Readings for Sunday, February 12 / 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Sirach 15:15-20 | Psalm 119 | 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 | Matthew 5:17-37
If you choose, you can keep the commandments. So says our first reading for us today. If you choose ... Last weekend we reflected on that reality the Lord invites us to be who we are called to be, to be who He created us to be, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To choose to be salt, to choose to be light, to choose to follow the commandments. Indeed, ultimately most of our Christian life comes down to our choices. Adam and Eve faced the particular choice that determined the rest of creation. Having received all the goodness of God and so many blessings, Adam and Eve did the one thing they were not supposed to do - to eat of the tree instead of the garden - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord God said, "If you eat of that tree, you will die." And certainly the day comes, as we know, and the devil comes to tempt them saying, "Did God really say that you will die? Surely you will not die. It can't be that bad." The devil speaks into their ear and they hear it, they hear the voice of the evil one, and he comes up and it resonates in their hearts. Adam and Eve choose to break the commandment of God, they choose not to keep the Lord's will, and in doing so, they choose for all of humanity to be broken by sin. Every human heart, except those of Jesus and Mary, have since that time be plagued by the same struggle. St. Paul would describe it as the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life - the triple concupiscence. It was this recognition of this desire to obtain the things that are pleasurable in this world, to be able to take that which is not properly ours and to be able to exalt ourselves. All three of those lusts of the heart, Adam and Eve fell to, and so do we. The Church in her wisdom, just like a good mother, knows exactly how to respond to us with the proper remedy, and the remedy we know is - as we hear from the Lenten season that we hear each year - is prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The lust of the flesh, the desire to experience the pleasures of this world, to that the Church responds and invites us to fast, to give up something from time to time, and so to gain something even greater. The lust of the eyes, that desire to amass things for ourselves, an implicit lack of trust in the Lord God who says He will provide for us, for that, the Church invites us to almsgiving. Rather than to take to receive, the Church invites us to be generous in giving. And lastly, the pride of life, the desire to exalt ourselves, the Church responds and acknowledges the remedy to that is prayer, where we rely upon our God for everything, even the breath that we take next, comes as a gift from our God. So, the Church invites us to reflect on these: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Often times when it comes to the Lenten season, we pick one and we use that for our Lenten practice for the year - we're going to abstain from sweets or from cokes or whatever we choose that year. Or maybe we decide this year we are going to focus on prayer and spend a little more time in prayer. Or maybe we want to be a little more generous this year, we are going to put some food in the food basket to be able to give to the food pantry. Or we are going to do the Rice Bowl program, or some of these other ways in which we can express our generosity and give alms to others and to the Lord. And all of those are good things, but the Church in her wisdom invites us not to pick one, but indeed to pick all three and to practice something of each of them throughout the course of the Lenten season and through the year.
When I was in the seminary, a few friends of mine had gone and run and half marathon, and I wanted in on the fun. I decided to train with them for the next one, and so we began going out on weekly runs, going three, four, five times a week and jog around the city. Ultimately, the race day came, we ran our race chugging along, and about mile 11 I started to notice my right foot was really hurting. About mile 12, I was limping along. By mile 13 I could barely walk on it, and I knew something was wrong. Come to find out the next day, I went to the doctor and found out I had a stress fracture that I kept running on, and it kept getting more and more broken. The doctor said that part of my problem was my training, saying that if I wanted to do this more than once, if I wanted to be more than just a one and done runner, if I wanted to be able run half marathons and marathons until I'm 40 and beyond, I needed to not just run - I needed to bike and swim. Train like a triathletes because your body will become more adaptive that way. Certainly you will be strengthened in different ways, but your body reacts differently. If you only do the same thing over and over, you can actually become weaker, and that's why you broke your foot.
The Church in her wisdom invites us to the same. Can we pick one and be fruitful? Yes. But it''s even more fruitful, and in fact easier, if we do three. To pick something of each and to give ourselves to that in the Lord. We reflect today on the first of those - the gift of fasting.
What is fasting? If we are fasting to be able to lose weight, we are not fasting, we are dieting. If we are fasting because we don't have any food, we're not fasting, we're starving. If we are fasting because we were not hungry, and so we're going to skip the meal, we're not fasting, we're just not hungry. Those are not fasting. Those are things that happen to be circumstances of the day taken upon us. Rather fasting is to intentionally choose to give up something so that we might be able to gain something even greater. Not a slimmer waist line, but a stronger spirit - and that's the gift of fasting. The reality of fasting is that it unites us to Jesus Christ. Whether it's fasting from a particular meals or going on a stricter regiment of things or if it's simply to abstain from meat or something of the sort. To do those things unites us to the Cross, and the cross has power.
