05 March 2017

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent - 5 March 2017

N.B.: A few grammatical and editorial corrections have been made to the text of the following homily.

The First Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Earlier this week, the Holy Father Pope Francis announced his prayer intention for this month of March and asked us a direct question: “How many of you pray for persecuted Christians?”[1] So important is this question to Pope Francis that the Holy See produced a short video to accompany His Holiness’ prayer intention “that persecuted Christians may be supported by the prayers and material help of the whole Church.”

So many of our fellow members of the Body of Christ experience daily something of what the Lord Jesus experienced in the desert, “harsh conditions, utter loneliness, and the gnawing discomforts of hunger” and, more than this, the “assaults of [our] archenemy, the devil.”[2] We make their situation more desperate by frequently giving too little thought to them.

In his brief message accompanying this video, Pope Francis said:

How many people are being persecuted because of their faith, forced to abandon their homes, their places of worship, their lands, their loved ones!

They are persecuted and killed because they are Christians. Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong.

I ask you: how many of you pray for persecuted Christians?

Do it with me, that they may be supported by the prayers and material help of all the Churches and communities.

These words of the Holy Father stand as a stark challenge for each us during these days of Lent. Grateful for the riches of his merciful love and confident in the certainty that “because [Jesus] himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted,” so many of our brothers and sisters willingly endure great hardships for the sake of his name, while we all too often grumble about not being allowed to eat meat one day of the week, which we sometimes forget or even give in to social pressure (Hebrews 2:18). It rather puts things in perspective, does it not?

Some Catholics seem to be under the curious impression that they must eat fish on Fridays during Lent, which, of course, is incorrect. While we are obliged to abstain from eating meat each Lenten Friday, this does not mean we have to eat fish; though the eating of fish has because customary, it is not required. Here many ask why we are allowed to eat fish and not meat.

Some – speaking from an anti-Catholic bias – have claimed the Church first allowed us to eat fish on Lenten Fridays to support the fishing industry in the middle ages. This, however, is not true. In his book, A Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian Mortimer includes a chapter on “What to Eat and Drink.” In this chapter, he notes, quite rightly, that

The medieval Church [that is, the Catholic Church] used to restrict the eating of meat on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as in Advent and Lent and on the vigils on certain saints' feast days. In 1549 Edward VI [a Protestant] reestablishes Fridays and Saturdays as nonmeat days, as well as Lent and other religious feasts. In 1563 Elizabeth's government [which was also Protestant] imposes fasting on Wednesdays too, including a prohibition on slaughtering animals. There is an important difference compared to pre-Reformation [that is, Catholic] times, however: avoidance of meat is no longer a religious observance but secular law. The purpose of fasting on Wednesdays is specifically to encourage the eating of fish, to support the fishing industry.[3]

It was, then, the Protestant government of England and not the Catholic Church that banned meat and allowed fish to support the fishmongers. If this is case, why did the Church allow our ancestors in the faith to eat fish, but not meat, on certain days?

For the Church, the reason for the forbidding of meat and the allowing of fish was less temporal, much simpler, and more spiritual than that of the secular government. In his Liber Festivalis, which he wrote in the late 1400s, John Myre explains that “when God, for Adam’s sin, cursed the earth and the land, he cursed not the water; wherefore it is lawful for a man to eat in Lent that which cometh of the water.” In fact, centuries earlier, Saint Isidore of Seville, who died in 636, wrote in his De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, "We are certainly able to eat fish, because the Lord accepted one after the resurrection. Neither the savior nor the apostles have forbidden this."[4] From this, we see that the non-eating of meat and the eating of fish was – and is – intended as both a penance, a small communal sacrifice offered lovingly to God, and a reminder of God's merciful and victorious love.

When we fail to realize this connection, when we fail to see the value and importance to our fasting and abstinence, it is because we have become, like our first parents, too focused on ourselves and on our own pleasures. “Adam was placed in Paradise, and there, seeking pleasure, he fell.”[5] How often do we, too, fall into sin by seeking pleasure and running from the Cross instead of seeking union with God? Unlike Adam, Jesus “was led into the desert, and there, by constant fasting, overcame the devil.”[6]

In these days of Lent, then, let us not seek our own pleasure, but let us go with Jesus into the desert. Just as he fasted out of love for us, let us fast out of love for our persecuted brothers and sisters who grow more numerous each day.

If we focus our thoughts and our prayers not on ourselves but on others, we, too, can, with the help of divine grace, overcome the sin of self-centeredness and experience the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 51:17). This is why Pope Francis has asked the Holy Spirit this Lent to “lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.”[7]

Let us then ask the Lord to help us acknowledge our sins, to forgive our sins, and to cleanse our hearts so that his compassion may be ours. Moreover, “let us pray for one another so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share to the full the joy of Easter.”[8] Amen.

[1] In “Pope’s Prayer Intention for March: Support Persecuted Christians,” Vatican Radio, 2 March 2017. Accessed 4 March 2017. Available at http://www.news.va/en/news/popes-prayer-intention-for-march-support-for-perse
[2] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 74.
[3] Ian Mortimer, A Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 215.
[4] Saint Isidore of Seville, De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, 1.44[45].2.
[5] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, 4. In Paul Spilsbury, trans., Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. I: General Prologue, Sundays from Septuagesima to Pentecost (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 73.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2017, 3.
[8] Ibid.

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