Lent First Sunday
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
First Reading - Genesis 9:8-15
Psalm - 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading - 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel - Mark 1:12-15
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beats, 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."
It was so good to see so many people at Mass on Ash Wednesday this past week. For me, it was particularly meaningful because it marked the beginning of my first Lent as a priest. I must admit that I was bit nervous during the distribution of ashes because I have had some rather negative and embarrassing experiences with it in the past as a seminarian and as a deacon last year. In my attempt to lay the ashes on thick, past years have seen me poke people in the eye when my hand slipped on their forehead. Once, my thumb got stuck between the frames of someone's glasses and their eye socket. On another occasion, I slipped and placed the vertical beam of the Cross down the bridge of someone's nose. This past Wednesday, I accidentally slipped again and ended up tracing what looked more like a question mark on someone's forehead instead of a Cross. Of course, I wasn't going to tell anyone here about my bad aim for fear that they wouldn't come to my line, but believe me - I am really relieved that Ash Wednesday 2004 is another year away. I'll have plenty of time to practice.
In any case, seeing so many people here on Ash Wednesday, on a day that is not a holy day of obligation spoke volumes. What it says is that the Christian - the Catholic, in this case, has a special longing, infused in their soul long ago at baptism that moves them to draw back to the Lord in a spirit of humility and penance - in a spirit that admits one's sinfulness and need for redemption and renewal and forgiveness. That's what this holy season is all about.
Our Gospel this morning from St. Mark tells us that Jesus remained in the desert for 40 days and was tempted by Satan himself. Unlike the other gospels, St. Mark doesn't give us much detail as to what happened. We do know that he was among wild beasts and that angels ministered to Him. We can expect no different of a path in our 40 day journey to Easter. We will be tempted to abandon the fervor of the first few days of Lent - to make compromises on our resolutions, to cheat a little bit. Thankfully, we'll have the prayers of the saints in heaven and the protection of our Guardian Angels to guide us along the paths of vigilance. The Gospels tell us that while our Lord was tempted, He did not sin. This should be instructive for all of us. Temptations are not sins per se. Temptations are temptations - they only become sins when the person who is presented with the temptation accepts the temptation into their own life, takes pleasure in it, makes no attempt to combat it and finally, possesses that which the temptation offers. Otherwise, temptations remain just that - temptations.
According to St. Mark, Christ proclaims the gospel of God. The message is very simple and very clear. Our Lord states that, "This is the time of the fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel." At once, we get a sense of urgency - that NOW is the time that we need to repent and reform our lives. It's the time of the year when we really focus-in on our personal sinfulness and examine our conscience with vigor and approach the Sacrament of Penance.
Some months before my ordination to the priesthood, I asked one of my mentors how I would know, after ordination, whether or not I was a good and holy priest, or at least on the right track. What would be my measuring guide? Without hesitation, he said, "The question you must answer daily is simply, 'Are my people confessing their sins?'" If the answer is "no" than you have a very long way to go. If the answer is "yes" then you've only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be a true priest of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Father, John Paul II, is very atuned to this. In fact, he has consistently written that one of the great tragedies in our day is the loss of a personal sense of sin. Many people have such dulled consciences that they don't even consider certain actions or dispositions or attitudes to be sinful anymore, as if these sins used to be sins but are no longer because "times have changed." For example, there are those who don't think it is necessary to go to Confession once a year during Lent or Easter, even though this Easter duty remains one of the precepts of the Church. There are those who don't think that Sunday Mass attendance is obligatory. Many others think that the validity or the morality of the Church's teaching on matters like contraception or one's obligation to vote pro-life, as we were recently instructed by Rome in January, are left up to the individual person to decide, as if their conscience was infallible. Not so. Some think that approaching Holy Communion even if they are in a state of mortal sin is acceptable, so long as their conscience tells them it is ok. Again, not so.
In 1994, the Holy Father wrote a document called The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor), in which he reiterated the long-standing teaching of the Church that the conscience can make serious errors. The conscience is to be followed, assuming that it is properly formed and one may never act on a doubtful conscience or a conscience that is not sure whether or not a given action or attitude is moral or not. finally, the conscience that does not follow Church teaching need re-formation. Our disposition should be, "I don't totally understand this teaching of the Church but I believe the Church is right and I am going to follow her guidance, even though I will continue to struggle to resolve this teaching in my mind with the help of competent assistance." Our attitude cannot be, "I don't understand or agree with the Church's teaching and therefore, the teaching is wrong and I am not bound to follow it."
In the confessional, any and all sins can be confessed. Sins can be sins of commission (when we've done something evil) or sins of omission (when we've failed to do good and should have). Mortal sins are those that involve grave or serious matter and the person has had sufficient reflection on this matter and chooses it anyway. Venial sins are those that involve less serious matters. For example, stealing $2,000 is not the same as stealing a pen from the office supply closet. The former would be mortal; the latter would be venial. The problem with deliberate venial sins is that they numb our conscience and make us more susceptible to a greater fall - a mortal sin.
The loss of a personal sense of sin also corresponds to a spirit of making peace with sin. It is the spirit that lacks hope and says, "I'm never going to overcome this sin or this violation of God's law, so I'm just going to have to live with that and God will just have to understand." It's the spirit that tempts us into believing that, "My sins are not THAT serious. After all, I haven't killed anyone. Besides, most Catholics don't follow that teaching anyway, so it can't all be that bad." It's the spirit that is proud of the sins of one's past life and now picks and chooses only those teachings of the Church that they agree with or like - often referred to as Cafeteria Catholicism or private dealing making with God. Finally, it's the spirit of bad spiritual advice given by a priest who convinces us that we really don't sin and that we really don't have to follow the Church's teaching so long as our conscience is at peace. Woe to the priest who offers such misleading counsel. That is the spirit of the devil working in the hearts and minds of the flock. My brothers and sisters in Christ, be wary of such shepherds! Woe to those priests who penalize their parishioners for coming to confession by giving not only bad advice but lack a true spirit of compassion and mercy. These may be the priests who do not go to confession and are themselves unaccustomed to begging for mercy.
An integral or whole confession requires that one has sins to confess; sorrow for those sins; and a firm purpose to amend or change one's life. When you come to the confessional, remember to accuse yourself of everything and anything you have committed. An old priest once told me that a secret purposely kept from God in the confessional is a secret kept with the evil one. If you can't remember a sin, worry not. As long as you don't purposely omit it from your Confession, they are forgiven.
Since the days of St. Augustine in the Fourth Century, priests have been trained to be lions from the pulpit but lambs in the confessional. If you've had a bad experience with the sacrament, take heart. Your priests may be the people who need the most prayers. We are sinners too and yes, there is no excuse for a priest who does not show mercy in the confessional. Your priests may be direct and firm but they must always be compassionate and reassuring.
One of the best ways to prepare for a good confession is to make a thorough examination of conscience and complement that with a brief, nightly examination of conscience. By God's grace we are capable of reaching the great heights of holiness. By God's grace and through the blood of the Cross, we can conquer our sins. May we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the demands of our high dignity as sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.
Finally, I beg you not to fall into the spirit of discouragement - the thought that somehow you are hopeless or beyond forgiveness. Don't give up on God - He will never give up on you. The good soldier is the one who gets knocked down while charging the hill and gets up again to fight on. If you ever want to know how much the Lord loves you and wants you back, look no further than the Cross. In it is our hope and salvation. It is from the Cross that Jesus Christ reigns in glory and finally, it is the Lord Jesus who longs to reign in your heart, for indeed, "This is the time of fulfillment - the kingdom of God is at hand."
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!