Passiontide Chronology: Tuesday of Holy Week

It is Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus likely arises early, as did all the ancients. Days both ended and started early, at dusk and dawn, prior to the advent of electric lighting. They leave Bethany and head back to Jerusalem. Perhaps a few converts can be made before the transcendent events of the Passion begin.

It is only a couple of miles, mostly downhill, to Jerusalem. As they come down the steep hill they see the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before.

As they were walking back in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from its roots. Peter remembered it and said, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree You cursed has withered.” (Mk 11:20-21).

Jesus had cursed the fig tree, a metaphor for the ancient chosen people, for lack of faith, justice, and charity, the expected fruits in its branches. (This was discussed in more detail in yesterday’s post.) The fig tree reminds us of the day of judgment. “Lip service” faith is easy, but Jesus is looking for real fruit in the branches.

The apostolic band walks on further with Jesus, and they eventually arrive at the Temple, where they are immediately confronted by the Temple leaders:

At their return to Jerusalem, Jesus was walking in the temple courts, and the chief priests, scribes, and elders came up to Him. “By what authority are You doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave You the authority to do them?” “I will ask you one question,” Jesus replied, “and if you answer Me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me!” They deliberated among themselves what they should answer: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will ask, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’…” they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John truly was a prophet. So they answered Him, “We do not know. And Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Mk 11:27-33).

Jesus questions their question with a question. He seems to engage in the Socratic method, making them examine their premises. In this dialogue the leaders are confronted with their own insincerity. They are asked to consider that their own “authority” is based not on truth, but on power and its trappings. They are asked to consider that they have “too much to lose” because they root their authority in the power and accolades of the people. They are not true leaders, for they do not seek the truth but rather only what confirms their power.

Do not scorn or laugh at them—many of us are in the same condition.

Jesus turns to them and others in the Temple area, teaching them in numerous parables (Mk 12:1). In these parables He lays bare their hearts and reminds them that although they are leaders they are refusing God’s offer of salvation and His invitation to the true feast to which their rituals point.

Jesus begins,

But what do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went. Then the man went to the second son and told him the same thing. ‘I will, sir,’ he said. But he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in a righteous way and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him (Mat 21:28-32).

Lip service is not obedience. Their refusal to come to faith is disobedience to God. He desires obedience more than ritual observances and sacrifices (see Psalm 40:6).

Jesus warns them that their plots to kill Him will end badly:

A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a wine vat, and built a watchtower. Then he rented it out to some tenants and went away on a journey. At harvest time, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect his share of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent them another servant, and they struck him over the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and this one they killed. He sent many others; some they beat and others they killed. Finally, having one beloved son, he sent him to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized the son, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you never read this Scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11)

At this, the leaders sought to arrest Jesus, for they knew that He had spoken this parable against them. Fearing the crowd, though, they left Him and went away (Mk 12:1-12). They will return shortly with other interrogators.

Matthew records that Jesus then told the following parable, likely to others in the Temple area. In it, He warns them of the urgency of the dramatic decision that is upon them. Do they want salvation in the way God offers? Do they desire the Kingdom of God and its values or do they prefer the present but passing desires of the world? Are they willing to be clothed in the garments of righteousness that God himself provides or do they prefer to wear the fashions of the world?

Once again, Jesus spoke to them in parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to call those he had invited to the banquet, but they refused to come. Again, he sent other servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner. My oxen and fatlings have been killed, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went away, one to his field, and another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the crossroads and invite to the banquet as many as you can find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered everyone they could find, both evil and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he spotted a man who was not dressed in wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But the man was speechless. Then the king told the servants, ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:1-14).

Now come various interlocutors. Note that the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees agreed on nothing but that Jesus had to go. They “teamed up” against the Lord! This indicates the depth of their fear: even enemies will be embraced to rid the city of this upstart preacher who so threatens their shared power.

Later, they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to catch Jesus in His words. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that You are honest and are swayed by no one. Indeed, You are impartial and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Now then, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or not?” But Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to inspect.” So, they brought it, and He asked them, “Whose likeness is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they answered. Then Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And they marveled at Him (Mk 12:13-17).

