Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Temptation that leads to Victory

This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Lent, and the reading (Year B) was taken from Mk 1:12-15:
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."
There is so much that can be said about this passage, and how it relates to our own Lenten journey as we unite ourselves with Christ through His temptations in the wilderness. However, nothing that I say could ever match what St. Augustine had to say on the matter (which can be found in the Second Reading in the Office of Readings for the First Sunday of Lent). It is so powerful, and has as much relevance for us today as it had in St. Augustine’s day. So here it is:
[Jesus] made us one with Him when He chose to be tempted by Satan. We have heard in the Gospel how the Lord Jesus Christ was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Certainly Christ was tempted by the devil. In Christ you were tempted, for Christ received His flesh from your nature, but by His own power gained salvation for you; He suffered death in your nature, but by His own power gained life for you; He suffered insults in your nature, but by His own power gained glory for you; therefore, He suffered temptation in your nature, but by His own power gained victory for you.

If in Christ we have been tempted, in Him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ's temptations and fail to think of His victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. He could have kept the devil from Himself; but if He were not tempted He could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.
What St. Augustine has said is so profound. It is one of those passages which one could tirelessly read over and over again, and each time glean eternal spiritual value. It would take ages to unpack all that he has said. Instead, without diminishing anything else he has stated, here are some of the key highlights of this passage for me, which are so rich that they are worthy of meditation in and of themselves:
  • He suffered death in your nature, but by His own power gained life for you
  • He suffered insults in your nature, but by His own power gained glory for you
  • He suffered temptation in your nature, but by His own power gained victory for you
  • If in Christ we have been tempted, in Him we overcome the devil
  • Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to think of His victory?
  • See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him.
  • If He were not tempted He could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.

In Matt 6:16-18 our Lord tells us that when we fast, we are to do so with a countenance of joy. This makes so much sense when we remember that by truly uniting our fasting to Christ, we experience VICTORY!!! We experience victory in Him, with Him, and through Him.

So, may these words of St. Augustine be to us a constant reminder and source of strength for us as we continue our Lenten journey towards the glorious victory that we experience when we celebrate as Christ’s Body and Bride in the Feast of Easter.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lent, Fasting, and Abstinence

It seems like it was only just the other day that we were celebrating Christmas, and now all of a sudden Lent is upon us – beginning with Ash Wednesday this week.
Lent is a forty day period of purification and penance in which we imitate our Lord Jesus Christ who, by fasting in the wilderness for forty days and overcoming the temptations of Satan, showed Himself to be the New Adam who remains faithful to the commandments of God, and so He ensures our salvation if we unite ourselves to Him and follow Him in the same obedience. The Catechism reminds us that “by the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” – CCC # 540.
Catholics are bound by the precepts of the Church to observe the Lenten season as a time of penance and purification in preparation for the great celebration of Easter. This penance, to be real and meritorious, must first of all be interior; which then is expressed outwardly “in many and various ways.  Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.” (CCC # 1434).
Broadly speaking, this means that during Lent, as we repent inwardly and grow closer to God, we should be showing this outwardly by things such as spending more time in prayer and Scripture. We should be more generous in giving of our time, talents, and possessions to others in need. And we must be prepared to sacrifice things that we enjoy, or even sometimes need, for the purpose of teaching us to rely more fully on God. How this looks will vary from person to person, depending on their own circumstances and commitments to God.
In addition to the above, the season of Lent itself begins and ends with a more specific and explicit kind of fasting. The beginning of Lent is marked by Ash Wednesday, which is a day of fasting and abstinence. Then, towards the end of Lent, we observe another day of fasting and abstinence on Good Friday. The season of Lent is drawn to a close with the Easter Vigil on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The observation of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fasting and abstinence are also precepts of the Church, which means that as Catholics we are bound to observe them. So, in this regard, I thought that it would be a good idea to touch on what the Church means by the terms “fasting” and “abstinence” to remind us of our obligations as Catholics.

Fasting: To fulfil this obligation, Catholics are required to take in no more than one full meal and two small meals (which together make up less than the one full meal) on the relevant day of fasting. Only those aged between 18 and 59 years are required to fast. Obviously, this is a minimum requirement. Catholics who want to offer up a greater fast can observe a “bread and water” fast; or even an “absolute fast” where no food or fluid is taken in.
Abstinence: This refers to a complete refraining from eating of any meat. This requirement extends to those older than 14 years.

This means that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are required to observe at least the minimum fast, and we are also to abstain completely from meat in any of the meals that we may eat during the course of the day.
One particular detail that many Catholics aren’t aware of is that Sundays are not included in the observation of Lent. This is because it is the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection – which means that every Sunday is in effect “Easter Sunday”. Because it is the Feast of feasts, it trumps all fasts. Moreover, a simple calculation shows that the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays in between, equals forty days.
As a side note, many Catholics are probably not aware that ALL Fridays in the year are days of penance, in memory of the death of our Lord Jesus on Good Friday. In the past, this was strictly observed by each Friday also being a day of abstinence – or what was commonly called “fish Fridays”. Following Vatican II, the Church lifted the requirement for strict abstinence on Fridays; but she never lifted the requirement to observe every Friday as a day of penance. For this reason, the Church still recommends the practice of abstinence on Fridays; but where people choose not to abstain from meat, they are still required to perform another form of outward penance in keeping with the overall nature of Friday as a day of penance.
Another fast that all Catholics are required to observe is the Eucharistic fast – which means that Catholics are obligated to abstain from all food and drink (except for water and medicine) for at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion.

