Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

February 13, 2005

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Readings: Genesis 2:7-3:7; Psalm 51; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)

What is Lent really about?

At first glance it seems like a foolish question. I mean, we all know what Lent means, don't we?

Actually, there are a lot of different perspectives on Lent, and depending on which we take we will celebrate it quite differently. Since this is the first Sunday of Lent I'd like to step away from the particular readings for today and look at the period of Lent as a whole. Perhaps we can celebrate it better if we focus our energies on the core meaning and not eh externals.

First we might remember the emphasis we received as children. Lent meant "giving up." We were asked to think of some good things we enjoyed, and then give them up for the season of Lent. Candy, ice cream, movies.

It's not a bad approach. Considering the culture of instant gratification we have developed in our country (and the West in general), learning a little discipline of our desires is not a bad thing. We have to constantly battle the forces of advertising and marketing that aim at transforming innocent wants into incessant needs. Putting a brake on our desires can be a salutary thing.

Then we might think of the great emphasis on rules and regulations that characterized an earlier view of Lent. For many older Catholics, just say "Lent" and they think 'fast and abstinence.' It conjures up fears that I might have broken my fast by brushing my teeth. Or broken abstinence by using a sauce with some meat in it.

Once again, rules in themselves are not bad. It's just that the church gradually came to the realization that over-emphasizing rules risked projecting the image of God as the great Regulator. It leads to fear and focus on the externals, with the risk of losing the spirit and the possibility of growth in a mature sense of commitment.

Another perspective on Lent is to focus on the suffering, the passion of Jesus. For still others Lent evokes a time when each week there would be large celebrations of the Stations of the Cross. Look around and see that they are still on the walls of our churches, though the practice has fallen into disuse.

Surely it's a holy Christian exercise to try to identify with Jesus as he gives himself to the end for us. (I suspect that one of the reasons for the success of The Passion of the Christ was a sense that we had lost an important dimension of our Christian journey.)

So it turns out that there are several different perspectives possible. How are we to enter into this special season? And what's the goal? How are we to be different by the end of Lent?

Perhaps we might get a riches appreciation if we go back into the history of the church and its rituals.

For contemporary Catholics perhaps the initial identifying symbol of Lent is Ash Wednesday. It offers a very concrete, dramatic symbol. All the world sees these millions of Catholics come out of church -- in mid-week! -- with a smudge of ash on their foreheads. We think of repentance, of external penance.

Actually Ash Wednesday is a relatively late appearance on the church's stage. It appears first in the 10th century and becomes a universal practice only in the 1lth.

There were ashes for centuries before that. But they were only for public sinners, people who had committed visible, serious offenses like murder or apostasy, adultery or worshiping the emperor. On a given Sunday in Lent as you, an ordinary second-rate sinner, entered the church you would pass these people kneeling in ashes and begging for your prayers and forgiveness.

But Lent -- without Ash Wednesday -- had been celebrated for 1000 years! What was the core intent?

Is it really about acknowledging our sins and failures and asking to be forgiven?

Well yes, but in a very special sense.

Think about it. Atheists, and people who have never heard of the Lord, practice repentance. They hurt one other or cheat or steal or lie. And they come to see the harm they have done, and they ask for forgiveness. They may say "It will never happen again."

There's something else going on here, something far more profound.

You see, we the church are a baptized people. When we sin we do so in violation of our Baptism.

The key to understanding Lent is our Baptism.

Not that 10-minute ritual that most of us had happen to us as children, when we were quite unconscious. But Baptism as that whole process of being gradually incorporated ever more deeply into the mystery of Jesus. The whole process of discovering that we have been claimed by Christ and made his own. We have become his body in this world, filled with his own Holy Spirit.

I think that for many Catholics that's just a nice figure of speech, flowery piety.

It may shed a different light if we realize that for 11 centuries when people spoke of the "body of Christ" they were speaking of the body of the faithful, of you and me --- as we would say today, the 'people of God.'. That was the real presence; the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was described as 'mystical.' It was only when Protestants at the time of the Reformation began to attack the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that the church had to respond by emphasizing that he is really present in that form. The 'real presence' came to be identified with the Eucharist, with the people becoming some diminished, 'mystical' body. By responding to external attack we lost some of the rich meaning of Christ's message.

We are not just 'generic' human beings acknowledging our sin and failures in Lent. We are acknowledging that we have not appreciated the great grace that is ours: that we share in Christ's life. And in his mission. We don't appreciate our great dignity, that his Spirit has been poured out upon us. That we have been claimed. That we no longer belong to ourselves

Lent is all about allowing ourselves to be claimed again. We are on a mission. In Second Corinthians Paul tells us that we have been reconciled to God through Christ -- and so we have received the mission to be reconcilers ourselves.

It's unfortunate that we rarely get to hear the readings of the first weekdays in Lent. They have much to tell us about Jesus' -- and therefore, our -- mission as Christians.

On Friday we would have heard God speaking through Isaiah and challenging the people's misguided sense of what it means to 'fast:'

"They seek me day after day,

and desire to know my ways. . .

They ask me to declare what is due them,

pleased to gain access to God.

'Why do we fast, and you don't see it?

Afflict ourselves, and you take no note if it?'

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,

of keeping a day of penance:

that a man bow his head like a reed,

and lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:

releasing those bound unjustly,

untying the thongs of the yoke;

setting free the oppressed,

breaking every yoke;

sharing your bread with the hungry,

sheltering the oppressed and homeless;

clothing the naked when you see them,

and not turning your back on your own." (Is 58: 2-7)

Paul says that when he was a child he did the things of a child. But when he became a man he put away the things of a child. Lent calls us to take on a spiritual adulthood, to wrestle with much more profound truths of our faith.

We live in a time of great trial and pain for our church. The sexual misconduct, the seeming cover-up by our leaders -- and here in our city open calls for the archbishop to resign.

There is hurt and pain and anger in the air. Many are disillusioned, walking away from the church. And much of the anger is justified.

But that justified anger brings with it great risk. It is so easy to fall off the razor's edge of righteous anger and have it turn into lust for revenge. You hurt us -- and so we will hurt you! And the cycle of violence continues.

There is really on one response to our condition: to call on the Lord and aks him to claim us once again. To lay hold of us, to convert us ever more deeply, to renew in us a conviction of our great dignity as members of Christ's body.

Just think of where the celebration of Lent was heading all along. At the great celebration of the Easter Vigil there was this great outpouring of joy as the people welcomed their new sisters and brothers entering upon their Baptism and being joined to the body of the faithful. Lent was all about those already baptized accompanying these new converts, professing that their own baptismal journey was not completed, that there were pockets of sin and unbelief yet to be overcome, that we remain still not fully converted, that we all need one another on the journey of faith. That Baptism is a gift, not for the individual, but for a community.

What should we hope to say by the end of this Lent? We are newly baptized! We have been claimed once more by the Lord! We belong to him and not to ourselves! He has made us his body in this world! We have a dignity beyond all imagining!

In the words of a song we have sung many times in this community, the Lord has spoken to us in words beyond our ability to comprehend:


"I have loved you with an everlasting love;

I have called you and you are mine.

I have loved you with an everlasting love;

I have called you and you are mine.

Seek the face of the Lord and long for him;

he will give you his joy and his peace.

"I have loved you with an everlasting love;

I have called you and you are mine.

I have loved you with an everlasting love;

I have called you and you are mine."