This is an attempt to draw Jesus into a cheap political debate and thereby cause division among His admiring crowd. Their concern about taxes is insincere because even those who dispute paying taxes to Caesar walk about with Caesar’s money. Jesus will not be called off message; He says to them, [Give] to God what is God’s.” In this case what they are to give to God is faith in the one whom He has sent, Jesus.

The next opponents of Jesus are the Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection of the dead and seek to ridicule belief in Heaven through a complex and unlikely scenario:

Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came and questioned Him: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man should marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died, leaving no children. Then the second one married the widow, but he also died and left no children. And the third did likewise. In this way, none of the seven left any children. And last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For all seven were married to her.” Jesus said to them, “Aren’t you mistaken because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like the angels in heaven. And regarding the dead rising, have you not read about the burning bush in the book of Moses, how God told him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken (Mk 12:18-27).

Yes, they are badly mistaken; they seek to understand heavenly realities using earthly notions. Because the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament, Jesus uses a passage from Exodus as well as their own logic against them. The Sadducees denied the resurrection by saying that God is a God of the living, not the dead. If that be so, though, why does the Lord call himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom have been dead for over four centuries? They must be alive to God! In this way, the Sadducees are set aside.

Finally, a scribe steps forth. Although he is likely seeking to refute Jesus, the conversation ends up being promising:

Now one of the scribes had come up and heard their debate. Noticing how well Jesus had answered them, he asked Him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your and and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” “Right, Teacher,” the scribe replied. “You have stated correctly that God is One and there is no other but Him, and to love Him with all your heart and with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, which is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that the man had answered wisely, He said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:28-34).

Speaking to His claim to be Messiah and Lord, Jesus invokes the authority of Scripture, reminding them that in Psalm 110 (a messianic psalm) the Messiah is called “Lord,” not merely the Son of David.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, He asked, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? Speaking by the Holy Spirit, David himself declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand until I put Your enemies under Your feet.”’ David himself calls Him Lord. So how can He be David’s son?” And the large crowd listened to Him with delight (Mk 12:35-37).

Matthew records Jesus delivering a series of woes directed against the leaders and teachers of that time. These are delivered in a lengthy passage, which is available here: Seven woes. It is quite severe and shows a strong indictment of those who “major in the minors,” who maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Jesus concludes by saying,

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Matthew 23:33-39).

To emphasize the contrast, Jesus notes a poor widow who gives a small amount but in reality far more generously than do those “leaders” with hardened hearts. Matthew then observes,

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:1-2).

They crossed the Kidron Valley and went up on to the Mount of Olives. Matthew records,

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24: 3-4)

Sitting atop the Mount of Olives, with Jerusalem displayed before Him, Jesus gives the terrifying and yet exhilarating “Mount Olivet Discourse.” It is quite lengthy and is available here: Mt. Olivet Discourse. In it, Jesus describes the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in 70 A.D., forty biblical years after His Ascension. The destruction was the result of a foolish war with the Romans. Had the Jewish zealots accepted Jesus’ call to preach the gospel to the nations, the Romans would have been seen as brothers to convert rather than as enemies to kill. Over a million Jewish people died in that terrible war.

According to Matthew, Jesus also tells the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats” and the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.” Mark concludes with this: And no one dared to question Him any further (Mk 18:34).

It seems it was back to Bethany that Tuesday night, likely to stay at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but perhaps with Simon the Leper. It has been a long day of parables and teaching and of engaging with hostile opponents.

Tune in tomorrow, when it is “Spy Wednesday.”

 

Passiontide Chronology: Walking with the Lord on Monday of Holy Week

According to Matthew 21:10-17, Mark 11:15-17, and Luke 19:45-46, Jesus returns to Jerusalem today. Seeing shameful practices in the Temple area, He cleanses it. The Gospels also recount His weeping over Jerusalem and His cursing of the fig tree. Matthew and Mark relate that He returned to Bethany that night.

Prelude: The Scriptures record that Jesus went to Bethany on the Sunday evening after His triumphal entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday):

[Jesus] went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve (Mk 11:11).

It is likely that Jesus stayed at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Bethany was a mere two miles from Jerusalem (though a steep climb), just over the Mount of Olives.

