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Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.
“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).
Rich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.
Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.
Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.
That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.
Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.
Below is the full text of the homily that Pietro Cardinal Parolin gave yesterday at the consecration of Archbishop Bert van Megen, in the cathedral of Roermond. He gave his homily in English, but since there is no video of this that I could find, I have translated the text from the Dutch translation back to English. Here’s hoping the general intention of it remained intact.
“Your Excellencies, honoured guests, dear Monsignor Bert and family, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
It’s a special joy to me to preside over the consecration of Monsignor Hubertus van Megen, who has been named by our Holy Father as titular archbishop of Novaliciana and to Apostolic Nuncio of Sudan. On the occasion of this joyful event, Pope Francis asked me to share his heartfelt greetings as well as his communion with all present here. It is a time of great joy for all of us who have come together here in this cathedral today, but for you, dear Monsignor Bert, it is a time of gratitude for all the blessing which God has granted you over the years. Today you are surrounded by your parents and family, your friends and your brothers, the priests of this local Church of Roermond. This Church first raised you in the faith, you were ordained a priest for here and here you spent the first years of your priestly ministry. You also bring to the joy of this day the years of studying in Rome and your considerable experience in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, most recently in Zambia and Malawi. You are now called to return all of this to God and serve Him and new way and with greater responsibility. Today you will be consecrated to be a successor of the Apostles, a herald of the Gospel and a shepherd of Christ’s flock, with the special duty of representing the vicar of Christ in his concern for the Church in the entire world, yes, in his care for the entire human family.
The rich symbolism of the rite of consecration eloquently speaks of the continuity of the Church’s faith and life throughout the centuries. Through the imposition of hands and the invoking of the Holy Spirit you will be welcomed to the College of Bishops. This college succeeds in all ages the Apostle to whom the Lord Jesus entrusted the care of His flock. So you, Monsignor Bert, will become a link in a living chain which goes back uninterrupted to Jesus Himself, and will continue to the end of times, according to His promise. It will be your duty to preach the Gospel of salvation integrally, to take care of strengthening the Church community in faith and, by the celebration of the sacraments, to work for the distribution of the Kingdom of Christ in truth and life, holiness and mercy, love and peace.
“Do you love me?”, “Feed my lambs”; “Look after my sheep” (Joh. 21:15-17). Jesus’ words to the Apostle Peter in today’s Gospel are especially applicable to someone who, like Monsignor van Megen, is called to be both bishop and Papal Nuncio. These words remind us that the task of the bishop, his ministry, must first and foremost be based on his personal love for Jesus Christ and his personal relationship with the Good Shepherd. Every day Jesus asks the bishops again, “Do you love me?” In essence this questions is of course also directed to every Christian; each one of us is called to know and love the Lord. During this time of Easter we have contemplated how every one of has died in Baptism and risen to a new life in Christ, how we received the gift of His Holy Spirit and a call to share in the mission of the Church.
But the Lord’s question – “Do you love me?” – is directed in a special way to those who are also called to shepherd His flock with apostolic authority. It is meaningful that the new bishop receives the ring during the rite of consecration, the symbol of His unconditional love for the Lord and His Church, before receiving the crosier, the symbol of his pastoral authority. Pope Francis reminded us that it is the shepherd’s task to go before the flock as its guide, but also to walk with the flock as a disciple, to listen to its voice and sense where the Holy Spirit, the source of every gift and mission, wants to lead it. “For you I a a shepherd,” Saint Augustine said, “but with you I a a Christian” (Serm. 340:1). To be a loyal shepherd requires those virtues that Saint Paul presents in the first reading today: integrity following from a personal conversion, honest and frank witness to the truth and self-sacrifice in service to all, faithful and non-faithful (cf 2 Kor. 4:1-2;5-7).
If all this is true for every bishop, it is all the more true for the bishop who is also a Nuncio, a personal representative of the Successor of Peter, the rock on whom the Lord built His Church (cf. Matt. 16:18). As a concrete sign of the communion of the local Churches with the Holy See in Rome, the ministry of the Apostolic Nuncio is exercised in a manifestly universal sense: in service to the mission of the Church, he is called to promote the unity in mind and heart of the bishops with the Pope, to confirm his brothers in loyalty to the Gospel and the mission of the Church and to foster a spirit of authentic ecclesiastical community in every aspect of the life of the local Churches. He is also called to everywhere encourage those seeds of justice and peace, which are the leaven of God’s Kingdom. For as we know, the Church is the sign and sacrament of a new mankind, reconciled and renewed in Christ.
