Saturday, March 8, 2014

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
March 9, 2014
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.                                                                                

“Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ, and by worthy conduct pursue their effects” (Collect).

In the Collect of this 1st Sunday of Lent, we lay out two purposes for the season:  that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ, and that we may pursue the effects of those riches.  And we identify one means by which we pray God will guide us toward those goals of the season:  “the yearly observances of holy Lent”; and one outcome for which we pray:  “worthy conduct.”

We might note that the 3-fold practice of faithful Christians is touched upon in this prayer:  right doctrine, right worship, and right living—right doctrine in our “understanding of Christ”; right worship in our “observances of holy Lent”; and right living in our “worthy conduct.”  These 3 aspects of Christian fidelity all fit together to make up orthodox faith; not Orthodox with a capital O, as in Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox, but small-o “orthodox” meaning correct, proper, and leading to salvation.

What are we praying for, more precisely?  What do we desire in Lent from almighty God?  Note right away that the key to the season’s beneficial outcome is in his hands.  Our actions and wishes don’t make the season successful or grace-filled—don’t make us holy; but his actions in us do.  We pray that he may “grant” us “growth in understanding” and “effective pursuit” of “Christ’s riches.”  We pray that we may receive what he wants to give us.

The Collect refers to “the riches hidden in Christ, which alludes to what we also call “the mysteries.”  What is hidden in Christ?  Eternal life!  Our Lenten observances lead us toward Easter, our annual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.  His resurrection is a hidden richness in that we don’t see or hear or otherwise perceive Christ risen from the dead.  We don’t fully understand how we share in his death and resurrection.  But we believe—it’s a matter of faith—that we do share in his death and resurrection thru the sacraments, thru “these sacred mysteries.”  In the Eucharist we touch and taste and consume the humanity and the divinity of Jesus Christ.  In the other sacraments we encounter the Divine and are touched by grace—by forgiveness, by the power to live virtuously in imitation of Christ, by a filial connection to the Father, who invites us to spend eternity in his home.

When we ask God to grant us a deeper understanding of the riches hidden in Christ, we pray for a deeper faith in Christ, a deeper relationship with Christ; a faith and a relationship that ultimately will bring us to a full share in his risen life, making “the hidden riches of Christ” effective in us, as they have been in the saints.
1st temptation of Jesus, by James Tissot
We pray that God will lead us to such deeper knowledge of Christ, such a deeper relationship with him, “thru the yearly observances of holy Lent.”  Our observance of Lent is a gift from God, a grace, that draws us into the mystery of Christ.  The Latin text means, literally, “exercises of the Lenten sacrament” (or “Lenten mystery”).  Our observances or exercises include fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which unite us more closely with Christ, who fasted and prayed in the wilderness, as we hear in today’s gospel (Matt 4:1-11).  Our fasting also includes the self-denial that is our resistance to temptation, as Jesus resisted the devil; in other words, our fasting from sin.  Our prayer might mean being more faithful to a few minutes of private time with God every day, or more frequent attendance at Mass, or some daily reading of the Sacred Scriptures.  Our almsgiving—which might mean alms of money, of goods, of time, of attention, of kindness and patience—unites us with Christ, who “went about doing good, healing all who were in need” (Acts 10:38; Luke 9:11).

But our yearly observances of holy Lent, our “exercises of the Lenten sacrament,” means, in the 1st place, our participation in the liturgy of Lent.  Catechumens are going thru the last stages of their preparation for Baptism, with various rituals and prayers.  We who are already baptized continue to listen to the Word of God; we come to Sunday Mass, and, I hope, also the solemn liturgies of the Sacred Triduum at Lent’s end, and, as I said a moment ago, perhaps also to some weekday Masses.  At some point during this season, we all need to celebrate the sacrament of Penance, and we might consider returning to the practice of our youth, going to confession every few weeks instead of every few months.

Pope Francis at Sacred Heart Parish in Rome
in January. (ANS)
Which brings us to the last point of the Collect, the 2d means that God uses to “pursue the effects” of Christ’s riches in us:  “worthy conduct.”  The Latin word is conversatio, which doesn’t mean “conversation,” as in talking nicely to and about other people (which is a good thing, of course, even a noble thing); rather, it means “conversion,” as in a conversion of our morals, of our behavior.  Our relationship with Christ initiated in the sacred mysteries is supposed to have a concrete effect in our lives, to change us, to bring us more closely into conformity with the Lord Jesus, to make us look more like images of God.  Lent is a season of conversion to Christ—for catechumens and also for us who have professed our Christianity for many years.  What part of our life have we not yet given to Christ?  What sinful inclination do we still cling to?  Part of our dealing with such questions, part of our ongoing conversion to Jesus, is our encountering him regularly in the sacrament of Reconciliation, not once or twice or 4 times a year, but monthly or more.  Just last month, Pope Francis spoke of this in one of his general audiences:  “If a lot of time has passed, don’t lose even one more day.  [It wasn’t even Lent yet last month!]  Be courageous.  Go to confession.  The priest will be good.  Jesus will be there, and he’s even nicer than the priest.  Even just on a human level in order to vent, it’s good to speak to a brother, confessing to the priest these things that weigh so heavily on your heart.  Don’t be afraid of confession.”  Then, referring to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Pope said, “I tell you, every time we go to confession, God embraces us and celebrates.”[1]

May the Lord help us truly to grow in our understanding and our love for our Lord Jesus and to imitate him more closely during this holy season.  God bless you!

            [1] As reported by Catholic News Service, Feb. 19, 2014.

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