What’s wrong with the world today? Several decades ago, the London Times asked this question of essayists and orators – people who by that days’ standards were “influencers”. G. K. Chesterton, the famous writer, philosopher, and lay Catholic theologian, responded to the Times. He wrote:
Those are sage words even for the problems of today, and I’m carrying them with me during Lent. There’s a lot wrong in our world today, but righting the wrong starts with me. It begins with letting go of anger and being reconciled the people in my close circle. As today’s gospel shares, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gifts there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).
Turning the well-known verse of Matthew 7:3 into first-person, “Why do I notice the splinter in my brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in my own eye?” My small actions will not fix the whole world, but they might fix the little sliver that God gave me to toil within until my journey on this life is complete.
With the Gospel Acclamation today, the faithful hear this verse, Matthew 4:4, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” We take this to mean earthly bread, our sustenance that fuels us for our daily tasks. However, last year, many of us went without heavenly bread for months at a time. Maybe you can’t receive the Eucharist now because you don’t have access to in-person Mass, or you are avoiding the church building due to health concerns.
I went without the Bread of Heaven for three and a half months in 2020, and one of the first times I received the Eucharist after churches re-opened in New York, was at my daughter’s First Holy Communion. Not only was I receiving Jesus’ Body and Blood again, I was finally receiving this gift again in communion with my Church family and sharing this precious gift with my young daughter.
Anticipation of the Banquet
We anticipated this special moment for weeks, carefully preparing ourselves. I’m not simply talking about reviewing sacramental prep lessons, rehearsing hand placement for receiving the Body of Christ, ironing her dress, and fluffing her veil. Our preparation included the Sacrament of Penance. Our family, away for the Eucharist for months, hungering as we watched Mass on TV and recited the “Prayer for Spiritual Communion” in unison in our living room, approached the healing sacrament together the day before the first in-person Mass. Not only had we been away from the Body of Christ for months, we had been lacking His sacrament of mercy. Anticipating this joyful reunion, I was determined that the souls of each of my family members would be clean and whole tabernacles for Jesus, present in the Holy Eucharist.
That was at the end of June. Today, I have the opportunity to receive Jesus every day. However, I’ve noticed that I’m not always as attentive to my mental and spiritual state as I was when I was in the desert last year.
Lent is an Invitation Renewed
This Lent, Jesus is offering us a new opportunity to come back to him with our whole hearts. This season invites us to stop, reassess, and reconnect with the one who loves us and sacrificed all for us. We are still living lives of daily uncertainty. Everything is not back to normal. However, just as the angels ministered to Jesus in the desert, God sends His angels to tend to us in hard times (Ps. 91:11). Do we trust this? Do we recognize that our Lord, like us in every way but sin, understands hardship, dryness, uncertainty (Heb. 4:15)?
When we are surrounded by the wild beasts of illness, instability, financial hardship, and even the Bread of Life is inaccessible to us, the Word of God “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Let us reflect on the scripture and permit it to draw us closer to Jesus, the Word become flesh (John 1: 14), our sustainer, redeemer, and brother.
How can you be more intentional in your preparation to receive the Eucharist?
I am a pretty literal person. To me, passages this make sense because we are reading the scriptures with post-Resurrection knowledge. We know who Jesus is and that the disciples are right to feast with the Lord – the bridegroom. We know what Jesus means when he says that “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away” (Mt 9:15).
Something more has stuck with me with this passage though, and it reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, which we will read a little later during Lent. What comes to mind was a question a priest asked in his homily a few years ago.
If you will recall the parable, the older brother was miffed that the father had a fattened calf slaughtered in honor of his younger brother’s return from his perfidious sojourn, while he, the older son, had obeyed his father. The father tells the older brother that all they have, has always been his to enjoy.
Do you do things out of love or obligation?
The priest asked our congregation, “Do you do things out of love or only out of obligation?” The older brother was fulfilling his duty out of obligation but not love; at least that’s how I understood the question. That struck me hard especially because I’m disciplined and dutiful.
I see a parallel here. The followers of John the Baptist are asking Jesus why his disciples were not fasting in accordance with the customs of the day, but Jesus knew that the time for fasting would be once he was crucified. It’s almost as if he is stating that there is no need to fast out of obligation because there will come a time for all who believe in him to fast out of love for him.
Why do you fast?
This begs the question, are you fasting out of love for Jesus, or out of obligation? Are you attending Mass because these are days of obligation, or because you love the Lord and want to sit at his feet and partake of his banquet?