Pain: The next morning (Monday) Jesus arises and goes back toward Jerusalem. Luke records that as He came over the crest of the hill on the Mount of Olives He wept:

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it and said, “If only you had known on this day what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will barricade you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will level you to the ground—you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Lk 19:41-44).

Today on this spot there is a chapel named Dominus Flevit (the Lord wept), which is in the shape of a teardrop. From here Jesus could see the whole city spread out below. He could also see forty years into the future to the time when the Romans would destroy the city and Temple, the culmination of a horrible and pointless war (64-70 A.D.) for liberation from the Romans. Had Jesus’ message been heeded, the Romans would not have been regarded as enemies to kill but rather as brothers to convert to the gospel.

Passionate Anger: Mark recalls an event as they come down the hillside:

The next day, when they had left Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if there was any fruit on it. But when He reached it, He found nothing on it except leaves, since it was not the season for figs. Then He said to the tree, “May no one ever eat of your fruit again.” And His disciples heard this statement (Mk 11:12-14).

The fig tree is widely interpreted as representing the Jewish people. The Lord looked for fruits among His chosen people but found none. Jesus’ rebuke of the tree illustrates His righteous anger at and disappointment in their lack of the fruits of faith. Scripture says elsewhere,

And the men of Judah are [the Lord’s] pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, the outcry! (Is 5:6-7)

And Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).

Seeing no fruit in this last hour, Jesus in effect finishes the parable. The hour of judgment has come upon ancient Judah.

Many misunderstand the phrase that it was “not the season for figs,” falsely concluding that it was thus “unfair” to expect figs on the branches. However, it is for this very reason that one would expect to find figs growing in the branches, for if it were the harvest one would expect bare branches as the figs would have just been harvested. It is before the harvest that one expects to find figs, even if not fully ripe, growing in the branches. Seeing nothing but leaves, Jesus curses the tree.

Pivotal Event: The cleansing of the Temple was indeed a pivotal event. Here is Mark’s account:

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching (Mk 11:15-18).

The Lord’s grief and anger grow worse as He enters the Temple. What made him so angry? Mark’s Gospel states the reason most clearly: It is not the selling of animals (which were needed for the sacrifices) per se, but that they were being sold in a part of the Temple grounds reserved for the Gentiles to pray. This is an insult and amounts to a denial that the prayers of the Gentiles mattered at all. Jesus was about to die in order to reunite God’s scattered children. And I, when I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people unto me (Jn 12:32).

As for the Temple being a den of robbers, the implication is that the dealings there are unjust and exploitative.

Why is this a pivotal moment? The action of Jesus is a prophetic judgment made in the very center of the Temple leaders’ power. The Temple was the locus of their power and prestige. It is not lost on them for a moment that Jesus has threatened all of this, not merely by what He has said but by his popularity among the people.

According to John’s Gospel (which actually remarks on this earlier in Jesus’ ministry), when the Temple leaders demanded a sign and an explanation for this action Jesus said,

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” “This temple took forty-six years to build,” the Jews replied, “and You are going to raise it up in three days?” But Jesus was speaking about the temple of His Body (Jn 2:19-21).

This had a further impact on the Temple leaders, who would later accuse Jesus (at His trial) of threatening to destroy the temple (e.g., Mk 14:58).

Theologically, Jesus is saying that Temple worship is over. He is the temple. He is the priest. He is the lamb. It is His blood that will cleanse us. Temple worship is ended because what it pointed to (Jesus) is now here. Its purpose is fulfilled in Him.

Quite a day, this Monday of Holy Week! Can you sense the grief and anger of the Lord? Remember, His anger is a righteous one. Everything was being fulfilled for the ancient people, but many are rejecting the very one God has sent to save them. Jesus cannot remain indifferent to their tragic rejection. He both weeps and has a grieving anger.

Do we weep for the condition of our world? Do we pray and seek to call forth the fruits of faith, justice, and truth?

Jesus does not give up. He will spend the next day teaching and seeking to win as many as possible to the truth of the gospel.

The Scriptures conclude Monday of Holy Week in this way:

And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night (Matt 21:17).