I know that there is a bit of information to digest here, especially for those Catholics who might not be aware of the Church’s precepts in this regard – and for some it might even appear “burdensome”. But I think that if we remember that this is something that we are doing out of love for our Lord in preparation for Easter, then we start to realise that everything we offer is but a drop in the ocean compared with the great price that Christ paid in offering Himself to us on Calvary as the once-for-all Sacrifice for our sins.

[Postscript: It was recently pointed out to me that, despite the Church's lifting of the strict requirement for abstinence on all Fridays of the year, Catholics are still obligated to abstinence on ALL Fridays during Lent.]

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Great Gifts of Jesus and Mary

A little while ago I posted a blog on St. Maximillian Kolbe’s Eucharistic and Marian theology and devotion. As I mentioned previously, he saw these two devotions as inseparable.
I was reminded of this awesome truth last week while watching Mike Willisee's DVD on the Eucharist. The point was made in the DVD regarding three great gifts in the Life and Ministry of our Lord Jesus:

1)  In the Incarnation, the Virgin Mary gave the Lord Jesus Christ the gift of her flesh and blood.
2) During the Last Supper, Jesus gave us the gift of His Body and Blood as the perpetual remembrance and representation of His once-for-all Sacrifice on Calvary.
3) As He hung on the Cross, one of the last things our Lord did before He died was to give us His Mother to be our very own  .

As we contemplate how these three Mysteries are linked together and how they come “full-circle”, we begin to appreciate how intricately united Eucharistic and Marian devotion is. We also begin to realise that Jesus is so completely united with His Mother that they CANNOT be separated. It is for this reason that the Church since her earliest days, especially through the writings of the Saints, reminds us that if we wish to draw nearer to Jesus, the surest and best way is through the Blessed Virgin Mary.
So may we never cease to offer God the deepest gratitude for these immense and inseparable gifts – the gift of His Blessed Mother to intercede for us; and the gift of His Most Precious Body and Blood as food for our souls unto Eternal Life.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Adam, where are you?

One of the things I love about reading Sacred Scripture is that there are often hidden gems – some hard to find, and some not so hard. To find them, we often have to read passages that are familiar to us with a fresh set of eyes, so to speak.
There is one such gem contained in the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked. And when God came walking through the Garden in the cool of the day, they hid. At this point in the story, God does something very interesting. As He walks, He calls out to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”
“What is so interesting about that?” you may ask. Well, consider this....if God is omniscient (knowing everything) and omnipresent (present everywhere) then He already knew that Adam and Eve had sinned, that they were now hiding...and He even knew WHERE they were hiding. So why would an omniscient and omnipresent God ask “Where are you?”
One possible reason could be that God was calling for Adam and Eve to take ownership of their disobedience – which I think is a perfectly plausible explanation. But, I wonder if God’s question isn’t even more theologically loaded.
Think about it this way. God was obviously not asking the question for His own benefit.  Which means that He was asking the question for the benefit of Adam and Eve. I think that was God was saying to Adam and Eve is that they were now LOST.
Then, upon finding them, God provides a way of hope and a promise of redemption in what is commonly called the Protoevangelium (first pronouncement of the Gospel):
“I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed and hers; she will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel.” – Gen 3:15
This redemption is brought to fruition with the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. I think that it is possible that the Lord Jesus, the New Adam, had Genesis 3 in mind when He said in Lk 19:10:
“For the Son of Man [i.e. the Son of Adam] came to seek out and save the lost.”
Just as God walked through the Garden of Eden seeking out Adam who was lost, so now, God the Son came in the Incarnation to seek and to save the sons and daughters of Adam who were lost by the sin of their first parents.
The Gospel reading in Mass today (5th Sunday of Ordinary Time) also has some bearing on this subject; because we are told that when the disciples told Jesus “Everyone is searching for you” (Mk 1:37); Jesus responds in a way that implies that it is in fact He that is looking for them:
“Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” – Mk 1:38
Jesus’ mission of seeking the lost race of Adam didn’t end when He ascended into Heaven. The mission is continued through His Body, the Church – which is why we are told in the New Testament reading today that St. Paul felt such a great compulsion to be a slave to all so that by any means possible He might win some by His preaching of the Gospel (see 1 Cor 9:16-23).
So, following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and all the Saints throughout history, may we never be ashamed of proclaiming the Gospel – remembering that once we too were lost. And now that we have been found by God’s grace, may we also be found worthy to be called Christians; preaching the Gospel often...and if necessary, using words.