Now, acting out of obligation is not necessarily wrong. Often times we do the right thing out of obligation. We may refrain from gossip, for example, because we feel obliged not to damage another’s reputation but not because we actually have much regard for someone. It’s a harder pursuit to refrain from gossiping about someone because you love that person as a sister or brother in Christ, made in the image and likeness of God.
To act out of obligation is good. To love is better.
What have you chosen to offer during Lent? Are you fasting from something? Are you adding something more to your plate, such an increased prayer time? Or perhaps you pledged to donate to a food drive by buying a few extra groceries for the food bank each time you go to the commissary? Whatever it is you choose to do, strive to do it because of love?
Lord Jesus, During Lent I have given up or taken on (name your lenten offerings), help me to make these sacrifices out of love for you for my neighbor. When I’m weak in my offerings, remind me that you gave your entire life freely out of love for me, your unworthy servant. Bless my obedience to this lenten sacrifice and increase my love for you. Amen.
Two lines from Today’s Gospel strike me. The first is “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). The second is “What profit is there for one to gain the world yet lose or forfeit himself” (Lk 9:25). To me, these speak loudly, not only of discipleship, but also of servant leadership. This makes sense because to be a good servant leader, one must first be a disciple.
For the better part of the last 45 years, I have been mentored and guided by selfless servant leaders. Some were older than me and some younger, but all selfless and wise in their own right. Unfortunately, I also experienced some who claimed themselves as servant leaders, only to show themselves as wanting the world. The difference between the two was as clear as day. The true servant leaders understood and lived the conditions of discipleship and the others did not.
Imagine how it must have felt hearing Jesus speak of his own approaching passion and his instruction about the cost of following him. Luke 9:24 says “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Jesus showed us the cost of doing the Father’s will, and he knows that when we lose our lives for his sake, it will not be easy, but that is the only way. Dying to self to follow Jesus is exactly what we are called to do each day, and especially when we are called to serve others. When others see our service, they should see us as a “visible presence of Christ.” Our actions should be to further the kingdom, not to fulfill our own ambitions and goals. May our reflection on the conditions for discipleship lead us to rely on Jesus’ promise that as we die to ourselves we will live in Him.
How does Jesus ask you to lose your life for his sake?
Friends, Your response to the Good Tidings 2020 Advent Devotional was so generous that I decided to compile another devotional for Lent. Several faithful, talented, and loving friends helped me to write this Lent devotional, which I’ve named A Time to Grow.I hope that you grow this Lent. If you’re subscribed to the blog, you’ll receive a new Gospel reflection to your inbox daily. You will also be able to download A Time to Grow as a free e-book.
St. Gregory the Great preached that scripture “grows with its readers.”
When we pray (or at least when I pray), I don’t hear an audible voice of God speaking to me. But when we pray with scripture, we’re opening an opportunity for the Word to speak to us.
I have a friend who is a Baptist preacher, and he looked at me one day and said, “You know, Elizabeth, we Baptists believe that the Holy Spirit is actually present in the words we preach.”
“Of course the Holy Spirit can be present in preaching,” I thought. He paused for a while. Then he said, “So I can see how Jesus could be present in the Eucharist.” I responded, “Welcome to the Catholic Church, friend!”
Scripture grows with the reader, and we grow with scripture, too.
What might God’s Word have in store for you this Lent?
We can read scripture alone, but it’s helpful to do so in community with others. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Pv 27:17). To that end, I’m grateful that so many women have collaborated with me to create this Lent Devotional. I encourage you to read the Gospel daily, take time for meditation, and hop on over to the Joyful Momentum group on Facebook, where we can talk about how God is revealing himself to us through his Word. I pray that you have a diligent, loving, and fruitful Lent.
Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David. Through his prophets he promised of old that he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us. He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hand of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life. You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“Lord open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Ps 51:17). You might recognize this sentence from the Divine Office or other prayers. This is the verse that comes to mind today. Zechariah was rendered mute by the angel Gabriel when he did not believe the angel’s message, but today, in today’s Gospel reading, his speech is restored.
Why? Maybe because he learned his lesson.
When the angel announced John’s birth, Zechariah was directed to name his son John, but when John was born, people objected to the name. Zechariah, still mute, scrawled on a tablet, “John is his name.” God blessed Zechariah’s obedience and restored his speech.
Zechariah’s canticle contains his first spoken words after a long period of silence. Of all the things he could have said, look at what he chooses to say. Zechariah praises God and speaks truth to the people around him.
Advent gave us time to be quiet, avail ourselves of the sacrament of penance, and spend time in the Word. As Advent dusk sets and Christmas dawns, are you ready to sing your own canticle of praise?
If you could sing a canticle, what would it contain?