Dear Monsignor Bert, in the exercise of your own episcopal ministry you are sent as a representative of the Holy Father to Sudan, a country that is dear to him, a country that has suffered greatly in recent years from violence and civil unrest. In unity with the bishops of that country, you will be called to proclaim, in word and example, a Gospel of reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy. In a special way you will also be called to support the Christian community in Sudan, a small flock which nonetheless is very dear to God. Confirm the in their faith and in their loyalty to the great commandment of loving God and the neighbour. In this way you will perform your mission which you receive today: by making, “as a servant for Jesus’ sake”, the glory of God visible as it is revealed in the crucified and risen Lord (cf. 2 Kor. 4:5-7), and by encouraging your brothers and sisters to trust in His victory over the powers of sin and death.
Now that you are preparing for your consecration and your new responsibilities, know that you can count on the mercy that this sacrament hold, on the confidence and prayers of the Holy Father and on our own prayer, friendship and support. We commend you and your ministry to the protection of Saint Josephine Bakhita, a great daughter of Sudan and an excellent witness to the power of God’s mercy to redeem and transform even the most difficult situations. May the Risen Lord always support you in His love and bear rich fruits from the ministry that is about to be entrusted to you. Amen.”
All photos: Bisdom Roermond
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, Apostolic Administrator of Freiburg im Breisgau, speaks about the freedom and life that God gives at Easter, through the Resurrection of His Son.
“Dear sisters, dear brothers in the community of faith,
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” That is the question that the youngest member present must ask the head of the family during the Jewish feast of Pesach. And in answer, the latter describes year after year the liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt, as we have just heard in the reading from the book Exodus. Of course, all who have come together for the feast known this: and yet it is valuable to hear this history anew every time. And this becomes clear to them: It is God who leads to freedom! He who entrusts himself to Him, can stand up to even superior numbers. With His strong arm he gives new courage and leads us to His goal.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” For us as Christians the focus of this question goes even further. The night of Easter is more than the feast of the one liberation from slavery of a superior people. It is about more than the experience that we can trust God in our lives. We celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we celebrate life having defeated death and sin once and for all. We have become “free from sin”, as we have heard in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (6:7). Jesus having risen from the dead means for us that we “should begin living a new life” (Rom. 6:4). Everything is different from one moment to the next. The event of the Resurrection of Jesus changes the view on our lives. From now on it stands under a different sign. In the end, meaningless and emptiness do not remain. Life is victorious, hope defeats all doubt and fear. Yes, for us it is this night, in wich we experience permanent freedom, in which we are given new and eternal life. It is the basic message as given in an Easter song: “Freed we are from fear and distress, Life has defeated death: the Lord is risen.”
And yet, dear brothers and sisters, we do not find this message very easy. Can it be really true that death has lost its terror, that life has won the final victory? What we hear is almost too great. Do we really dare trust this news, even in the face of so much suffering and injustice in the world? We are at least not alone when we react hesitantly. The women, who wanted to go to the grave early in the morning to show their closeness to the deceased, find it difficult to have faith in the surprising news that jesus is risen and lives. It’s almost too bizarre: the message of the liberation of mankind from sin and death must be so strong that it works by itself . But that is not the case. In the face of the enormity of this message, the joy of the women at the empty grave is mixed with doubt. “Do not be afraid!” (Matt. 28:5, 10) – they need the encouraging words from the angel and from Jesus Himself to face the new situation and to take courage. It would have been far simpler if everything remained as it was! But perhaps we can somehow accept it. Every life ends at some point. The message of life and liberty is not so easy against this supposed realism. We much rather stay with our supposed certainties and are not so quick to let ourselves be surprised by God.
That is why this night differs from all others. It wants to encourage us. We must not be satisfied with too little. Supposed realism, which is often nothing more than pessimism in disguise, is only plausible on first glance. This night tells us: away with pessimism and all prophets of doom! Trust freedom and life! God Himself gives it to us! Pope Francis summarises it: “Let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! [...] Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.” Yes, dear sisters and brothers, the call of Jesus: “Do not be afraid!” – it also applies to us! We can trust the possibilities that God grants us. We can live in the freedom into which He leads us. We have every reason to be lieve the promise that He gives us life, eternal life. Like the small light of the paschal candle that has driven the darkness out of our cathedral, to God defeat all darkness and gloom of the world with the Light of Life. There may be needs and misery, sickness and death in our daily lives: these do not have the final word. Love and life are stronger than all indifference.