Remember the story of how Jesus goes and gives the disciples the charge to go forth and to prepare the way. He sends them out two by two ahead of him. They go out and come back to him, marveling at the things that have happened through their hands and their prayers. "Lord, people were healed. The deaf can hear on account of us. We cast out demons. It was incredible! You should've seen it." And they marveled at the ways God was working through them, powerful ways. And yet there came a day in which they came upon an individual who was possessed by a demon, and they prayed, and prayed and prayed, and the demon would not leave the individual. In exasperation, they go to the Lord, "We've done everything you've said. We've done everything that we know how to do. We've prayed every prayer that we can to free him from the demon. What are we missing?" And the Lord Jesus said to them, "This kind is only cast out by prayer and fasting." Prayer and fasting. Because again, fasting unites us to the cross, and the cross is the sign of victory of Christ from which the demons flee. They fly from the cross because they hate it. To the extent that we unite ourselves to the cross of Jesus, to the extent that we forsake even for a short time - to go without a single meal for the love of Jesus, to go without meat for a day for the love of Jesus, to go abstain or fast from technology for a day for love of Jesus - whatever it is for the love of Jesus, if we do those things and unite ourselves to Christ (not just as a way to get things in this word, to lose weight or whatever) but to use them as spiritual tools to rely upon God. To the extent that our flesh struggles a bit, our spirit grows stronger. It's the invitation to grow strong in the Holy Spirit, to fight the temptations of the evil one and to have him flee from us.
It can be tempting to not fast, to be able to abstain from those things we ought to abstain. And yet the Lord invites us to do so joyfully and boldly. St. Peter in his frustration in the scriptures (we can always rely on Peter for an honest answer) - as he is going through the journey of discipleship with Christ, he is seeing that he has given up everything. He left his family behind, he left his business, they didn't have job insurance, he wasn't banking on anything else, and he looks at the Lord one day and says, "What I gonna get? If I give up these things, what's the payoff? What's the end goal? How do I come out? Do I just lose?" And the Lord Jesus assures him that whoever gives up anything for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of the spread of the Gospel, will have so a hundredfold in this life and the next. We will be repaid in a way even greater than we can understand. More than we could've asked or taken for ourselves, the Lord will grant us these things freely and joyfully.
Two days a year the Church requires us to fast - on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Regrettably one of those days has become a day in which has become a tradition to have a crawfish boil. If your family tradition is to have a crawfish boil on Good Friday - STOP. Wait two more days and celebrate Easter because to have 5 or 10 lbs of crawfish and a six pack of beer is not fasting. That's feasting. If you consider that a fast, then we really need to talk about your food regiment. Two days a year the Church requires us to fast. An extra five or six days the Church requires us to abstain from meat by law during the Lenten season as a strict reality. But also, the Church invites us to a little bit more, indeed requires it of us. Some of you may recall a time when the Church said we were not permitted to eat any Friday of the year. Every Friday was a day of abstaining from meat. During the course of liturgical changes and various other changes in our Catholic faith in the 60's and 70's, it seems that that practice was tossed out the window. But the reality is that it still applies, it's still the law the Church advises to us. Although we may not hear about it very much, it's still something that is actually enforced. What took place rather than having a universal thing that says every Catholic across the globe must abstain from meat on Fridays, it was said to be left to the individual conference of bishops in the land that you live. For us, the United Sated Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) back in the 70's got together and discussed the topic, prayed about it and said on Fridays we are still going to encourage Catholics to abstain from meat - every Friday. But if the occasion arises to where they do eat meat for some reason, they should take up another penance in its place, to offer some other practice - maybe to pray the rosary that day, spend some time in prayer or offer a Divine Mercy Chaplet, do an extra act of service for someone else, a corporal or spiritual work of mercy.
That's still the expectation of bishops for us - that we would live a life of penance. We don't have to be walking around in a sack cloth and ashes with frowny faces all the time, indeed the Lord says quite the opposite. It's an invitation to continually, not for a short time, but every year, every week to unite ourselves to the cross of Jesus and giving up something, fasting or abstaining. Ultimately we know that in the end, in the big picture, it will be absolutely worth it because we will be able to see that place which no eye sees, to hear that place which no ear has heard, and to understand - what St. Paul tells us - the idea which has never even entered the human heart of the richness God has in store for us.
My brothers and sisters, heaven awaits and for that we fast.