Ash Wednesday (1 March 2017) marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Masses on Ash Wednesday will be at 12noon and 7.30pm at St Austin’s and at 10am at St Anne’s.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence on which we are bound to abstain from meat and to have only one full meal.
Together with prayer and fasting, almsgiving is one of the penitential works of Lent by which we strive to turn away from sin and follow Our Lord more faithfully.
Almsgiving in its most obvious form is the giving of money to the poor. In prudence, this may take the form of giving donations to the poor via good charities, in which we co-operate with the good works of others. We should always make sure that the charities that we give to are not contradicting the teaching of Christ and the Church in their activities. We can be safe with giving to a charity such as Aid to the Church in Need or Mary’s Meals. With secular charities, we need to check – it is not a good idea to support such generic initiatives such as “Red Nose Day” which support a variety of causes, some of which are suspect.
Almsgiving brings us grace in abundance because Our Lord said of various charitable works “As often as you did this to the least of my brothers and sister, you did it to me.” (Matt 25.40) When we show love to our neighbour, it can be more than a human act of kindness if we seek consciously and devoutly to serve Christ in others. In fact, St Paul warns us that our charitable giving must in fact involve charity to be worth anything:
And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, […] and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor 13.3)
The essential characteristic that distinguishes charity is that it is done for the love of God. When we give, we do well to think consciously of the Lord Himself whom we serve in the poor.
This applies also to the offertory collection at Mass, to take another example. It may be that the tower needs fixing, the lights need replacing, the heating needs to be paid for and other maintenance tasks need to be done. But our offertory is a gift to the Lord which is an act of Christian discipleship. That is why we give to support the Church which is the body of Christ, and we should make our giving an act of loving offering of ourselves and our resources.
In addition to making donations, we have opportunities every day to exercise the virtue of charity by simple acts for the good of others, whether at home, at work, or among people socially. Small, hidden acts of charity done for the love of God, have a great value in His sight and are a powerful means of good. They are also a pwerful means of countering the work of the devil who seeks to destroy charity in our homes and families and in our parishes. Charity is like a force-field of grace and light against such attacks.
As Lent begins, let us pray for one another and for the whole Church as we embark together on this annual exercise of growing in the love of Jesus Christ. May our works of prayer, fasting and charity help to bring in the Kingdom of God in the world around us, and assist us each individually and as members of Christ’s body, on the path to eternal life.
Confessing that we are sinners, we fast as a sign of grief and repentance for sin. This is the purpose of all our Lenten penance: to assist us in being genuinely sorry for our sins and to offer some reparation in union with Our Lord who offered His life in sacrifice to take away our sins.
We are bound specifically to fast from food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by having only one full meal. The fast used to be very much more strict throughout Lent, but we are now permitted to choose some act of penance such as giving up something that we normally enjoy.
St Augustine said: “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.” Fasting also enlightens our soul and makes us more open to the divine so that the mind rises more easily to heavenly things. It is a strong support to our practice of prayer.
We should never become vain about our fasting, and in accord with the whole purpose of Lent, we must accompany fasting with rejection of sin and the celebration of the sacrament of Penance.
Traditionally, the few weeks before Lent are a time for us to prepare for Lent. During Lent we try to respond more faithfully to God’s grace: to be better Catholics, to be better people.
It is a time when we are united with Catholics throughout the world. Everyone who tries to practise their faith is thinking and talking about Lent. We all try to pray, fast and carry out works of charity. It is important to remember that we do these things with the purpose of growing in the love of God. It is not a self-help exercise, a healthy eating competition or a celebration of mindfulness; we are trying to love God with all our heart and soul and mind.
So I want to reflect on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over these three Sundays in preparation for Lent, beginning with prayer.
We say prayers in public and in private and both are essential to the life of every Christian. The greatest of all prayers is the Holy Mass because it is the sacrifice of Our Lord made present and offered here on our altars where Jesus Christ humbles Himself to come among us under the appearances of bread and wine.
God Himself in the commandments, and the Church in her precepts require as a serious obligation that we attend Holy Mass every week. It is essential to our lives and we should not miss going to Mass unless there is a serious reason such as illness that prevents us from coming.
The Mass is not an optional extra that we fit in when there is nothing else that takes our fancy. It is the source and summit of all our other prayers and good works: all the graces that we need flow from the sacrifice of Christ, and all our prayer, penance and works are for His glory.
Other public prayers include the daily weekday Mass, and other devotions such as Benediction and Stations of the Cross. These help us to pray together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Family prayers have a privileged place among those prayers we say together: St John Paul called the family the “domestic Church.”
When it comes to our private prayers, the Church gives us great freedom. Saints and holy writers have from time to time composed Novenas, reflections, litanies and other devotions from which we may choose. As well as prayer books, it is nowadays possible to carry a whole collection of prayers and devotions on a mobile phone to use in our homes and when travelling.