This night teaches us that we are fundamentally freed by God, because do not need to be held prisoner by our concerns and needs. It shows us that we should not have any fear, since life is stronger than death. But it is not content with that. It looks for our answer. The event of this night wants our voice for life and freedom! It wants us to be carriers of hope ourselves and distributors of light. We should gather the courage that the women had; while they were still fearful, but hurried with joy to the Apostles to tell them of this nigh-unbelievable news. Yes, he who has experienced that life is victorious, can’t keep it to himself but carries the message further into the world. Whoever it is, he stands for life and freedom.
This becomes especially clear, dear sisters and brothers, in the Sacrament of Baptism. “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19). This commandment from Jesus to His disciples concludes the encounters with the Risen One. The liberating message of His Resurrection is not ours alone. It applies to all people. That is why we bless the water of Baptism, with which the Sacrament of Baptism is conferred, in every Easter vigil. At the same time it reminds us of our own Baptism. That is why I am pleased that we will give, in this Easter night in our cathedral, new life through the water of Baptism, given to us in this special night, to Ms. Nina Shokira. And she wants to share this life with her son Yuri, who will also receive the Sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the external sign in which we experience the liberation from the trappings of sin and are called to new life in Jesus Christ. In the extent that baptism changes our lives, so important it is that we agree with from within and always remember what it means to belong to Jesus Christ and to be blessed by Him with new life. When we live from this, we feel how much this night changes our lives. Because all our days are permeated and carried by the liberating power of God. So: “Freed we are from fear and distress, Life has defeated death: the Lord is risen.” Amen.
Marking Easter – which is more than just one day – I want to share some of the messages that our bishops have given for the Feast of the Resurrection. First is the archbishop of Berlin, Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, who speaks about how the hope of Easter opens us up to Christ, every day anew, so that we can help others to also meet Christ.
“”He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would” (Matt. 28:6). The angels’ Easter message is not only directed to the women at the empty tomb, but also directly to us. Full of joy we join in with the Alleluiah of Easter. At the same time, many people have difficulties believing in the Resurrection, which makes me think.
Easter brought something new into the world: a hope which tells us, over the power of death: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). Easter is the answer of the Christian faith to the provocation of death.We are called to life in unity with the living Lord, we are called to eternal life. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminded us of this: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (EG 7)*. It is the encounter with Jesus Christ as the risen and the living. Scripture tells us of these encounters of people with the Risen: Jesus Christ is risen, He lives!
Only the Light “from Heaven” brightens our own life. Only the gaze “upwards” to Him opens up for us the meaning of all that Jesus Christ has done and said. His death on the cross seems to put into question his message and works. But through the Resurrection God the Father confirms the message and the work of His Son. The Resurrection, not death, is the final chapter of His and our life story.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” (Joh. 20:29). This is verse from the Bible puts it succinctly: Whoever is open to the Easter message, in him it changes something. The Kingdom of God is near, and the promise is already active today. In the night before Easter this becomes visible when the Churches festively receives the catechumens. Through Baptism they arise into new life in Jesus Christ. The same is true for all of us, who are baptised and confirmed in His name. In Jesus we arise every new day to new life. And when we suffer some setback in our life, the hope of Easter give us the power to stand up anew every day.
In this way our own life becomes an answer to the questions of those who struggle with the message of Easter: Every Sunday, every day he can encounter the Risen One himself! In the Eucharist we meet the Risen One like the disciples met Him on the road to Emmaus. Similarly, we meet Him in prayer, where He listens to us and our concerns. And we meet Him in our neighbour, and vice versa: “It is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal. 2:20). As easter people we are the “Light of the world”, the “Salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13-14), and we become signs of His salvation.
I wish you a happy and blessed Easter, Alleluiah!”
* Pope Francis quotes Pope emeritus Benedict XVI here
I skipped a few days due to real life obligations, so it’s about time I press on with my completely off-the-cuff and utterly personal (so without any authority whatsoever) reflection on today’s Gospel reading.
“‘For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven.
‘You have heard how it was said to our ancestors, You shall not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will answer for it before the court; anyone who calls a brother “Fool” will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and anyone who calls him “Traitor” will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. In truth I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.”
What is Jesus teaching us here? Basically, that our access to God, our obtaining full unity with Him, comes only after we have made peace, achieved unity amongst ourselves. Here, I think, we see once more a glimpse of how God created us: as people living in communion with each other and with God, and that is the goal that we should strive for, since we lost that communion.
We must be true to who we really are, how God created us. That is the uprighteousness that Christ speaks of in the first line. Again, we must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own, in order to see who we really are.
