he explained. "It is about the heart and about the will." Lent teaches us to remove the focus on ourselves and to redirect it towards God and others. When we "give up something" for Lent, we are saying to our "self" that "you are not the most important person in my life." Lent helps us to not train our vision on ourselves. It teaches us to "seek what is above", as St. Paul exhorted the nascent Church.
In last Sunday's Gospel, Jesus told us to "seek first the kingdom of God". He did not say "seek only" the kingdom of God; he said to seek it first. The sacrificial disciplines of Lent help us to do that. Giving up small things like candy, certain foods and beverages, or activities like unnecessary shopping, watching a favorite TV show and the like help us to not make ourselves and our desires the masters of our lives. Spending additional time in prayer, engaging in penance and taking on additional acts of charity re-orient us towards God and neighbor. When we say "no" to ourselves, we wind up saying "yes" to God and to others. In a sense, it is a test to see who does come first. It is a test to see if we can, through God's help, master our passions and our desires.
The Church observes 40 days because Jesus, Himself, spent 40 days in the desert. He recapitulated in His person the 40 years that Ancient Israel spent in the desert as she was being purified. We fast and pray because He fasted and prayed. The solemn fast of Lent prepares us for the great celebration of our redemption, the Sacred Triduum, when Christ our Paschal Lamb was immolated and then rose triumphantly. But, there is also a long-term effect to our annual Lenten regimen: it also helps to prepare us for the life to come. It helps to fit us for Heaven. If we remain trained on ourselves only, then we cannot be open and receptive to God and to our neighbor. If we make ourselves the center of our lives, then we wind up following the example of Satan, who is selfishness to the extreme. If we cannot say no to simple things like that sweet chocolate bar or that brand new Coach purse, if we cannot spend a few minutes extra in prayer to God or if we cannot spare a few moments to comfort a neighbor in need, then what kind of a response will we give to the Lord when He calls us?
Now, I admit. I have not quite gotten Lent down pat. Every year I set off on my Lenten journey with my list of things I have planned to offer up and two weeks down the road, I stumble and fall. I think that I speak for not a few of us who have experienced this. However, Jesus fell three times on the road to Calvary. He is with me when I fall and He is with all of us when we fall. He "gazes upon us and lifts us up," Pope Benedict writes in his meditations on the Stations of the Cross.
The ashes on my forehead remind me that I am not meant solely for this Earth. They remind me that I am a sinner in need of God's mercy. The chants of Ash Wednesday that the Church gives us remind us that "You are merciful to all, O Lord, and despise nothing that you have made. You overlook people's sins, to bring them to repentance and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God." The Attende Domine, the Church's ancient Lenten chant, implores God's mercy. "Have mercy on us O Lord, graciously hear us, guilty of sinning before you."
Our lives are a continual call to conversion. If we only focus on the "gospel of prosperity" that only addresses the here and now, then we have completely missed the point of what it is be a pilgrim on this Earth. We were not merely made for earthly greatness; we were made to live with God in heaven. Lent reminds us of who we are and helps us find our proper orientation, redirecting us to the God who made us and who, in His great mercy, sent His only-begotten Son to save us.