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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.
“After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, suddenly some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east asking, ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’
When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea, for this is what the prophet wrote: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, you are by no means the least among the leaders of Judah, for from you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared and sent them on to Bethlehem with the words, ‘Go and find out all about the child, and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’
Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And suddenly the star they had seen rising went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.”
Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12
While it is the heart of today’s Gospel and solemnity, we don’t find out a much about the encounter of the wise men with the infant Lord Jesus. They saw the child and His mother, knelt down in homage and offered Him gifts. That’s it. But the feast of the Epiphany isn’t in the first place about the Magi anyway: it’s about Christ, and his revelation to the world.
This revelation is twofold: the Lord is shown to the world, personified in the Magi, but the world first had to come to the Lord. In a sense, both Lord and world are revealed simultaneously.
But this world which is revealed to the Lord is one already changed by Him. The Magi were inspired to find the newly born Christ, and they set out from their comforts to face perils, not least in the person of Herod, but ultimately to find what had urged them to leave home in the first place.
The Epiphany of the Lord is a time of change. He is revealed to a world looking for answers, wanting to find out what drives it onwards. This changed world, changed from staid comfort to inspired searching and openness to the – until now – unknown Messiah is revealed to Him as His world, His people.
We are His people if we go out and look for Him, to find what drives us, what motivates us to act and to find our place in a new world.
In previous years I was growing to consider Bishop Bernard Fellay of the SSPX a fairly sensible fellow. He seemed to be treading carefully between his responsibilities as head of the breakaway fraternity and a desire to come to some sort of agreement with Rome. His comments during a conference last weekend, however, rather effectively destroyed that image.
“It is not that we don’t want to be Catholics, of course we want to be Catholics and we are Catholics, and we have a right to be recognized as Catholics.”
We want to be Catholic, but on our terms, not that of the magisterium, the Pope even. I am normally used to hear such words from the ultra-liberals not unfamiliar in my own neck of the woods. It just goes to show that no matter what opinion we have, everyone runs to risk of placing ourselves and our wishes, opinions and demands before those of the Lord and His Church.
Let’s get some things straight: when Jesus told St. Peter that his authority over His flock would be absolute (Matthew 16:19), He was not kidding. Of course, we may disagree with what St. Peter or his successors say and do, but that does not mean their authority over their flock is in any way diminished (Fr. Tim Finigan, by the way, has a good summary on assent to the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Pope).
When someone, be they Bishop Fellay or a liberal Catholic, says they are Catholic no matter what anyone else, let alone the Catholic Church, says, they are not taking the Lord seriously. They are placing themselves before Him, making their own opinions more important than His desires.