Sackcloth and Ashes

You think you’ve got it tough, look at what the king of Nineveh said to his subjects in today’s first reading.

He rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.

Not just the people had to fast, but even the cows and sheep had to do penance.  “Sackcloth and ashes for everybody!”  The people weren’t just forbidden to eat,  they couldn’t even have a drink of water.

Today we’ve “dumbed down” fasting to where a lot of people would have to eat MORE to meet the requirements.

I think the point is that fasting is a state of mind.  Where people in Biblical times had to be told what to do, hopefully here in the modern world we’re a little more mature.  There’s quite a difference between eating one normal meal and two smaller meals and having no food and water at all.

Maybe your sins are so severe that you need the old-fashioned fast to cleanse your soul.  If you feel the need to head out into the desert, then we’ll see you on Easter. Hopefully you’re in a little more of a state of grace and just need a gentle reminder.  I hope so.

Have a blessed and holy Lent!

 

“Fat” Tuesday

Listen to the Podcast.

You have to love Saint James.  He always lays it on the line in simple words that we can all understand.  In today’s first reading he says,

“No one experiencing temptation should say,’I am being tempted by God’; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.
Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.  Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”

How many times have you heard someone say, or maybe you’ve said it yourself,  “God is testing me.”  As James tells us today, God doesn’t test us.  It’s just not His style.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  If we’re tested, it’s Satan who’s doing the testing, not God.

We’re about to enter the season of Lent.  Our faith tells us that Lent is a time of penance.  As faithful servants we make a promise to either give up something or to do something additional as a way of emulating Christ and to prepare ourselves for His death and resurrection.  Remember that Satan tempted Christ and He was up to the challenge.

But you and I aren’t Christ.  The evil one knows that we’re likely to give in to temptation, and so do we.  Like a modern-day terrorist, he works in the shadows, keeping his identity secret until he strikes.   No, temptation doesn’t come from God.  But temptation is very, very real.

So how does this apply to you and me and to our Lenten observance?  This past week was very busy for me with a wedding and a rehearsal and a baptism and baptism prep meeting.  I also had two communion services and preached at three masses over the weekend.  I jokingly said to my wife Sunday afternoon, “I think I’ll give up weddings and baptisms for Lent.”  Of course there are no baptisms or weddings during Lent, so my “sacrifice” wouldn’t mean much.

Our Lenten penance should be something that stretches us, makes us think about what we’re doing, and requires an actual sacrifice.  But what if we overestimate ourselves.  What if we just can’t make it for forty days?  That’s where Satan, and our humanity come in.

God knows what we can and can’t do.  He knows we’re not perfect.  He knows we may fail.  In fact, in failing we may just be showing God how much we love Him.  If you’re not tempted during Lent, if you don’t slip at all, maybe you haven’t chosen wisely. And if you do have a lapse, getting right back on track and not giving up is the greatest gift we can give God.

As Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts on Solitude,

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.”

So choose your penance wisely.  And don’t expect perfection.