Homilies - February 2012

Select a homily to read:
Ash Wednesday: February 22, 2012 by Abbot James
First Sunday of Lent: February 26, 2012 by Fr. Joseph

Ash Wednesday

  • February 22, 2012
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James
  • Joel 2:12-18
    2 Cor. 5:20-6:2
    Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18
  • Daily Readings


Hearing this Gospel every year on Ash Wednesday has surely impressed it on our minds as one of the most important teachings of Jesus, but I’m not sure we give it quite the attention that it merits. I say this because at the recent meeting of American abbots our guest speaker was the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America and some of our guests were Catholics of one or another of the Eastern rites. Although the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholics differ on some important points of doctrine, especially their understanding of the papacy, their spirituality is quite similar. One of the leaflets they provided for each of us had the impressive statement that the three practices we just heard about in the Gospel—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—are actually regarded as the pillars of Byzantine Christian practice. I doubt that many of us in the Roman rite would make such a statement. At the very least, it is surely worth saying something about each of the three practices here at the beginning of Lent.

In his chapter on Lent, St. Benedict twice mentions prayer, saying first that one of the best Lenten practices is to devote ourselves to “prayer with tears” as a way of washing away the negligences of other times, and then going on to say that we should “add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink” (RB 49.4-5). There is, of course, a tendency for us to think that because of the pressure of our various jobs there just isn’t much time for prayer, especially any that goes above and beyond the bare minimum. Here we can learn from some of the greatest figures in both ecclesial and civil life.

When Pope John Paul II was on his many travels, members of his entourage readily excused themselves from their normal practice of prayer, so tiring were the journeys and meetings that they endured day after day. More than once, however, when most of his staff were already in bed, someone would step into the chapel of the place they were staying and find the pope lying face down on the floor in prayer before the tabernacle. We can also learn from the example of a great civil leader, Abraham Lincoln. Although not a member of any particular denomination, he had an abiding faith and trust in God. Not long ago, I read that “even in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln would spend an hour each afternoon, sitting in his rocking chair on the porch of the White House …. It was during this time of thinking, praying and meditating that Lincoln came up with his greatest ideas. Because of the quiet time, [he] was able to bring … some peace to the most chaotic time of our nation’s history. In the rush of his day, Lincoln knew there had to be a place of peace.”1

The next practice, fasting. A few nights ago, in our reading at the beginning of Compline, we heard some fine words from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who said that “when we fast, [we] give up wine and meat not because we detest them, as though using them were a crime, but because we are hoping for an eternal reward. We willingly go without things that please the senses in order to be able to enjoy the pleasures of the spiritual table…. [So, he concluded,] if you abstain from those foods, do not do so as if they were unclean. Rather think of them as a good thing which you are content to give up for love of a far greater spiritual benefit.”2 That is surely the correct way to regard fasting and abstinence from certain kinds of food and drink, but the Scriptures tell us that there is an even more important kind of fasting, namely, fasting from attitudes and behaviors to which we might indeed be quite attached but that in fact are drawing us away from God. Tonight at Vespers, the reading is from Pope Leo the Great and is on precisely this point. To give you a brief preview (and some of us will not even be here to hear it because of an important meeting in the school), Pope Leo once said in a Lenten sermon: “Our fast does not consist chiefly of mere abstinence from food, nor are dainties withdrawn from our bodily appetites with profit unless the mind is recalled from wrong-doing and the tongue restrained from slandering…. Now let godly minds boldly accustom themselves to forgive faults, to pass over insults, and to forget wrongs.” Easier said than done, no doubt, but surely the best kind of fasting we could ever undertake. As a modern spiritual writer has said, “Our greatest pain in life is not really the hurtful things that have happened to us in the past, but it is the holding on to those past hurts that creates the greatest suffering.”3

And finally, almsgiving. I’ve always felt that one can learn a great deal about a word by knowing where it comes from. This word “alms” is from the Greek word eleos, meaning “mercy” or “pity,” whose verb form we have used for years in the prayer Kyrie, eleison: “Lord, have mercy.” We have mercy on the poor and needy when we give them food, money, or other goods, but we also have mercy on them when we give them of our time. At a recent roundtable meeting of our Oblates that I also attended, their Prior told the group that it was probably easier for most of them to donate some money to the monastery than to donate any of their time. I dare say all of us can readily understand his point. There may indeed be occasions when we truly cannot give another person the time that he or she requests, but often our plea that “I just don’t have time right now” is not in accord with that generous self-giving that we find modeled in so many of the saints and in Jesus himself. Jesus did, after all, rebuke his disciples when they tried to turn away the people bringing their young to Jesus that he might touch them. The disciples were presumably trying to get Jesus some peace and quiet, but that was not his way: “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). May our own Lenten practice be marked with such generosity, not only in our almsgiving but also in our prayer and various kinds of fasting.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Mark Burger, Hearing God’s Voice (n.p., 2009), 319.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses, 4, 27ff., in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain:
A Patristic Breviary
, ed. Thomas Spidlik (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1994), 75.

