On Laetare Sunday a note of joy enters our penitential season. This is fitting because the purpose of our penance is to grow in the love of Christ which brings joy to the depth of our soul even if we suffer through worldly troubles. Our purpose in this life is to know, love and serve God in joy and peace of spirit.
Our Lord humbled Himself to come among us as a man, and still more, to be present until the end of time in the most Blessed Sacrament. He even gives us the privilege of helping Him in His work for the salvation of souls, and of reparation for our sins and the sins of others, by consoling His heart with our prayers, penances, and good deeds.
In the garden of Gethsemane, an angel from heaven strengthened and comforted Our Lord during the agony He suffered through His awareness of the damage of sin. Our own prayers and good actions were also foreseen by Our Lord and consoled Him along with the angel.
This consideration can help us to be generous by making the effort to meditate on the Stations of the Cross, or by spending a little time in Church before or after Mass to savour the presence of the Lord. Our own generosity in loving Christ is cherished by Him for eternity.
During Lent, we do penance for our sins. It makes sense, then, to reflect on what sin is, and why we want to do penance and overcome sin.
Sin is any thought, word, action or omission which offends against God. If a sin is of itself a grave matter, carried out with full knowledge and with the full consent of the will, it is a mortal sin which kills the grace of God in the soul. Other, less serious sins are venial sins which harm our friendship with God.
Often, people who do not go regularly to confession, say that they can’t think of any sins that they have committed. They know that they haven’t committed murder or robbed a bank and perhaps feel a little aggrieved that anyone might trespass upon that feeling encouraged by our culture that we are all to be affirmed and congratulated, and woe betide anyone who suggests we are not simply wonderful human beings.
Those who examine their conscience every day and frequently use the sacrament of confession to grow in grace and the love of God are aware, humbly and positively, of the call of our Lord to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” They are sorry for that unkind word, that piece of gossip, that failure to give time to prayer. They question whether perhaps they could have got to Mass when it was a bit difficult, whether they could have given more time to a relative who needs them to visit, whether they might have avoided that television programme they knew was going to offend against Christian chastity.
Sin is not simply the breaking of an arbitrary rule. The commandments of God are given for our good, and our holy mother, the Church, teaches us through the ages how the moral law of God is to be observed in the practical circumstances of everyday life.
God teaches us these things through His Church because He loves us and knows that sin hurts us in various ways. Sin damages our friendship with Him, weakening the life of grace that He has generously given us to grow and flourish in all that is good. Sin harms our relationships with each other, disrupting our frienships, making us less able to build others up for the good, wasting our energies that could make the world a better place. And sin injures us in our soul, disfiguring the image of God which we were given at our conception, and weakening or destroying the supernatural life of grace that was given to our soul when we were baptised.
We think of the nature of sin and its damage during Lent as we consider and ponder prayerfull the sacred passion of our Blessed Lord, which culminated in His redeeming us by His death on the cross.
Jesus Christ is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament down the ages, and the hope of the whole human race. By His perfect sacrifice on the cross, Our Lord makes possible the healing of all the wounds of our sins, and the sins that are committed by ourselves and others until the end of time.
Our Lord rejoiced to offer His life for us on Calvary because He loves us. He desires our happiness, both here in this world as we are formed more closely in His likeness, and in eternity where He has prepared for us to be happy with Him for ever. During Lent, we do penance for our sins so as to be more open to receive this majestic and superabundant generosity and love.
Our Lord allows the devil to tempt Him and resists those temptations. By doing so, He demonstrates His power and authority over the evil spirits. The evil spirits exist and are malevolent, but we need not fear them if we are clothed with the power of Christ through our Baptism, and through sanctifying grace. They can only directly harm us if we are foolish enough to let them in by dabbling in the occult. We must keep far away from any such things.
Our Lord also shows us by example that we must resist the temptations of the capital vices of gluttony, avarice and pride, and the evil works which follow in their wake.
St John Chrysostom explains that temptation is brought to its fulfilment through suggestion, delight and consent. First we become aware of something that seems attractive because of its pleasure, power or some other apparent attraction. The next step is to turn over that temptation in our mind and heart and to revel in its attraction. Then, if we fail to cast it aside, we might consent to it and commit ourselves to it.
For us, the source of temptation is not only the direct assault of the suggestions of the devil: these may in fact be quite rare because we are so weak that we almost create our own temptations. The disordered desires consequent on the weakness of original sin which we inherit, do most of the work very often.
Jesus Christ, being truly God made man, does not suffer from this moral weakness and therefore His temptations are limited to those external suggestions which He permits the devil to make in order to show us how to triumph. We do not believe that our Lord was subject to disordered desires and addictions because His humanity is perfect and united in the one divine person of the Word made flesh.
The weakness we inherit is the reason for our daily spiritual life being described by the Fathers and Saints as a spiritual battle. We need to fight against sin and against temptation, to overcome, to be strengthened, and to grow in virtue, the habit of doing what is right and good. As the Saints say, in this battle, we are never beaten as long as we do not lay down our arms or leave the field. The arms which we bear are not physical weapons, but the spiritual weapons of of prayer, fasting and charity. A warrior also needs some protection. For us, the armour of God that protects us, is His grace which is He grants to us generously when we ask for it.
Lenten penances are a kind of training for this struggle. We deny ourselves legitimate things such as food, in order to be able to deny ourselves the attractions of sin. This is not to deny our human nature, but to affirm its genuine meaning. We are made in the image and likeness of God and we are fulfilled by our friendship with God. Lent is a time for us to grow in the joy which comes from a heart that is at peace with the Lord. St Paul’s words to St Timothy encourage us in this holy season:
To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. (1 Tim 1.17-19)
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.