How serious the lack of community is becomes clear when Jesus compares it with killing someone. Of course, both are sinful, but going up to God while maintaining a rift in the relations with other people is the more serious in the end. But the rifts can be closed, and God asks us to do so before coming to Him.
He is perfect and we should not come to Him, be one in Him, while we maintain imperfections we can change.
“‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?”
And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”
Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”
Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.'”
And so Christ outlines not only where we may find Him, but also the consequences of how we relate to Him. Do we acknowledge or ignore Him? Do we even recognise Him? And if not, why not?
Actions have consequences, as does lack of action. This is an inherent which is not subject to opinion or feeling. It flows directly from the fact that all of Creation is interconnected. Something we do or do not affects other things and people around us. And it affects us. In this case, our direct relationship with Christ, or lack thereof, affects us most directly.
We have responsibility for our actions, but it is good to remember that it starts with gaining this responsibility. We can’t be responsible if we are unaware. Someone who has never heard of Jesus Christ can’t be responsible for not recognising Him. But once we do hear of Him, and have gotten to know Him and established some form of relationship with Him, He asks us to see Him. He sees us, and we must see everyone we are in some form of relationship with.
We encounter Christ in many places: in His Word, in the sacraments, but also in other people, both near and far. In this Gospel passage, He points this out to us. What we do for someone else, especially for the least among us, we have done for Him. Christ tells us that He is among us, He identifies Himself with the least among us.
Aware of that, and part of a relationship with Him, our actions come into play. Do we reach out or do we ignore? Our choice has an effect, in a direct way for the person we help and for ourselves, and also for our relationship with that person, and subsequently with Christ, present in the other person.
We have come to know Jesus. We have responded to His invitation to follow Him. And we follow Him in other people. We are not followers by ourselves. Following Jesus is a relationship, with Him and with our neighbours. Ignoring one or both of those parties means we are not following Jesus fully.
If we don’t follow Christ, if we don’t build our relationship with Him, we can’t expect to enjoy the fruits of fully grown relationship when the time is there. What has not been established can’t be enjoyed, after all.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry, and the tester came and said to him, ‘If you are Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’
But he replied, ‘Scripture says: Human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil then took him to the holy city and set him on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says: He has given his angels orders about you, and they will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these, if you fall at my feet and do me homage.’
Then Jesus replied, ‘Away with you, Satan! For scripture says: The Lord your God is the one to whom you must do homage, him alone you must serve.’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels appeared and looked after him.”
It is striking to see how factually the Evangelist presents what are some very frightening and supernatural realities. The way in which the devil appears in this text, not to mention Jesus’ curt and sober responses to him, reflect our own reality, even though we often turn a blind eye to it. The devil is real, and he is out to tempt us with power and control, all in return for one small action: falling at his feet and worshipping him. What’s the harm if we look at all we get in return? Surely worship is harmless enough if we are better off for it?
Exactly how ‘harmless’ such a thing is, we learn if we look at Jesus’ responses. 1: There is far more to ourselves than what the devil offers us. Instead of satisfying our physical hunger, we need more than that to live. 2: Trust in God is absolute. 3: Only God is worthy of our homage, and that worthiness is absolute.
Also of interest is the situation in which Christ confronts the Tempter. After a 40-day fast, hungry and alone. Fasting removes those things from our lives which block us from God. We are thrown back on the essentials, on our true self, so to speak. The upside of this is that there is very little left between ourselves and God, but the same goes – and this is a definitive downside – for us and the evil one. We drop our defenses to speed up the connection, one might say, but we must always be aware of exactly what or Who we connect to. In order to that we need what Christ hands us in this Gospel passage: an awareness of what we need to live, trust in God and knowledge of Him, so that we know that we should worship Him alone.
“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.
Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.
Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.
The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.
Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
What better way to start the great season of Lent with some very direct instructions from the Lord Himself? In this passage, Jesus outlines the three main elements of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These three are interlinked, as each one bleeds into the others and makes the others more fruitful. That is why it is important that we do not just pick one or two to focus on during Lent.
The general tone of the Gospel passage above is one of modesty and secrecy. Jesus basically tells us not to show off. The reason for this is that we do not fast, pray or give alms for ourselves; we do it for God and our neighbour. The benefit of our actions is theirs. Once we do it for the benefit of our own public image and social standing, the result of Lent will be strictly negative: we become concerned only with ourselves and ignore those around us. We become islands, egotistical human beings who only act for our own benefit, no matter the cost for others.
Christ also links such behaviour directly to our “reward from our Father in heaven”. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting all have their reward in this passage. Jesus mentions it multiple times. He does not say what that reward will be, but we can gather from this that it is directly related to our actions.
