As we approach the Lenten Season I'd like to look both forward and backward in our Liturgical Calendar. Several of our Sunday Mass readings, both in Advent and in the New Year featured John the Baptist (pictured above).
What made him so special was his single-minded devotion to Christ and doing His will. John the Baptist pulled no punches in rebuking those engaging in sinful behavior, much like Jesus Himself! With his baptism of repentance, John clearly exhorted people to give up their sinful ways, much as we are especially encouraged to do during Lent.
In Luke’s Gospel, he takes on smug hypocrisy with these not exactly honeyed words addressed to a crowd: “Brood of vipers! Who has shown you how to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits befitting repentance, and do not begin to say, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, that God is able out of these stones to raise up children of Abraham. For even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that is not bringing forth fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:7-9)
He continued with some somber advice for others listening: “And the crowds asked him, saying, ‘What then are we to do?’ And he answered and said to them, ‘Let him who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.’ And publicans [tax collectors] also came to be baptized, and they said to him ‘Master, what are we to do?’ But he said to them, ‘Exact no more than what has been appointed you.” And soldiers also asked him, saying ‘And we—what are we to do?’ And he said to them, ‘Plunder no one, accuse no one falsely, and be content with your pay” (Luke 10-14)
Note his impassioned appeal for us to follow God’s Commandments against theft and slander and to show genuine charity towards others. Part of our sad state of affairs these days comes from too many people saying “My will be done” rather than “Thy will be done.”
While John the Baptist preached and baptized for repentance, he kept his focus on his service to Jesus (and thus on ours as well)! He compared himself to a bridegroom's best man who rejoiced in his presence (John 3:29). He sought, echoing the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:3), to make way for the Lord to travel down a smooth uncluttered path.
A lesser figure might have quite easily sought to proclaim himself as the Messiah, the One to Watch, the One to Follow, as it were, but not John! He says of our Lord at one point in the Gospels that “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
In Lent we must decrease, in the sense that we must use this time as a valuable opportunity to get rid of our own clutter, including all those sinful attachments that keep us away from Jesus. He must become front and center in our lives.
This is a tall order to be sure, but one that is well worth the effort. I strive to have the Christ self in me take over when the Chris self is bungling things, as so often happens! The good news is that Christ is more than ready to help us clean out our closets or otherwise tidy up our souls disheveled (or worse) by sin.
Sure you may fall and fail, perhaps many times, but get back up again each time and, above all do not despair. Christ can do wonders with our weaknesses if we let him work within us. He must increase. We must decrease. By that I mean that the shallow, petty, selfish, hedonistic part of our natures must decrease. This comes from Original Sin, our unsavory inheritance from our first parents, Adam and Eve.
Jesus told Sister Josefa Menendez, a Spanish nun in the 1920’s, of His fervent desire to assist souls who would ask for His help with humility and trust. His words for such souls were, in part, “let Me delve and dig in your garden…let Me clear the ground of those sinewy roots that obstruct it and which you have not the strength to pull up…Maybe I will ask you to give up certain tastes, or sacrifice something in your character…do some act of charity, of patience or self-denial… or perhaps prove your love by zeal, obedience, or abnegation; all such deeds help to fertilize the soil of your soul, which then will be able to produce the flowers and fruit I look for [Here Our Lord echoes the Baptist’s quote about producing good fruits mentioned earlier] …All this I will do for you if you will give Me freedom. Then will blossoms grow quickly and you will be the consolation of My Heart.”
Some of you might have seen cable TV shows like “Hoarders”, in which people are compelled to remove rubbish and possessions piled high from their homes that are making living conditions unbearable and unsanitary in numerous instances.
In some of these more extreme cases we see living rooms and bedrooms become junkyards with narrow passageways where one could still trip over stuff! Usually these shows feature some trained psychologist or social worker who is able to break through the owner's resistance to throwing out much of the clutter that they have accumulated. (Often it is related to some sort of family or other emotionally charged issue in that person’s past!)
Our sins are like that. Sometimes we grow so attached to particular sins, such as alcoholism, gluttony, grudges or hatred, that, even though they might make us miserable we can’t see letting go of them! In these instances, God becomes the last thing on our minds, if He’s thought of at all!
Jesus spoke in the Last Supper discourse of making a home in souls in this touching manner: “If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him” (John 14:23).
He spoke in a similar manner in the book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). In the case of souls steeped in sin, there may be little or no room for our Lord to stand in their “abodes”, much less to sit down for a meal!
One great way to “clean house” and make room for Jesus this Lenten season, and any other time for that matter, is to go to confession after examining your conscience for venial and moral sins.
Also, make Lent a special time for you not to just “give up” something that gives you pleasure (like that perennial favorite, chocolate) but something that gives you pain as well. You can try that for just a day or two at a time if that will help you get started.
For example, you might try giving up feelings of resentment towards family members or coworkers, and pray for them instead. Or try giving up the fogginess and lethargy you feel the day after overindulging in food or alcohol by partaking of them in moderation. Or giving up feelings of self-loathing or despair that you might have. (Give them to Jesus. Let Him take out that trash for you!)
And above all, give up any desire you might have to be unkind to your fellow sinners; or to “go it alone” in trying to achieve salvation without asking for God’s help, guidance, and grace. You weren’t meant to.
One other important thing to “give up” this Lent is any reluctance you might have to go to confession, or to pray. Prayer can work wonders in helping you draw closer to our Lord. Even if it’s just an Our Father and a Hail Mary at the start and end of the day for your intentions. Our Lenten Prayers section has some other good prayers for you this season.
And, of course, don’t be afraid to speak to God in your own words spontaneously. This is a great time of year to let Him help you be the person He meant you to be! Think also about those opportunities you might be missing to help others as well.
Wishing you all a Blessed Lent,