3 Burger, 276.


First Sunday of Lent

Today's gospel, Mark's version of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is very brief, only four verses. We are more familiar, probably more comfortable, with the versions of Matthew and Luke. In each of these the devil challenges Jesus three times, "if you are the Son of God," and follows it with by demanding some act which would justify the title “Son of God." But rather than accede to the devil's terms, Jesus demonstrates Himself "Son of God" through His obedience to the Father. It is a shocking matter that Jesus, who is God Himself, allows Himself to be tempted by the devil. But this simply validates the reality of the incarnation: Jesus truly has become like one of us, totally human. As the author of Hebrews puts it, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin."

Our own temptations we encounter in the course of everyday life, not by encountering Satan in the wilderness, and there is reason to believe that this is the way it was for Jesus, too. An article written by Raymond Brown quite a number of years ago suggested that the temptations described by Matthew and Luke were in fact anticipations of things Jesus encountered during His public ministry.

For example, we might think of the time when, right after Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus began telling them that He was to suffer and die. We know that the suffering He foretells was a difficult prospect for Him to face, and Peter was playing to these sentiments when he tried to persuade Him that this could never happen. "We have just recognized that you are the Messiah. You've got it made. Forget this suffering and dying business." Jesus would gladly have done so, but He knew this was not the way His Heavenly Father had mapped it out. When Jesus turned and rebuked Peter, rather sharply, for thinking like men rather than God, it was in words almost identical to those He used to the devil in the wilderness, "Begone, Satan."

In both Matthew's and Luke's version, the devil's first attempt was "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to be turned into the loaves of bread." What would be the point of that? Apparently the devil was trying to lead Him to use miraculous powers to satisfy a purely ordinary need, or, more likely, to use such powers to demonstrate that He had them, whereas Jesus used them only to alleviate the needs of others. In John's version of the miracle of the loaves, when the people "saw the sign he had done, they said, `This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world'," and Jesus had to flee into the mountain because He "knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king." The next day, when the same crowd comes looking for Him, He tells them that they look for him only because they have eaten and been filled, that they should be looking for food that lasts forever, that He will give them. They understand that He is making a claim for himself and they challenge Him by asking for a sign, referring specifically to the manna that Moses gave in the desert. Now in Jewish tradition there was a belief that in the days of the Messiah the manna would again descend from heaven. Clearly there is the suggestion here that if Jesus "turned these loaves into bread," in effect, acceding to the devil's suggestion, He would be accepted as the Messiah-king-prophet without further ado--so, in effect, the same temptation that Peter had presented to Jesus.

We don't normally think of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane as a temptation, but in the synoptics we see Jesus struggling to accept His Father's will. Jesus knew what lay before Him; crucifixions were not rare in that time and culture. He knew it involved a slow, agonizing death and His human nature revolted against it. When He came into the Garden He began to feel sorrow and distress; He says, "My soul is sorrowful even unto death." He had to struggle to accept His Father's will. Listen to His words, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; let this chalice pass me by." The intimate term "Abba," we know, is equivalent to "Daddy," and He appeals to the one for whom all things are possible. Couldn't Abba find some other way? Luke tells us that "He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground." Yet the final words of His prayer were, "Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done."

I never saw the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ" nor read the novel on which it is based, but I understand that in the movie Satan, disguised as Jesus' guardian angel, persuades Him that God does not want Him to die, that he should come down from the cross, marry Mary Magdalene, and end his days in a normal human existence, all of which happens in a dream sequence until the deception is uncovered. This is very unscriptural, of course, but one doesn't have to depart from the gospels to dream up a last temptation true to their scenario. As Jesus hangs on the cross He is taunted by the bystanders: "save yourself, if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!" Likewise the chief priests with the scribes, whom He had often bested in debate, mocked him "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" When the devil tempted Him in the wilderness, he had taken Him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you and 'with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" This, I suppose, was to publicly manifest a proof of God's approval of Him. For Jesus to come down from the cross in the face of His taunters would have been such a demonstration and He would have fallen to Satan's plan.

There is a passage in Hebrews that never ceases to intrigue me: "In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." The "loud cries and tears" have to refer to the prayer in Gethsemane. So what does it mean that he was "heard" by "the one who was able to save him from death"? God did hear Him, but it was through death that he "became the source of eternal salvation for all."

Thanks to His fidelity we have the covenant of peace of the first reading: “When the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings." And a better vindication for Him: “At God's right hand, with angelic powers subject to him."

Lent is a time for spiritual renewal. Let us begin our renewal by resolving to be faithful in our temptations as Jesus was in his.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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