Of all the private prayers, the Rosary has a privileged place, thanks to Our Lady’s encouragement and the authoritative teaching of many Popes. It takes a quarter of an hour to say five decades of the Rosary, and no quarter of an hour could have more power for good in our own lives and for the world around us.
We should pray every day to praise and adore God, to thank Him for His gifts, to repent of our sins, and to ask Him for His grace. Prayer should not be seen as a chore, but a blessing because Our God is so close to us, listens to us with kindness, and deigns to be present with us in the Blessed Sacrament. I encourage you to choose something concrete and achievable by way of offering the Lord a little more in your practice of prayer during Lent.
From 2 February, the feast of Candlemas, until Easter, the Marian Anthem is the Ave Regina Caelorum. (From Easter Sunday, we sing the Regina Caeli.) In the parish, we sing the Marian Anthem after sung English or Latin Mass, on Friday after Benediction, on Saturday after the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and on any other occasion where it is a fitting conclusion to our prayers and devotions. In the above YouTube video, the anthem is sung by Christendom College Choir & Schola Gregoriana.
The virtue of charity relates to God, and to our neighbour for God’s sake. God also provides the foundation of charity when He gives us His grace. Loving God for the gifts of His kindness is good and right, but loving God simply because He is infinitely good and loving is an even greater blessing and joy.
For most of us, the first step in loving God more, is to make a sincere effort to overcome our daily sins, those faults which separate us from Him. We advance by trying to live a more faithful spiritual life, giving praise to His glory and welcoming His holy will.
We can truly love God because He has revealed Himself to us as personal: not an abstraction, but one who knows us and loves us without limit. God revealed Himself most fully when He became man. When we reflect on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our affections are stirred and our love takes the form of compassion for His sufferings and joy at the triumph of His resurrection.
In human life, we experience the love of others in our friendship with them. Our Lord invited the apostles, and He invites us today, to become His friends; He does not leave us distant, worshipping a thing or a totem that we do not understand, but lovingly adoring one who wills our good at all times, and provides for our eternal happiness.
Here on earth, even in the midst of troubles, the love of God sincerely practised, brings an unassailable joy and peace to our hearts.
In daily life we find ourselves hoping for many things that we desire as good. The supernatural virtue of hope is based on our ultimate good: the love of God and eternal happiness with Him. We trust in God for the means to achieve this desire, because God Himself wills the salvation of all and has promised us His grace.
Genuine hope leads us to co-operate with God by using the means that He has given us: the sacraments, His actual graces, and the good example of others, especially the saints. God will never refuse us His grace, therefore we must focus on our efforts to respond to His gifts.
The sins against hope are despair and presumption. The first is a distrust of God’s greatness and power, and His loving mercy. The second is a failure to act in accordance with the will of the one whose kindness we take for granted.
St Francis de Sales was the Bishop of Geneva shortly after the reformation. He lived in Annecy because his diocese was under the control of the Calvinists. His writings show abundant evidence of his own love for God and desire for union with Him, and his desire to share that love with others and to teach them the path of holiness.
By his teaching, example, and kindliness of character, St Francis de Sales brought tens of thousands of Calvinists back to the Church. He shows the effect of the virtue of hope, which gave efficacy to his prayers and inspired him to work tirelessly for what seemed an impossible cause.
In the weeks before Septuagesima, I would like to consider the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. They are called “theological” because they relate directly to God. As a small boy, I learnt the lucid definition of the catechism:
“Faith is a supernatural gift of God by which we believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.” (Penny Catechism)
The virtue of faith is more than simply believing something to be true, it is an act of loving trust and obedience by which we draw closer to the living God who wills our good and has prepared heaven for us. Hence it is a virtue, not simply a rational response.
Contrary to a poplar prejudice, faith does not contradict our reason but enlightens it. It is not a “leap in the dark” but rather a journey in the light. For example, we can know from the natural light of human reason that there must be a God. God reveals Himself to us as not simply a force or higher power, but as personal, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not contrary to our reason but goes beyond what we can know without God’s revealing Himself.
We should resist temptations against our faith and avoid those corrosive influences which seek to undermine it through pride of intellect and resistance to grace. Some books or films can undermine our faith or tempt us against it. We would spend our time better by reading or watching things that nourish our faith.
In talking about the theological virtues, I would like to draw inspiration from the the saints whose example inspires us and shows us how the virtues are lived. The saints also pray for us continually in heaven. This week we celebrate the feast of St Agnes, a young virgin martyr who was put to death around 304AD during the reign of the cruel emperor Diocletian. The Christians had grown in numbers. Some modern historians have inerestingly suggested that this was partly because of their care of the sick and the building up of a “herd immunity” to some diseases in contrast to those Romans who fled at the first sign of “the plague.”
