The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Dear brothers and sisters,
This coming season of Lent is a time for “the faithful [to be] ever more attentive to the word of God and prayer, [to] prepare themselves by penance for the renewal of their baptismal promises.” As a way of deepening our attentiveness, Catholics will be required to participate in two communal acts of penance, upon pain of sin. This means that to intentionally ignore these two penances is seriously sinful and places your soul in jeopardy of being excluded from sharing in the life of the Blessed Trinity.
Whenever we engage in an act of penance, it presupposes an interior and
radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion, to God with our whole heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called anima cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).
The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him. “Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored” (Lamentations 5:21)! God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced.
It is because each one of us is a sinner in need of an ongoing conversion to the Lord and because we are all united in the one Body of Christ, that the Church obliges us to two forms of Lenten penance as a means of solidarity and mutual support.
The first penitential act we will be obliged to do together is to fast on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Today, the discipline regulating fasting is - to put it perhaps too bluntly - minimal; we are allowed to eat two small meals, which together do not equal a normal meal, and one normal meal, with no snacking in between these meals. The second penitential act we will take up in common is the abstinence from meat and meat products on the Fridays of Lent, as well as on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. This discipline is, again, minimal. Taken together, such a “freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.” At the same time,
The true fast is thus directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4,34). If, therefore, Adam disobeyed the Lord’s command “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.”
Even so, many Catholics in these United States of America frequently grumble about these two admittedly simple obligations and either refuse to keep them or do so only begrudgingly. Where, they demand to know, is this found in the Bible. How, they ask, can eating meat put me in Hell? I hope today to address both of these concerns today.
To completely disregard a law of the Church is seriously sinful because it is an act by which we ignore or refuse to follow the directives of those placed over us in the Lord. When Jesus established his Church, he entrusted his own authority to those he placed over the Church. He said to the Apostles, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). What is more, he said to Simon Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). If Peter received the authority to bind things on earth, he received the authority to make laws for the Church over which the Master and Teacher placed him.
It was not, however, only Saint Peter who received the power to bind and to loose. This authority the Lord Jesus also gave to the rest of the Twelve when he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). The same authority given to Peter was given to the entire college of Apostles.
The Apostles, however, did not keep this authority to themselves; it did not simply pass away when they died. Rather, they entrusted the authority and share in the ministry of Christ they received to others, to their successors, the Bishops. The Bishops, then, who sanctify the Church through the celebration of the Sacraments, who teach the faith through their words of preaching, and who govern the Church in the name of Christ, have authority to bind and to loose, hence, to make laws for the Church today. It is an authority which, ultimately, comes from Christ himself. This is why the purposeful failure to keep the Lenten disciplines can place a soul in the state of mortal sin, which is also why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17; cf. I Thessalonians 5:12).
In various places, God himself commands his people to fast. We will hear on Ash Wednesday his command through his Prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12). The Lord Jesus himself expects us to fast, or else he would not have said, “But when you fast...” (Matthew 6:16). The Church, too, expects the faithful to fast, and even commands them to do so. The Code of Canon Law states this:
The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence…
We are obliged to follow all just laws and so we are required to keep the ecclesiastical laws regarding fasting and abstinence during Lent and the Sacred Triduum.
In keeping with the mind of the Church and with the aim of a deeper conversion of the whole of our lives to the Lord, Saint Augustine reminds us that “these practices ought to glow throughout the entire life of a Christian, but especially as the Paschal solemnity approaches which stirs up our mind by its yearly return, renewing in them the salutary memory that our Lord, the only-begotten Son of God, showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us.” Let us take up these Lenten penances gladly and not begrudgingly, in imitation of our Lord and in solidarity with one another. If we do, then we will be “firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord;” we will bear good fruit on the day of the Resurrection and be clothed with immortality (I Corinthians 15:58; cf. Luke 6:43; I Corinthians 15:54). Amen.