Today’s readings can be summed up in just one word -faithfulness. Jesus reminds His disciples that they cannot serve two Masters – they will either love one and hate the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. He then tells them very pointedly – you cannot serve both God and mammon.
As disciples of Jesus Christ we cannot love God and at the same time be devoted to the ways of the world. Either we love the Lord or we love the world. Jesus Christ reminds us of the Father’s continued faithfulness to us – that God has made his unconditional promise to us and even if we are unfaithful, that the Father will remain faithful because he cannot deny Himself.
God’s promise and love is unconditional but our promises and love are not. Throughout the course of salvation history, humanity has failed to be faithful to God over and over again. We have made promises that we could not fulfill. From the time of Adam allowing the serpent in the garden, to Israelites worshiping the Golden calf, and even unto the current age, we have failed to remain faithful to God. We have failed to completely and fully rely on God even after he has shown us time and time again that He will take care of even our most basic needs – that He will never forget us!
It is no accident that we are presented this message as we begin this week the season of grace we call Lent, a time in which we concentrate on the three-fold character of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Just as in the Old Testament, God required prayer and fasting of his people to make atonement for their sins, God too requires His people of the new and eternal Covenant to observe obligatory penance. This season of Lent is given to us not because God needs it, but rather we need it. We need it because it is not part of our fallen human nature to voluntarily inflict penance upon ourselves. We live in a world where were told repeatedly to “do what feels good” and to focus on ourselves rather than others. The emphasis of Lent is, however, on self-denial and the needs of others rather than ourselves. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving we begin to make reparation for those times in which we have failed to put God above other things.
So, we must ask ourselves the question, how are we going to spend this Lent preparing our hearts to be ready to encounter the resurrected Christ at Easter? Are we going to just haphazardly make it through Lent or are we beginning Ash Wednesday with a plan? How are we going to spend these next 40 days uniting our own small sufferings to Jesus Christ’s passion and death on Good Friday? Too many times I’ve heard people say “this Lent I’m not giving something up but rather I’m doing something extra.” This sort of thinking is a cop out – it’s a way to getting out of penance and self-denial. It’s a way of avoiding that which is unpleasant and even painful. It’s a way of avoiding the cross. If we fail to embrace the cross, then we fail to follow Christ who told us to take up our cross and follow him. Lent is not an either/or – it’s a both/and.
Let me offer some suggestions of how to make this Lent more fruitful. Even though there are now only two mandatory fast days during Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, consider fasting daily. This doesn’t have to be from food necessarily but rather giving up something that you have an attachment to in your daily life – this could even be something such as giving up listening to the radio in your car, watching television or drinking your favorite soda – whatever it may be make it a real sacrifice. Also consider adding some additional daily prayer to your life – perhaps attending daily Mass more often, praying a daily Rosary, or praying a portion of the Divine Office. The most often forgotten aspect of Lent is almsgiving. During this Lent remember to give to those who are less fortunate. Consider giving monetarily to those in need or even volunteering at a soup kitchen.
The most important challenge throughout all of Lent is faithfulness. For many of us, we will struggle with our Lenten penances and many of us may not be as successful in our Lenten observance as we want to be. Do we allow those times in which we fail during Lent to be an excuse to simply give up? Mother Theresa once said “God doesn’t call us to be successful – he calls us to be faithful.” Part of the Lenten observance, just as in life, is recognizing that when we fail we do not give up, we recommit ourselves and continue on the journey. Ask any priest and they will tell you that at the beginning Lent people come out in droves for daily Mass but by the third week, the numbers have dwindled. Our challenge is to not give up on our Lenten penances even when we have failed. We may not always be successful but we CAN remain faithful. Lent is a time for us to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. How often do quickly give up the progress we’ve made as soon as Lent is over and return to our former way of life? If Lent is merely a temporary change then we’ve missed the nature of the season.
As we begin our Lenten observance, let us begin with perseverance to the end in mind, knowing that even if we fail that Christ continues to provide for us, giving us what we need to be faithful so that when we come to Easter day, we will have more closely united ourselves to Christ’s passion and death and so too have a share in His resurrection. Amen