Stray Thoughts on Lent and Love
Four weekday homilies from the start of the Lenten season
Thursday After Ash Wednesday
Our First Reading tells us that we must choose life and not death, and that choosing life is a matter of keeping the commandments. Christ, in our Gospel today, places the choice for life within the greater context of discipleship. Saving your life is a matter of losing your life. Losing your life to what? Losing your life for who? For Christ, is the answer. Following Christ is making the choice for life.
The default understanding of our Christian lives is often following the commandments—the language of sin. Am I a good person? Have I really chosen life for myself, and not death? We answer these questions by performing a moral calculation. Have I sinned? If so, how frequently have I sinned? What is the quality of my sin? Is my sin mortal or venial? Was I free when I sinned? Did I really know what I was doing when I sinned? Was the content of my sin a grave matter? We perform the moral calculation and determine the moral quality of our lives. Am I good person? Yes, if I have not sinned. Have I really chosen life for myself? Yes, so long as I have not chosen death by way of sin.
That kind of default understanding of the Christian life leaves little room for the reality of Christian discipleship. It seems to me that a person might go a long way in life avoiding sin, and yet never really take up a cross and follow Christ. A Christian life limited to calculations of sin is boring, and a reduction of the Christian mystery. St. Paul, in the Second Reading of our Ash Wednesday liturgy, encourages us not to receive the grace of God in vain. Now, there is a better question for determining the goodness of our lives. Have I received the grace of God in vain? How many times in life has Christ extended his grace to me? How many times have I accepted his grace, opened myself up to conversion? To real discipleship? To going where he called me, even when it was not where I wanted to go? These are not matters of sin, really, but of following Christ. Following commandments is a necessary first step toward the good life. But following Christ—the life of discipleship—is a greater kind of following.
The rich young man, when he turned from Christ and rejected the offer of grace extended to him, did he sin? I don’t know. I’m sure a moral theologian would craft the appropriate formula to let us perform the necessary calculation. Maybe he did sin. But I know he made the choice not to follow Christ. And the choice the rich young man made is tragic. It seems to me that many Christian lives are tragic. Sin is death, and following the commandments is a choice for life. But there is more to the Christian life than not sinning. Real life, saving your life, comes from following Christ, from losing your life for the sake of discipleship.
Friday After Ash Wednesday
Last week, I received a phone call from parents whose son had died very young, asking if I might be able to offer a funeral Mass in the weeks ahead. I told them I would. The funeral is tomorrow, and in your charity I ask you to pray for these parents and their son.
I met with these parents last night to discuss the funeral, and the conversation went about as well as you might expect in such circumstances. The conversation was painful, but good. Walking these parents out of the Basilica offices, a profound sense of gratitude came to me. The conversation was hard, painful, but made something very clear to me on just the 2nd day of Lent: If my heart is not broken open by love these next 40 days, then my Lenten journey has been a failure.
The prophet Isaiah says as much in our First Reading today. Do you want to dress up in sackcloth and ashes, skip meals, and call those kinds of actions a fast? Your God demands something more of you. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Love people. Do the work of charity and live a day acceptable to the Lord.
Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
Our readings today talk about the Lenten theme of repentance. What is repentance? The answer I would give is that repentance is a response to love. We love deeply in our lives, and yet we know that there are ways in which we fail at the work of love. We sin. We harm others. We hold ourselves back from relationship. We let vices weaken the quality of our love for others. And repentance is the way that we get better at love. We repent because we love, and our repentance gets us closer to God.
How? Love leads us to God, and repentance is the way we getter better at love. And the good news for us is that almost any real love will lead us to God. The people of Nineveh in our First Reading seem to have a love for their own lives that runs so deep that they repent upon hearing the words of Jonah. The Queen of Sheba whom Christ mentions in the Gospel seems to have a love so deep that she is led to Solomon, who leads her to the one true God of Israel. Almost any real love will lead us to God.
But only when we use repentance to get better at the work of love. Repentance is a response to the reality of love in our lives, and when we flourish in the ways of love, we flourish in relationship with God.
Thursdays of the First Week of Lent
Imagine that you love a person purely and wholeheartedly. You will their good. You want what is best for them. And now imagine that the person you love struggles with some kind of sin—a vice, an imperfection. What do you see when you look at your beloved? Sometimes the vice we see in the person whom we love is so consuming that what we see when we look at our beloved is the sin, the vice, the imperfection. But those occasions are rare. Most of the time, we look at the person whom we love and what we see is who they really are behind the sin or imperfection. We want the sin and vice to go away, so that who they really are is the only reality that we can see.
Now, imagine that you want to help the person whom you love to overcome their sin or vice. Imagine that you want to help your beloved get past his or her imperfections. Why would you want to help them? I suppose one answer you might give is that God commands you to do so. You might want to help your beloved because God has asked you to do so. In the way that a missionary sets off for a foreign land to bring Christ to people who do not know Christ because God has commanded us to do so, so you might set out to help your beloved get past the sin and vice in their life. But the way we think about loving persons is usually different. We don’t want to help our beloved because God has commanded us to do so; we want to help them because we love them. We will their good. We want what is best for them. Love gives reasons of its own.
Christ, in the Gospel today, tells us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. In another time and place, Christ commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And what Christ means is that self-love ought to be normative for our moral lives: love of self ought to guide our conduct, showing us how to love others, to want what is best for them, to will their good.
The problem is that we are often very bad at self-love. When we struggle with an imperfection, a sin, or a vice, we lose sight of who we really are. We focus on the sin or imperfection. We start to condemn ourselves, and not the sin. And when it comes to repentance—overcoming vice and removing imperfections in our character—we tell ourselves that we are doing this work because God has commanded us to repent. And divine command is a fine reason to repent. But we should love ourselves so purely and so wholeheartedly that we want what is best for us. We should love ourselves so purely and wholeheartedly that we will our own good. And that means that the sin, the vice, the imperfections, need to go. We love others in just this way. We should love ourselves this way as well.
Lent seems like a fine time to work on our self-love, so that in a few weeks time we might love ourselves as purely and as wholeheartedly as we love our neighbor.
Homilies delivered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and at Mount De Sales Academy.