After resisting those who wished to compromise her purity, St Agnes was dragged through the streets of Rome to be violated, and finally executed. As with many early martyrs, legends embellished the story of her life. We do not know for certain whether these legends are true – nor do we know for certain that they are false. She was buried in the catacomb on the Via Nomentana, a great devotion sprang up to her, and she was praised by St Ambrose, a Father of the Church.
The pain and desolation that St Agnes suffered did not cause her to “question her faith” as is assumed necessary today. When a tragedy occurs, Christians can feel pressured into saying that they had to question their faith in God. There is no need for this – our faith is the one thing that can really help at such times.
Instead of doubting, St Agnes made use of her faith and trust in God to triumph in adversity, encourage her fellow Christians and intercede effectively for the Church which was soon to be granted freedom. Let us pray to her for inspiration in our own struggles to remain true to the Catholic faith.
Recently there has been a dispute on Twitter over whether 2+2=4. We might readily dismiss such absurdity were it not for the provenance of the discussion being a Jesuit priest who is a senior commentator close to the highest authority in the Church.
The idea proposed was that somehow theology can make 2+2=5 because it has to do with God and the real life of people. Now Twitter is not a good forum for the extensive discussion of philosophy and I confess that the dear Father’s meaning is far from clear to me. However on the feast of the Epiphany it is helpful to address something that he could be understood as saying.
For those who yearn for a simple life, Father’s tweet might (even if unfairly) be taken to support an attitude that rejects any attempt at accurate thinking, a desire to reject the straitjacket of logic and mathematics, and a yearning for faith based on feelings and emotion, leaving to one side the supposedly harsh and unmerciful contraints of principle. In matters of religion, such an approach holds out the chimera of liberation from that terrible scourge called doctrine or dogma.
I address this topic on the feast of the Epiphany because the Magi, the men who have gone down in history as wise, may represent for us precisely the approach of science, of mathematics, of logic, to God who has been made incarnate for us.
There are countless movements in thought in the history of culture with the general title of “religion” which have attempted to reject dogma. They are doomed to failure in this because the very rejection of dogmatic truth is itself a dogma which may be disputed as such. More important is the delusion that somehow the discarding of doctrine in religion is a liberation. In fact it is an incarceration. Our Lord Himself shot a bolt right to the beating heart of the matter when he promised that those who continued in His word, his logos or wisdom, would know the truth “and the truth shall set you free.” (Jn 8.32)
The Magi offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, acknowledging Christ as King and God and sacrifice. In today’s collect, we pray that we who now know Him through faith may come to contemplate the sight of His glory. It really matters whether He is in fact King and God and sacrifice. We would be praying for something quite paltry if He were just a man, a fine teacher, a good example. The principle of non-contradiction is vital for us because Jesus cannot be Saviour and non-Saviour at the same time; He cannot be the way, the truth and the life and at the same time just another prophet.
The Magi in their search for the truth represent the ages of Christian civilisation which liberated so many, particularly women, by the establishment of Christian marriage, which put the calendar right, which invented the clock, which founded colleges, universities, and the modern hospital, whose care for the poor protected them from the ravages of landowners until the reformation closed all the monasteries.
The Magi represent particularly the pioneers who established the scientific method, rejecting the fatalism of Islamic thought and purifying the best of the classical philosophers, providing the foundation of the natural sciences, technology and medicine that we benefit from today. They did so because they believed in a God who is wisdom and truth, a wisdom and truth that was made incarnate in Jesus Christ whom they, and we, adore.
Let us celebrate the Epiphany by bowing down before the infant Christ and acknowledging Him as the sovereign Lord of our minds and hearts – not to take away our reason but as the very creator and foundation of that wonderful gift of reason which He implanted in our soul as a reflection of His own eternal wisdom. Let us thrill to those glorious words of St John with which we finish Mass
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh.
When we use the title “Mother of God” to speak of Our Lady, we affirm both the true divinity and the true humanity of Christ, united in one divine person. This doctrine concerning Jesus Christ is essential for our faith and was expressed with clarity in the early centuries of the Church’s life against those who would deny either that Our Lord was truly man or that He was truly God.
Since Our Lord is truly God, we can have absolute faith in Him and give Him our whole lives. His humanity is the hinge of our salvation because He redeemed that humanity in His own passion.
The title “Mother of God” is therefore not simply a pious enthusiasm but a touchstone of orthodox faith in Christ. Nevertheless we also use it in our prayers and devotions. It forms the wellspring of all the other titles that we give to Our Lady: for example in the Litany of Loreto.
Our Lady never takes us away from Christ as though devotion to her were somehow in “competition” with that exclusive love and adoration which we owe to the incarnate Word of God. She always draws us to her divine Son, just as she drew others to Him during her life.
Our Lady also gives us the prime and greatest example of the virtues which we should cultivate in our love of Christ. Her obedience, trust, and fidelity show us how to relate to Him. Her final passage to heavenly glory in the Assumption then sets before us the fulfilment of our calling to eternal life.