I think we can all agree that it’s been a long, hard winter. Sometimes I wonder if it’s ever going to end. It’s been cold, and dark, and windy. I think even people who like winter have had enough. But, at last, we’re into a new season. It’s a time for hope, and enthusiasm, and preparation. Spring training is here!
You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, deacon. Aren’t you supposed to be talking about Lent?” Yes, I am. But isn’t spring training a lot like Lent? It’s a time to get ready. It’s a time to prepare. It’s a time think about all the good things to come.
For example, our Cardinals came within a whisker of being World Champions last year. They were the best team in the National League and the second best team in all of baseball. But they want to get better. They want to win it all. If you follow sports at all you probably know that a lot of the Cardinals actually showed up in Florida early! Most of them are multi-millionaires. But they wanted to get to work. They don’t want to rest on their laurels. They want to be the best. They want another shot at baseball “heaven”, a World Series win.
So, how do they start spring training? Do they jump right into exhibition games? No. They start by working on fundamentals. They do calisthenics. They take batting practice. They do fielding and throwing drills. The pitchers work on getting back into game-shape. They go back to the fundamentals. They tone up their muscles and strengthen their bodies. When they’re ready, THEN they start to play actual games.
That’s what Lent is all about. We go back to the fundamentals. We pray. We fast. We read Scripture. We go to confession. We give things up or do extra things to get ready for the glorious season of Easter. It’s our spiritual Spring training.
Look at today’s readings. Our first reading takes us back to the very beginning; Adam and Eve. Original sin. Our fall from grace. God has given them everything they could possibly want. They’re living in paradise. But there’s a catch. There’s one tree in the Garden that they’re supposed to stay away from. But the devil tempts Eve. “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the Garden?”
Eve tells the serpent that they may eat from all the trees except one. She says that if they eat from that one tree, or even touch it, they will die. But the serpent says, “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” Of course we know the rest of the story. They ate from the tree and got thrown out of the Garden.
And, isn’t that where we are today? Three fourths of Americans who call themselves Catholics don’t go to mass. Sin is everywhere. We’ve all eaten of the tree and we think we’re gods. We think it’s up to us to decide what’s good and what’s evil; what’s sin and what isn’t.
When we sin, we’re usually not intending to be evil. We’re not consciously sinners. Our real sin is pretending that we have the right to decide what’s sin and what’s not. When we sin, we’re setting ourselves up as gods. We know what the Scriptures say, but we decide that it doesn’t apply to us. We’ve eaten from the tree and it tastes good.
I doubt that anyone here would ever rob a bank. After all, “Thou shall not steal” is one of the commandments. But taking home a few pens from the office? We might do that and think nothing of it. We, not God, have decided what’s a sin and what isn’t. We think, or we hope, that it’s not black and white, but just different shades of gray.
A lot of people have been convinced that Satan isn’t real. That’s his best trick. How often in our day-to-day lives so we think about the devil? We push him to the back of our minds. If we consider him at all, it may be like the old cartoons where Bugs Bunny has a little red guy with horns and a pitchfork on one shoulder and an angel on the other. We’ve reduced the father of lies, the author of all evil, to a cartoon character. We have sports teams that call themselves “devils”. My favorite is Wake Forest University. They call themselves the “demon deacons”.
But, look at Jesus in today’s Gospel. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and was severely tempted BY THE DEVIL. Notice how the reading begins, “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” He could have skipped the whole thing, but the Spirit led Him into that desert. Jesus had to be tempted, not because He was ever going anyplace except back to heaven. He was tempted to show us that we must resist temptation if we want to be like Him. Make no mistake, Satan is alive and well. And he’s constantly after you and me.
So, how do we approach our “spiritual spring training”? The Church gives us guidelines. They’re in today’s bulletin. No meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we’re supposed to fast. Simple enough. A lot of us believe that we must make some sort of sacrifice. “Give something up for Lent.” That’s a good practice. By denying ourselves some pleasure we share in Christ’s suffering, even if it’s just a little bit. On the other hand, most of you know how I feel about Catholic fish frys. Some sacrifice!
Here’s the thing. Giving something you like up for six weeks is a good thing. Doing something extra is even better. What can I do for the next six weeks that will bring me closer to God. Matthew Kelly, the famous Catholic author and speaker prays daily, “Lord, what can I do today to make me a better version of myself?” That might be a good Lenten practice. Ask Him what He wants you to do, then listen for the answer. Maybe He wants you to pray more. Maybe He wants you to read the Bible every day. Maybe He wants you to help the poor. Maybe He wants you to go out of your way to do something special for someone every day. I can’t tell you what to do, but He can. And He will if you ask Him.
I’m going to make a suggestion. To make it easier to remember, I’ve put it in the bulletin. There is nothing we can do as Christians that’s more important than bringing others to Christ. Jesus came to this world to save us from our sins and He did it by making disciples. That was His plan. He made disciples, and they made more disciples, and from those original twelve, today we have billions of Christians in the world.
Sadly, Satan has drawn a lot of those people away. “Former Catholics” are one of the largest “religious” groups in the world, especially in America. What if each practicing Catholic could bring one person back to the Church this Lent. Imagine what an impact that would have on the world, and on our own salvation. We all know someone who’s drifted away. Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a friend. Some of them will probably come to mass on Easter because they’ve gotten the idea that that’s all they have to do. We call them C & E Catholics; Christmas and Easter.
What if we really filled this Church on Easter? What if people actually had to stand? More important, what if we could get them to come back the Sunday after Easter; and the Sunday after that? Our job is to get them here once. Then it’s up to the Holy Spirit to move them to come back. But we can help.
One important thing we can do is pray. As part of our daily prayer we can ask God to give us the grace to bring someone “home”. Notice I didn’t ask God to bring someone home. I asked God to give ME the grace to bring someone home. Big difference! That one simple prayer, repeated for forty days might just work a miracle. It’s definitely worth a try.