Perhaps Jesus is consoled in His grief and anger by the presence of friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Perhaps He finds solace in the company of His apostles and others. Scripture says,

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter:
he that has found one has found a treasure.
There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend,
and no scales can measure his excellence.
A faithful friend is a medicine of life;
and those who fear the Lord will find him
(Sirach 6:14-16).

Stay close to the heart of the Lord. Be His “consolation.” Be the reparation for the rejection by so many others.

 

A Lament from Scripture, Well-Suited to the Current Crisis

The reading for Tuesday’s Mass (Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent) was astonishingly applicable to our current situation. It also brings up a controversial question: are we experiencing punishment for our sins? The modern world has grown proud; we have largely forgotten our vulnerability. Worst of all, we have collectively cast God aside. In this sense we do not need to directly attribute this chastisement to God. Rather, the deep wound to our own sense of invincibility is itself the source of our pain and punishment.

We have been felled quickly, bewildered with an intense fear unthinkable just a month ago. Much of the fear is focused on our mortality. The lack of supernatural faith and the heavy focus on “this world,” a world that seeks only material blessings, fuels this fear. To those without faith, death appears to be the end of everything.

Let’s look at the reading from Tuesday’s Mass (Daniel 3:25, 34-45):

Azariah stood up in the fire and prayed aloud:
“For your name’s sake, O Lord, do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.

One of the difficulties of this crisis is the uncertainty; we don’t know how long it will last. We ask the Lord not to deliver us up “forever,” for with no end in sight it may seem like forever. We must pray for God’s mercy to come suddenly, unexpectedly—even if we do not deserve it.

For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.

Some people believe it is wrong to speak of the role of sin in this crisis, but the sin referred to here is our collectivesin. A virus may come from a natural source, but it has been aggravated by both human action and inaction, some of it sinful. Our biggest sin, however, is our pride, which leads us to believe that a crisis such as the one we are experiencing is not possible, that we are invincible. How quickly this virus has laid us low! We think, because of our towering buildings, economic power, and advanced technology, that we are not vulnerable to the things our forebears faced. It would appear that we are not. I, too, have been rocked back on my heels by the terror that has come so swiftly upon us. I, too, have learned that I must check my pride and humbly accept this blow.

We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.

Azariah, who prayed this prayer, had experienced the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end to the sacrifices so dear to the Jewish people.

I am deeply saddened at the end of public Masses across the country and the world—just when we need them most. Even the great celebrations of Holy Week and Easter seem to be in danger of cancellation. I am grateful that the private celebration of Mass by priests is at least still possible.

But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
or thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.

In the current situation, during which we cannot gather together, we must make repentance and humility the focus of our private prayer. We must also deepen our commitment to follow the Lord “unreservedly.” I have seen and heard the pain of so many of the faithful at the loss of Mass and regular reception of the Eucharist. This should increase our longing for and appreciation of the Lord’s Body and Blood and stir within us contrition for our indifference. May our loss become gain as we hunger more intensely for the Holy Eucharist.

And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
Deliver us by your wonders,
and bring glory to your name, O Lord”

Yes, Lord, we ask for a miraculous cure for both this disease and our fear. Deliver us by your wonders, O Lord.

The song performed in the video below, Tristitia et anxietas, was composed by William Byrd as a lament for English Catholics, who lost almost everything in the English “reformation.” One of its lines, translated, says this:

Sorrow and anxiety have occupied my inmost self.

A Picture of Disease in a Time of Trouble

The first reading for Mass on Monday (Monday of the third week of Lent) was striking in its relation to the current time of turmoil. It reminds us of our vulnerability. Despite all our strength, we are individually and collectively in need of tremendous grace and mercy from God. For all our concern about the physical threat of this virus, we should be even more concerned about our spiritual vulnerability. In the reading, from 2 Kings 5, we are told of the great strength and wealth of Naaman, the Assyrian commander:

Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram,
was highly esteemed and respected by his master,
for through him the LORD had brought victory to Aram.

Of his wealth it is said:

So Naaman set out, taking along ten silver talents,
six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments.

Despite this wealth we are told:

But valiant as he was, the man was a leper.

In Scripture, leprosy is not merely a physical disease; it is a symbol of sin, which disfigures as it eats away at us.

