On March 9 of this year we began the season of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. Since then we have celebrated six weeks of Lent, the Triduum, seven weeks of Easter and seventeen solemn feast days in the Church – fifteen of them since Easter, and five in the last two weeks! From a liturgical standpoint – I’m tired! Those seasons and celebrations are a great gift to us and a blessed time to meditate on the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord; but they’re also very tiring if you really give yourself over to them and try to enter into the celebrations.
While it is certainly fitting for us to have these great celebrations, I think it’s also good for us to realize that Jesus’ life wasn’t just one exciting thing after another. For 30 years he quietly, humbly worked as a carpenter. He prepared diligently for many years and after that preparation He was finally able to take up the mission that had been entrusted to Him by the Father. As we today celebrate this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the first ‘regular Sunday’ in over three months, we have for ourselves the beginning a beautiful calm period in the liturgical year which stands as an invitation for us to take up that work of preparing ourselves more diligently for the mission given to us by doing the work deepening our relationship with the Lord.
I’ve been reflecting on how God is really present in our daily lives and I have realized how easy it is for us all, myself included, to fall into a sort of ‘practical atheism’ in our daily lives. There is so much going on around us and so many pleasurable things fighting for us to follow after them that it is easy to go throughout our day without realizing just how much God is with us throughout it. What a blessing for us to have this Ordinary Time of the Church year to simply cultivate in ourselves that reality that God is always with us and to grow in holiness.
That is exactly what Saint Paul is talking about today when he is writing to the Romans – he reminds them that we live in the Spirit and that we must put to death the desires of the flesh. You don’t need me or Saint Paul to tell you how bad things can get when we live by our fleshly desires, constantly seeking after pleasure; just look at the tabloids and see who is the latest celebrity to wind up in drug rehab or an alcoholics program or jail. That is not life – that is spiritual death! We are called to life! And so we are called to put to death the deeds of the flesh as a means to having that life. But how? Where do we begin? I would suggest following the simple axiom most of us have already heard – work like it all depends on you and pray like it all depends on God.
First we must recognize that we must take some action – Saint Paul tells us that we must put to death the desires of the flesh. WE! US! ME! There is something here for us to do and so we must work at it. As they say – there are no plains in the spiritual life but only hills, so you with go forward or fall backward. We need to constantly trudge forward. I have a good priest friend who has often said “Jesus didn’t say ‘pick up your comfy pillow and follow me’ but rather ‘pick up your cross and follow me’” and that is something that we ought to realize whenever we truly seek to follow after Christ. While pleasure isn’t bad and we all ought to enjoy ourselves, we are also called to pick up our crosses and follow after Him. This is exactly what we do when we follow the advice of Saint Paul.
And what is this work really? What does it look like? Well, it often comes in the form of us sacrificing something that brings us pleasure in order to offer that up to God. You all probably know that some years ago Catholics weren’t able to eat meat on Fridays; they were obliged to abstain. Then there came a point where it was said that Catholics didn’t have to abstain from meat anymore. But that was only half of what was said – the other half is that if we choose not to abstain from meat, we must take up some other penitential practice. The obligation to penance remains. So maybe we can take up abstaining from meat of Fridays once again. Or if that isn’t much of a penance for you, I might suggest abstaining from TV and Internet for the day. And with that time you could spend quality time with family, pray, or do some other thing that opens you up to God speaking to you.
That’s just for Fridays though – what about other days of the week? Maybe you could pick up fasting from a meal here or there. Or you could pick up smaller practices throughout the day here and there. I was thinking about how I could do that myself and I came to a couple of concrete examples. Now, I don’t know about y’all but I like good food and air conditioning. So what if next time we went to the grocery store or gas station rather than getting in and immediately cranking up the AC, turn it off and roll down the windows to enjoy the heat and offer that little bit of discomfort to God as a sign that we love Him and are willing to make some sacrifices for Him? Or next time we’re cooking or eating a meal, leave out some of that Tony’s or seasoning and leave it a little bland just as a small way of dying to that desire for pleasure in eating? Again, a small sign to God that we love Him and desire to follow after Him. And the beautiful thing is that those small sacrifices can be a source of grace for us and enable us to be willing to step up when the difficult sacrifices come down the road.
In the midst of all of these small practices that we can do throughout the day, though, we must remember the second part of that little axiom – we must pray like it all depends on God. We must be a people of prayer. There was a priest in the Early Church named Pelagius who said that we could work our way to Heaven and didn’t have to have God’s grace. My response to him is ‘what a fool!’ Everything is grace. It is by God’s grace that we are able to be here today, it is God’s grace that sustains us in existence, it is God’s grace that accomplishes all good works in us. We must be a people of prayer. After all, Saint Paul reminds us, it is by the Spirit that the desires of the flesh are put to death. By the Spirit. And so we must be rooted constantly in prayer. Certainly by coming here to Mass and the sacraments, visiting the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and praying other major prayers like the rosary, chaplets, novenas and such. But also we must find the Lord in the midst of the everyday aspects of life and we must invite Him into those times. I bought a book last year that was 600 pages of prayers and many of them were little one-liners. “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy.” “Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.” “Good Saint Joseph, pray for us.” And many many others. How great it is for us to be able to make those small prayers to God throughout the day and to invite Him into whatever is going on around us. Certainly that is His desire, for it is Christ Himself who tells us today “Come to me and I will give you rest.” What great rest we will have when we turn to Our Lord and cry out to Him.
And as we continue through the next few months of Ordinary Time, may the Lord grant us the grace to offer up those little crosses to Him and to make many acts of love both in word and in deed so that we might find that rest that we truly long for, both in this life and in the next.