Every action has a result or a consequence. When deciding to do something, we are often aware of that consequence, and the same goes for when we decide not to do something. This is a truth independent of our motivations. When we focus solely on ourselves, the consequence will be that we lose sight of others and become egotistical. When we focus on others and on God, the result will be that we grow in our relations with people and with God, and are able to flourish as human beings. We are, after all, not created as solitary creatures. From the very beginning, God created humans as beings in relation to all of Creation and ultimately in relation with each other and with Himself.
Our Lent must be secretive insofar that it must not become a goal in itself. If we make a show of how prayerful, how generous and how hungry we are, we are only seeking adoration for ourselves. Lent is a means to an end, and that end is what matters. God matters, our neighbour matters, and our relationship with both matters. God calls us to Him, and when we say yes to His invitation, we must prepare ourselves to meet Him. And that means striving for the holiness with which He created us in the beginning, a holiness which must not remain locked up in our hearts, but must be set free to create the links that will make all of Creation holy.
Art credit: “The prayer in secret”, by Alexandre Bida.
It’s almost Lent. Snuck up on you, didn’t it? But it’s true, Less than a week away the great time of fasting and penitence will begin and prepare us for Easter.
Time to plan ahead.
For this Lent and Holy Week I want to take the Gospel readings of every day and do some lectio divina with them, a spiritual reading. I’ll be posting the relevant passage every day (well, that’s the plan) and reflect on it. These reflections will be short, as lectio divina is by definition a personal exercise: we prayerfully read a Bible text for ourselves and are open to learn from it. The reflections are therefore what I take from the text: your experience may be a different one, but I hope that comparing what others learn with what you have learned can set you off on new avenues of thought, prayer and discovery.
For those who want to read and reflect in their own time, or if I am unable to post every day, here is a list of the Gospel reading of every day:
Wednesday 5 March (Ash Wednesday): Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
- Thursday 6 March: Luke 9: 22-25
- Friday 7 March: Matthew 9:14-15
- Saturday 8 March: Luke 5:27-32
- Sunday 9 March (First Sunday of Lent): Matthew 4:1-11
- Monday 10 March: Matthew 25:31-46
- Tuesday 11 March: Matthew 6:7-15
- Wednesday 12 March: Luke 11:29-32
- Thursday 13 March: Matthew 7:7-12
- Friday 14 March: Matthew 5:20-26
- Saturday 15 March: Matthew 5:43-48
- Sunday 16 March (Second Sunday of Lent): Matthew 17:1-9
- Monday 17 March: Luke 6:36-38
- Tuesday 18 March: Matthew 23:1-12
- Wednesday 19 March (Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary): Matthew 116, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2: 41-51a
- Thursday 20 March: Luke 16:19-31
- Friday 21 March: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
- Saturday 22 March: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
- Sunday 23 March (Third Sunday of Lent): John 4:5-42 or John 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42
- Monday 24 March: Luke 4:24-30
- Tuesday 25 March (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord): Luke 1:26-38
- Wednesday 26 March: Matthew 5:17-19
- Thursday 27 March: Luke 11:14-23
- Friday 28 March: Mark 12:28-34
- Saturday 29 March: Luke 18:9-14
- Sunday 30 March (Fourth Sunday of Lent): John 9:1-41 or John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
- Monday 31 March: John 4:43-54
- Tuesday 1 April: John 5:1-16
- Wednesday 2 April: John 5:17-30
- Thursday 3 April: John 5:31-47
- Friday 4 April: John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
- Saturday 5 April: John 7:40-53
- Sunday 6 April (Fifth Sunday of Lent): John 11:1-45 or John 11:3-7, 20-27, 33b-45
- Monday 7 April: John 8:1-11
- Tuesday 8 April: John 8:21-30
- Wednesday 9 April: John 8:31-42
- Thursday 10 April: John 8:51-59
- Friday 11 April: John 10:31-42
- Saturday 12 April: John 11:45-56
- Sunday 13 April (Palm Sunday): Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
- Monday 14 April: John 12:1-11
- Tuesday 15 April: John 13:21-33, 36-38
- Wednesday 16 April: Matthew 26:14-25
- Thursday 17 April: John 13:1-15
- Friday 18 April (Good Friday): John 18:1-19:42
- Saturday 19 April (Holy Saturday): Matthew 28:1-10
- Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday): John 20:1-9
It’s much, to be sure, but it is an investment that’s worth the effort. Lent is especially a time to return to the basis, to the Word, and allow the Lord to join us on our way.