In this time of vulnerability to disease and fear, consider this brief reflection:

Yes, Lord, Naaman was a gifted man. He was a strong man and yet a leper, a sinner in need of Your mercy. Help me, O Lord, to see in him an image of myself: gifted by you, undeservedly so, and yet still a leper in great need of your mercy. Help me to see myself as I really am: a man loved by you, gifted by you, but ultimately a leper, a sinner in need of your mercy. Like Naaman, I need Your perfect mercy. Just as Naaman washed himself in the river seven times, I need Your seven sacraments, Your seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, Your seven cardinal virtues, and Your seven beatitudes. Above all, I need You.

May all of us who are making this journey through disease, vulnerability, and fear see beyond the merely physical dangers to the far worse spiritual dangers with which sin imperils us.

Have mercy on us, O Lord!

On The Battle Theme of Lent

A brief observation of the first two days in Lent reveals militaristic, even violent imagery in the battle against sin and the unruly passions of the flesh. The Collect (opening prayer) of Ash Wednesday provides an image of troops mustering for battle:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

“Battle,” “weapons,” and “armed” all clearly have military connotations, but so does the phrase “campaign of Christian service” if we look at the Latin text: praesidia miltiae Christianae. The service or action (praesidia) is one of Christian battle or militancy (militiae). This refers to the Church Militant—the Church here on earth—waging war against sin and the kingdom of darkness.

Thus the opening prayer on Ash Wednesday announced and summoned us to a battle that is engaged by the Church with special intensity during Lent.

The Gospel for Thursday after Ash Wednesday also has a battle theme. Jesus says,

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-25).

The battle theme is particularly apparent if one looks at the Greek text. The word translated as “lose” in English does not capture the vigor of the Greek word ἀπόλλυμι (apollumi). Apollumi comes from the root apó, meaning away from, with the intensifier ollymi, “to destroy.” Thus apollumi means to fully destroy, cutting off entirely. It implies permanent or absolute destruction.

So when Jesus says we must “lose” our life, it is really far stronger than the English translation captures. Losing our life involves a kind of violent overthrow of our worldly notions and the deep drives of sin. We must lose. That is, we must see utterly destroyed and cut off all things worldly, fleshly, and of the devil. This is war and it is going to involve more than a mumbled, half-hearted prayer on our part. Scripture says, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (Heb 12:4).

So behold the militaristic imagery as Lent begins. To arms!

The idea of such a battle might overwhelm us if we thought it must all be done in one day. Jesus says that we should take up our cross daily. Our daily cross is vital to our success. It’s not our weekly cross, or our monthly cross, or our yearly cross. We ought to do each day what we should do. If we put off or postpone the daily cross, the problems pile up. A monthly cross can seem overwhelming, and a yearly cross might seem impossible. Everyday discipline is crucial. Soon enough, the daily discipline becomes virtue; it becomes a good habit that one accomplishes fairly easily. To take up our cross daily is to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.

The battle is engaged! Fight it daily. Fight it with the Lord. Understand that it is battle, but in Jesus (and only in Jesus) the victory is won. Stay on the winning side and fight daily to the end.

The Urgent Theme of Ash Wednesday

There is a great sense of urgency in the readings for Ash Wednesday. It is as if some great event is looming that could be awesome, but only if the warning is heeded. Consider this selection from the first reading (Joel 2:12-18):

“Even now,” says the LORD, “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.”

Sound the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people! Assemble the elders; gather the children, even the infants at the breast.

Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people!”

And consider this passage from the second reading (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2):

We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.! Behold, now is the very acceptable time.

What is this awesome yet potentially catastrophic event about which we are warned?The Church supplies the answer as she distributes ashes:

Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

In other words, you’re going to die, and you don’t get to say when, where, or how. So, what are you doing to get ready to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? Mother Church is figuratively shaking us and saying, “Do you understand how significant this is and how serious you ought to be in preparing for it?”

Sadly, many people are notserious about their spiritual life nor are they preparing for death. They are not praying; they do not read Scripture; they are not receiving the sacraments; they do not attend Mass; they are not repenting of their sins. In fact, many celebrate and call “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin. They are majoring in all the minors, pursuing the ephemeral while neglecting the eternal.

