Sunday, February 14, 2016

Journeying into the Desert

Who here would say you have the “travel bug”? I don’t mean whatever disease is seemingly going around campus at the moment. I mean that itch to explore the world, to see new places and encounter new cultures. My family is sort of at opposite ends of this spectrum. In general, my father’s side of the family is content with staying at home and attending to the comforts there. My mother’s side of the family, on the other hand, including myself, has always had the sort of wanderlust to see new sights and explore new horizons.

There’s something about our human nature that has always looked to the beyond, to the next hillock, the next horizon. People have turned to the open sea to seek adventure; and to the mountains to seek transcendence; and, even within our Christian tradition, to the desert to find themselves. In the Gospel today, we are told that the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert following his baptism. One can imagine that this is a time of preparation and examination – of intimacy and solitude with his heavenly Father before he embarks upon his public mission.

The Temptation of Christ, J. Kirk Richards

But as we hear very clearly, it’s also a time of temptation. The devil shows up and tempts Jesus in three ways – each time an invitation to misuse his power or his authority to take an easier or more inviting path. Jesus resists, however; following the forty days of interior reflection and prayer and communion with his Father, Jesus remains resolute in who he is – the Word of God made flesh for the salvation of the world.

I think this Gospel story is significant for us in at least two important ways. First, as we begin the season of Lent, we are invited to journey with Jesus into the desert. The forty days that we have embarked upon are a preparation for Easter, the greatest feast of our faith. But even more, they also offer us the opportunity to pare down, to strip away, to make a sort of interior pilgrimage away from the passing things of this world so that we might be more focused on the things of the next. In short, we are offered a chance to be alone with God, to seek and find him through prayer, fasting, and works of charity. We always think about giving up something during Lent, but sometimes taking something additional can be even more helpful. Consider dedicating 15 minutes at the start of your day just to recognizing God’s presence and giving him thanks; or download an app so that you can read the readings of the Mass for each day and reflect upon them; or save the money you would have spent on a movie or a pizza or a bottle of wine and donate it to charity. If you sacrifice a little for God, you might be surprised how at the end of Lent he has helped you become a better, holier version of yourself than when you began it.

Second, we should not be surprised that, just like Jesus, we too are tempted. Often in our lives, when we embark upon a new effort of seeking the Lord and trying to follow his will, the devil is also there, offering us an easier route. Satan is the father of lies; his primary objective is to deceive us, to convince us that the life-giving relationship we have with God is less important than some other thing. In this way, temptation is not altogether a bad thing, because it affords us a test, an opportunity to remain committed to who we are and what we believe. Like Jesus, we must remain resolute in the face of temptation, to recognize the deception for what it is and to reject it. Remember that God is indeed "with us in times of trouble," present also in times of temptation, providing us the grace we need to resist.

My friends, as we begin this Lent, our Lord does call us to new experiences and new horizons. He invites us not to travel the world, but to journey in a sense more deeply into ourselves, to find out where we are with God and who he is calling us to be. This journey can at times be a difficult one, and we will surely be tempted along the way. But if we stay resolute, like Jesus, if we recognize that what God calls us to is far greater than the offer of any temptation, then God will see us through. May the Eucharist we will soon share be our food for the journey.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Acceptable Time for Repentance

The Conversion of St. Augustine (c. 1435), Fra Angelico

So the Super Bowl was a few days ago. As seems to happen every year, to my ears at least, it seems as much attention or more is paid to the advertisements as to the actual game. Some people watch the Super Bowl who don't even like football watch just to see the commercials! And those ads showcase a variety of things – from soft drinks to cars to medicine to beer – but they all share a common theme: “This will satisfy you, this will make you happy, so buy this and buy it now.”

There is a kind of urgency about our modern consumer culture that we can’t help but buy into. We want to be healthier, and more likeable, and more attractive, and more financially secure, and we are told that we need those things now, that we must get started now, that we must not waste time, the sooner we begin, the sooner we will get to where we want to go.

It’s funny though that when it comes to the interior aspects of ourselves, the opposite is sometimes true. We know we should be kinder, more patient, more forgiving, more prayerful – but those things are so hard. I remember the story about St. Augustine, who before his conversion to Christianity, recognized his impurity and sexual immorality, and he famously prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence… but not yet.” We sense this urgency about taking care of our bodies and our pocketbooks and our personal lives but when it comes to our souls, we’re content to take it slow.

Ash Wednesday is a great cure for this mindset. By remembering our own mortality, by looking at our lives honestly and reflectively, by undertaking a penitential practice of some kind, we remember how ardently God desires us to return to him. “Even now, return to me with your whole heart,” he says to us through the prophet Joel. “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God,” he says to us through the apostle Paul. There is an urgency that marks the Lord’s desire for us to repent, to be reconciled to him, to be freed from the sins and anxieties that burden us, to be lifted from the passing things of this world and prepared for the next.

Friends, as we come forward to receive our ashes, beginning this Lent mindful that we have a limited time on this earth before we stand before God face to face, let’s remember another quote from St. Augustine, written after his own heartfelt conversion: “Late am I in loving you, O Beauty ever Ancient, ever New, late have I loved you!” Though we have been far from God, though we have sinned, it is not too late to return to him with our whole hearts. Now is a very acceptable time for repentance.