A SERMON FOR QUADRAGESIMA SUNDAY
Ashes will be distributed after Mass to those who were unable to receive them on Ash Wednesday. It’s a familiar ceremony, one we go through every year, and so we may be tempted not to take too much notice of it. That’s a pity, and let me tell you why.
It’s actually the equivalent of the Church hitting us between the eyes with a baseball bat. It’s the strongest possible statement the Church can make to us, and that statement says “Wake up!” Wake up, because we’re just drifting through life as though it will last forever. We behave as though we have no immortal soul, that we act only to please ourselves, that those actions have no consequences. We behave sometimes as though the law of God does not exist, or if it does exist, that we can ignore it whenever the urge is too strong, or whenever it becomes inconvenient. We think we can sin at will, and then go to confession afterwards and say a few Hail Marys and go back to our self-centered lives. Sound familiar? Then wake up!
Reality is far, far different from this dream-world we have concocted for ourselves. Reality is that there is a God, and that God has given us laws that must be obeyed. Reality is that sin exists, that each sin is an infinite offence against God. Reality is that hell exists, and that eternal punishment is ready and waiting for those who pretend that life is all about getting what we can out of it. Our entire approach to life is “how much can I please “me”?, this “me” who is nothing but dust. We’re so eager to gratify this dust, aren’t we!
So we get the call today to wake up. Instead of hitting us between the eyes with a baseball bat, which is probably what we really deserve, the Church contents herself by gently placing a cross of dust between our eyes. Keep your eyes on that dust today. That’s all we are. All those little pleasures we like to give ourselves, what are they really? We’re just feeding the dust. Let’s wake up and find our pleasure in giving pleasure to God, to others. That’s why we fast during Lent. That’s why we practice almsgiving. That’s why our Lent should be filled with acts of kindness and penance, so that we might show that charity we learned about last week, that love of God and neighbor.
Not all pleasures are sinful, it’s true. But let’s remember that all sins give pleasure. All sins give us pleasure. Think about it. It’s true, isn’t it? If sins didn’t provide us with some kind of pleasure, we wouldn’t be tempted to commit them. Things are not wrong, however, because they give us pleasure. Otherwise, all pleasure would be sinful, and obviously they are not. Things are wrong because God forbids them. And he forbids them because they offend him.
I can’t tell you that you’re somehow crazy or inherently evil because you want something that makes you feel good. It’s natural. Why do we fight so much, or gossip, or dress immodestly, or drink so much alcohol? Because these things make us feel good. We like to “let off steam” or get our own way by fighting and quarreling. But God doesn’t want us to fight and quarrel, and so we mustn’t fight and quarrel. Immodest clothes make us cooler in the hot weather, or less confined, or more attractive, or whatever. It doesn’t matter why we do it, what matters is that God doesn’t want us to dress immodestly. As for drinking alcohol to excess, this should be unthinkable during Lent. Isn’t it after all a deliberate attempt to wallow in that fantasy dream-land of self-indulgence that we have created for ourselves? To make us forget our troubles for a while or take the edge off our bad mood? Yet, how can we think of deliberately entering into an alcohol-induced stupor when our Blessed Lord refused to drink from the sponge the soldier held up for him, the sponge soaked in myrrh that would alleviate some of his pain? No, this is the time for penance, for depriving ourselves of pleasure. Our Lord wanted to suffer pain, to freely accept that extra penance, because he wanted to show us how much he loved us. So when we continue to chug back our martinis and our beers to get our daily buzz, what are we showing him in return?
Sinful pleasure is something we should avoid at all times of course. But during Lent, we take it a step further, depriving ourselves of innocent pleasures. Pleasures like that pain-dulling drink before dinner. Things that might be “okay” the rest of the year are not “okay” during Lent. It’s why we’re not supposed to get married during Lent, why we shouldn’t have any unnecessary parties during Lent, why we shouldn’t drink alcohol during Lent, why we shouldn’t deliberately choose to indulge in any activity, to be honest, that gives us an inordinate amount of pleasure. But of course, we’re human, and so, in our weakness, we are realistic enough to know we can’t give up every single pleasure in life. We’re asked to give up what as much as we can. In other words, it’s up to us. Beyond the fasting laws it’s all optional. It’s all up to our “free will.”
So how much can I give up? How much will I give up? Will. It’s all about the will. Free will. I will decide. And how do I decide. Well, we start by asking ourselves how much we love God? How much do I want to give up, freely, to show God that he is more important to me than my own vain pleasures? If I don’t give up very much for Lent, is that a sin? No, because it is truly of our own free will that we choose to give it up. God is not offended that we can’t give up more than we do. Let’s just say he’s disappointed in the lukewarmness of our love for him. Think of his love for us, after all. How did our Lord limit himself in showing us his love for us? Of his own free will, he offered all the bitter pain of his Passion for us, as he freely gave up his life. For us! “Quid retribuam Domino pro omnibus quae retribuit mihi?” What can I give back to God for all that he hath given unto me? Am I really going to draw a line in the sand and refuse to go further?
This past week, a young parishioner of St. Therese’s Chapel down in Lebanon was killed in an automobile accident, and again I would ask you to pray for his soul and for his poor family. His parents have been asked by God to give up their son. Admittedly, this was not by their own free choosing. But now that this tragic accident has happened, God asks this distraught mother and father to surrender their will to God, and, by their free will, accept God’s will. I have known mothers in the past who have lost a child in an accident, and who have cursed God for taking away their child. It happens, grief like theirs must be a terrible thing, and we cannot condemn them for their reaction. But where is such a mother’s faith in God, her hope of the resurrection, her love of God above all things, all creatures, no matter how close they may be?
What is God asking of us this Lent? Hopefully not as much as he has asked of that poor family from St. Therese’s. But he does ask for some sign of love from our lukewarm hearts, hearts that are so reluctant to part with even the smallest of pleasure. Is your heart lukewarm? Take a good, hard look at the Crucifix. Or maybe it’s time to watch the movie of The Passion again? For now, take a look in the mirror now and again today. What expression do you see on your face? Is it so very smug as to ignore what Christ has done for us and to ignore his call to penance? Is it so hardened that we refuse God what he asks for? Is it so smooth with self-gratification that we tell our Lord we “can’t” give up this or that for the forty days of Lent?
Or will that black cross of ash between our eyes remind us what we truly are, what we’re truly worth? Dust yes. But dust in the shape of a cross, the symbol of Christ’s love for us, his beloved creatures of dust for whom he died. We are worth something after all, so let’s rise from our stupor and, with generosity, be all we can be.