Yes, a trumpet must be sounded; an urgent summons must go forth.It is time to repent and to get serious about the judgment day that awaits us all. Now is a time of grace and mercy, when God provides remedies for sin and graces for holiness. The time for these will end, however:

It is appointed to man to die once, and thereafter to face judgment (Heb 9:27).

So we aspire to please the Lord, whether we are here in this body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Therefore, since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men (2 Cor 5:9-11).

Sound the trumpet in Zion! It’s time to get ready to meet the Lord before the door of this life closes. Mother Church cries out, “Now is the time. This is the place. Turn from your sins and return to the Lord!”

This song asks, “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”

Consider Moderating Your Smartphone Usage for Lent

 

As Lent approaches consider that it is often easier to abstain from something entirely than to moderate its use. It’s also easier to measure the success or failure of abstinence. When I “give up something for Lent,” my approach is to stay away from it entirely during Lent. I don’t exempt Sundays or solemnities that occur in Lent. The “on again, off again” approach just doesn’t work for me.

However, there is something to be said about using Lent to moderate behavior as well. There are some things we cannot simply abstain from, and learning to moderate them is an important virtue to cultivate. Some folks give up using Facebook for Lent. That’s certainly small, manageable, and achievable, but for most of us unplugging our smart phones entirely during Lent is neither possible nor wise. It is in areas like this that working toward moderation might be an important Lenten practice.

Most of us will admit that we spend too much time staring at our phones. We allow them to interrupt us when we should not. During meetings, conversations, and family gatherings, the pesky devices buzz, ring, or light up and end up taking priority over the human relationships with those around us; we let the urgent eclipse the important.

Lent can be a time to learn to moderate our use of smartphones and limit their disruptions to our life. A number of things occur to me that can help in this regard and may be good Lenten practices to adopt.

  1. Decide how often each day you really need to check your device. If you’re honest about it, you probably don’t need to check it as often as you’re accustomed to doing. Suppose you set the number at four times a day; now you need to stick to that. At the designated times, check for messages, emails, and missed calls. Make a few quick follow-ups and then be done with it until the next time. Discipline yourself; resist the urge to break your rule. In between those times, live as if your device doesn’t even exist.
  2. Turn off all those sounds that alert you of a message or an email. They don’t just distract you; they annoy others around you and may sabotage your efforts to moderate your usage.
  3. Consider making use of the “Do not Disturb” function. This allows you to set up times during which the phone will not ring, and texts and other messages won’t light up the screen. In effect the phone, the phone is offline during these times. You can set up a list of contacts whose calls/messages will come through at all times; these would be people who might really need to get in touch with you immediately in an emergency.
  4. Limit the use of notifications and badges.  These appear at the top of the screen or collect on the home screen alerting you to all the latest messages and news.
  5. Don’t believe those “Breaking News” headers. It’s almost never that important.
  6. Even when you’ve silenced it, some things still cause the screen to light up. When you’re not using the device, put it away in a pocket or a drawer—or at least place it face-down.
  7. If you have a smartwatch, consider retiring it for Lent or at least disabling most of its interruptive features.
  8. There are certainly some functions to consider exempting from the four times a day rule. For example, many people need to use a GPS map application to get places. Perhaps you’re going to use the phone to call a friend or family member who needs consolation. Real conversations, even if not face to face, have their place in our life and can serve the good. Sometimes when in a meeting we need to look something up for the purpose of that meeting. Even though these situations might be exceptions, try not to cheat by using this time for non-essential purposes as well.
  9. Some people will be annoyed that you don’t answer their texts and emails right away, but such expectations are unrealistic, selfish, and rude. The kinds of quick replies many insist upon is unrealistic. It wasn’t that long ago that such constant availability wasn’t even possible. I didn’t even own a cell phone until I was about forty years old. Somehow, we managed to survive in those antiquarian days.

I would be grateful if you would add your ideas to this list. Lent is a good time to work on moderation.  It’s a lot harder than abstinence, but it’s a necessary skill to acquire. It requires a clear commitment to abide by the limits you set for yourself.   Good luck and good Lent!

A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Every ancient prayer manual and guide to spirituality until about fifty years ago had at least one large section devoted to what was known as Pugna Spiritualis (spiritual battle or spiritual warfare). In more recent decades, many spiritual books have downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.

