HOMILY: First Sunday of Lent
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
February 14, 2016

The Penitential Life

My working title for this homily, meant in a tongue-in-cheek way, was “In Defense of Giving Up Candy for Lent”. It seems like every Lent there are some voices who call for us not to give up things like candy, but to do something positive instead.

As my grandfather used to say, “They mean well.” But I think that here we have a case of swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the other. It is undoubtedly true that there are many Catholics for whom giving up one small thing constitutes the entirety of their Lenten discipline. I once met a girl who told me that for Lent she was giving up not ice cream but only her favorite flavor of ice cream. I don’t know whether global cocoa bean prices were affected by her spending 40 days eating chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, but it seems unlikely that she had what one popular Catholic author would call her “best Lent ever.”

And yet, is the answer to give up on giving things up? In fact, have not all of us in one way or another given-in to the temptations Our Lord faces in today’s Gospel—to bodily satisfaction, to power, to fame or glory? Do we not sometimes set an example of attachment to the things of this world, too often rewarding and soothing ourselves with food, drink, entertainment, travel, or…yes…with social media? I don’t mean to be harsh, and I know there are many models of detachment among us, but it is so very easy for us to creep into a self-indulgent lifestyle.

I’ll trust in your good will and not take-up your time explaining that of course there is a legitimate enjoyment of God’s natural gifts. I simply want to say that the penitential life is not now, nor will it ever be, obsolete. I know I need it.

What I would like to do is together to “gaze upon” Our Lord in the desert and to consider three points: that all of us need to “go out into the desert” of penance, that our acts of penance are life-giving, and that our acts of penance prepare us for the works of mercy.

First, all of us need to “go out into the desert” of penance. Of course, Christ is our first Model in all things, and so we follow Him into the desert. This is not like some tribal rite of passage, in which we set off alone into the wilderness to see whether we can hack it or not. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, and the Spirit leads us to follow Jesus into the desert.

We heard in today’s First Reading a summary of the Exodus story, which reminds us that the desert is the place where the Lord forges a covenant with His people. It is also the place where He “woos” us and makes us His own, as the Prophet Hosea tells us. And in the New Covenant, the desert is the place where we regain a certain self-mastery, where the graces of our baptismal kingship are renewed, where our earthly appetites are put back in their proper place. The Church has always recognized the need for this kind of penance, not once but throughout our lives. And given the intensity of the temptations to self-indulgence we face today, it stands to reason that our acts of penance—while always prudent—should also be intense.

Second, our acts of penance are life-giving. This is a positive formulation of the axiom articulated by Mr. T: “Without pain there ain’t no gain, fool!” Sometimes, in an effort to make Christianity seem more attractive, a heavy emphasis is placed on the life-giving aspects of discipleship. Jesus’ words are often quoted in this context: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Yet immediately afterward Our Lord predicts His own death for us. And we know that elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus tells us to take up our own crosses and follow Him. To suffer with Christ is to take the straight and narrow path to life. And the wisdom of the Church tells us that our suffering ought to consist both of that which is given and that which is chosen.

I once met a woman who insisted that life gave her enough suffering; she didn’t need to take on any more. I can’t say whether or not that was true in her case, but most of us need both, the sufferings that come our way and some that we choose to take on. Our acts of penance make us free. They help to free us from disordered attachments. They help to make us free in the face of temptation, so that we’re ready to say “no” to Satan and his lies. And they help us to be free to live as God has called us to live and to move through our own exodus from earth to heaven, where we will truly “have (life) more abundantly.”

Third, and finally, the penitential life prepares us to perform acts of mercy. Those who encourage us not to give up candy for Lent often do so in the name of engaging in positive action, especially the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Now, whether what we give up is candy or not isn’t really the point, of course. But that we give something we treasure up helps us and prepares us for the works of mercy.

Acts of penance remind us that we are sinners, that we need mercy. How could that realization not make us more solicitous towards the need of others? Fasting also makes us hungry, and if we understand our hunger properly we’ll see that it points towards that hunger and thirst for righteousness the Beatitudes tell us we ought to have. In what would seem to be one of the greatest understatements of the scriptures, the Gospel tells us that after 40 days without food Jesus “was hungry.” And yet what proves to be the true food of Jesus? He says it is “to do the will of the one who sent me.” And we know the will of the Father: that we share Christ with others through lives of holiness, through evangelization, and by showing the mercy of Christ to sinners, to the poor, the sick, and the suffering.

Our Holy Father Pope Francis shows us the connection between penance and charity, or mercy by challenging us to make sure our acts of penance bear the right fruit. Pope Francis has said, “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

As today we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, which is our ultimate celebration of death and life, of charity and of charity’s cost, may we pledge to the Lord that we will undergo the death to which He calls us, in order to live His life and serve His people.

[Pictured: Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoy, 1872]