Sadly, many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize exclusively consoling themes rooted in self-esteem, affirmation, etc. To be sure, the authentic faith can and does offer great consolation, but the truest and deepest consolation often comes after one has persevered along the sometimes-difficult path, along the “narrow way” of the cross.

But too many today, in the name of affirmation and pseudo-self-esteem are ready to excuse, and even affirm grave moral disorders, rather than fight them. Grace and mercy are preached, but without reference to the repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Both the possibility of Hell and any consequences of sin, are absent from many modern conceptions of faith and religious practice.

Some years ago, I was approached by a rather angry woman who, having heard my sermon on the seriousness of certain sins (which were in the readings of the day), expressed great indignation that I would preach on such topics. She said, “I come to church to be consoled and have my spirits lifted, not to hear old-fashioned warnings about judgment and sins.” She felt quite a “righteous indignation,” and was most certain that I had transgressed a fundamental norm, namely, that religion exists to console, and that any challenge to one’s moral stance, (except perhaps caring for the poor), is intolerant and way out of line.

Indeed, many today have this kind of attitude: that it is their birthright not to be troubled or vexed in any way by something people might say, especially a preacher who claims to represent God! The “God they worship” would never trouble them. They will have Jesus for their consoler and best friend, but not their Lord, and certainly not their judge. And never mind the literally thousands of verses from Scripture in which Jesus himself speaks sternly and warns of sin, death, judgment, and Hell. They will have none of it, and are certain that “the Jesus they know,” would never raise his voice at them or challenge them even for a moment. Never mind that the real Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him.

With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or ask us to choose sides, seems strangely foreign, intolerant, and uncompassionate.

Even more dangerous, these modern conceptions not only distort Jesus, but they downplay the presence and influence of Satan. This is a very, very bad idea. Even if we cease fighting against Satan, he will never ceases his sometimes very subtle attacks on us.

Jesus called consistently for prayerful, sober vigilance against the powers of evil and sin. Like it or not, we are in a battle. Either we will soberly and vigilantly undertake the battle, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.

Despite what modern spiritual approaches would like to eliminate, Christianity has been a militant religion since its inception. Jesus was exposed to every kind of danger from the beginning. Herod sought his life; Satan tried to tempt him in the desert; many enemies plotted on all sides as he worked his public ministry, misrepresenting him, levying false charges, and conspiring to sentence him to death, and eventually even succeeding though only for a moment.

And as for Jesus, so also for his mystical Body the Church: Saul, Saul why do you persecute me!? (Acts 9:4) Jesus warns us that the world would hate us (Luke 21:17; John 15:20); that in this world we would have tribulation (Jn 16:33), and that we should watch and pray lest we give way to temptation (Matt 26:41). He summons us to persevere to the end if we would be saved (Mk 13:13). Jesus rather vividly described the kind of struggle with which we live when he said From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, no Christian until the time that Jesus returns, can consider himself on leave or dismissed from this great spiritual battle, from this great drama that we exist in, this battle between good and evil.

Popular theme or not, we do well to remember that we are in the midst of a great cosmic and spiritual battle. And in that battle, we must be willing to choose sides and fight with the Lord for the Kingdom of God. Either we will gather with him or we will scatter. We are to fight for our own soul, and the souls of those whom we love.

In the holy week that is about to unfold, we are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged, and that is still being waged in our time. Though already victorious, in his mystical Body the Church, the Lord in his faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. It is also for us to reclaim territory from the evil one, to take back what the devil stole from us. We are to advance the glory of God’s Kingdom through the fruits of great spiritual struggle, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, preaching, and an extensive missionary campaign to which the Lord has summoned and commissioned us.

The battle is on; the struggle is engaged! To spiritual arms one and all! Fight the good fight for the Lord.

Still not convinced we are at war? Let the Lord pull back the veil just a bit and let you look at what’s really going on. The final words of this article will not be mine; they will be the Lord’s. Here is described the cosmic battle that is responsible for most of the suffering and confusion you experience:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.

She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers who accuses them before our God day and night,has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.”

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.

Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. (Rev 12)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Late Lenten Meditation on the Reality of Spiritual Warfare