Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 13 in our series on the Our Father.

This week’s line from the Our Father reminds us of our fragility. As we move from the heights of hallowing God’s name to the humdrum of our ordinary life, this experience of fragility comes to be one of the most prominent parts of our spiritual life.

To pray “Lead us not into temptation” means, above all, acknowledging the reality of temptation. We are in-between people. We want God’s will to be done; we long for his kingdom; we even acknowledge the holiness of his name – but truth be told, other things are often more attractive. We are tempted.

To situate temptation within the Our Father is to appreciate more deeply what sin means. It is not just that we are tempted to break the rules, or to reject God outright, whatever that means. Rather, our temptation is, for example, to long for other things more than for his kingdom. This takes us back to all our previous reflections. In the case of the kingdom, we see that the temptation is not only against the assertions of his will, but against a place of peace and order, against a world ruled by the mercy of Jesus. Truth be told, we often long for – we are often tempted by – visions of something else that sounds better, whether it’s the domination of creature comforts or the assertion of our will over others.

We say thy will be done, but honestly, we often prefer the brute assertion of our will, or we abandon the wisdom and the love that are his will, and say “God won’t mind; his rules aren’t that important anyway.”

And his name? Above all, we are actually tempted to live as if God is not Father.


What is perhaps most interesting about temptation is that it presumes that we want to do the right thing. What a strange creature we must be, to be tempted. We haven’t rejected God outright – and yet we still turn away from him in our actions. We know that’s not who we want to be, but we do it anyway. So very fragile.


But the first half of this prayer expresses our fragility even more deeply. “Lead us not.” Surely this is the strangest part of the whole Our Father. It is not “lead us away from temptation,” nor “deliver us” from temptations already present. We will pray “deliver us from evil” in a moment, but here the verb is “leading into” and our request is “please don’t lead us.”

“Do not abandon me” is in fact a constant thread in the prayers of the Bible. As if God could abandon us.

Now, God never abandons us. Even the great cry of anguish in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why you have forsaken me” (v. 1) changes gradually to “be not far from me” (v. 19) and finally “they who seek the Lord will praise him . . . for the kingdom is the Lord’s” (vv. 26 and 28).

Indeed, it’s a strange truth that there would be no point in praying to a God who you think has abandoned you. Crying out “My God” already presumes that he is still there. God never abandons us.


And yet we so radically depend upon him that we can almost describe everything that goes wrong as God abandoning us. I am weak and he is strong: with him, all things can be conquered, without him, nothing.

And temptation is so powerful, our ability to live the Our Father we profess so weak, that rather than saying, “we’ll just try really hard,” we say “please, don’t let me fall.”

There are, perhaps, two sides to this. On the one hand, we do not want to be in a place of temptation. “Lead us not into” partly means “I do not want to be there.” If I am in the place of temptation, I will fall. Don’t let me be there.

On the other hand, we are so fragile that even falling onto the wrong path seems like God abandoning us, or, even worse, actively putting us in harm’s way.

The point is not to blame God for what goes wrong. The point is to profess our absolute dependence on him. Notice, in fact, that the Our Father doesn’t make the slightest effort to justify God, to explain why it isn’t his fault. Its focus is much more practical: on our absolute dependence on God to keep us on the path of his holy name, his kingdom, his wise and loving will.


What would change in your life if you really believed that you are weak and he is strong?

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Gift of Sight

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

1 SM 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; PS 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; EPF 5:8-14; JN 9:1-41

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” This Sunday’s readings are about seeing truly and seeing falsely. It is this transformation of sight that determines how we relate to Jesus on the Cross, to God our Father, and to our neighbor.

The first reading tells of when Samuel first met David. First he looks at all the other sons of Jesse. But he warns, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the LORD looks into the heart.”

On second glance(!) the reading is richer than it first appears. David is “a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance.” Now, it is true that in the reading, “the LORD said” this was the one, implying Samuel has some kind of knowledge beyond appearance. But it is beautiful to consider(!) that there is also a kind of different seeing.

The Hebrew in the first case is something like, “do not look at the look of him,” but in the second is something like, “he was beautiful in the eye, and good to look at.” As we saw with Adam and Eve, there are different kinds of “looking.” Samuel looks deeper and sees something that a casual glance did not reveal. The Lord gives him that way of seeing, to see as God sees.


The reading from Ephesians is about light. It says that “light produces every kind of goodness,” while the “deeds of darkness” are “fruitless” and “shameful even to mention.”

Here too the theme is true seeing. The moral life – and more deeply, the spiritual life, and the life of love – is not primarily about “blindly” following rules. It’s a matter of seeing the truth. It’s a matter of seeing the fruitlessness of foolish ways, seeing that these things do not get us what we want, don’t make for true happiness. It’s a matter of seeing the ways that really do lead to God.

“You were once in darkness.” Much of our life we stumble in blindness, not even noticing the stupidity of our harmful choices. But Paul calls to us, “Awake, o sleeper . . . and Christ will give you light.” He will help us to wake up and see the way of “righteousness and truth,” “what is pleasing to the Lord” – what brings us to true fulfillment.


And so we see that a lot is going on in the Gospel reading, where Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man.

The reading is long and amazing and full of allusions. Just briefly: the man calls Jesus “a prophet” – the Greek word for prophet means one who makes things visible. He tells the Pharisees, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.” The Greek word for “amazing” is “something worth looking at.”

More deeply, this story is full of knowing and unknowing. Jesus says he does the miracle “that the works of God might be made visible.” He is “the light of the world,” and must work “while it is day.” The blind Pharisees say this is not the blind man, “he just looks like him.” They ask where Jesus is and the man says, “I do not know.” They do not know the true meaning of the sabbath, and so accuse Jesus of breaking it. The man says, “If he is a sinner, I do not know.” They say, “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.”

Finally the man stands before Jesus and Jesus says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man replies, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him.” And Jesus says, “You have seen him.”


It is all about seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing. The problem is not that we make judgments, but that we make judgments in ignorance. We tend to take a quick look at a situation and think we know all there is to know. But as with David, sometimes to truly know requires looking much more closely.

Jesus is the light of the world, and the giver of sight. We contemplate his Cross to learn to see differently, to learn to see goodness and joy where at first we thought there was only ugliness. And more deeply, we cling to him so that by his grace he might open our eyes, so we can see truly.


Where is God calling you to look deeper into the meaning of your life?

Almsgiving and the “Preferential Option for the Poor”

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

These last few Thursdays during Lent, we have been considering the traditional pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. There is perhaps a hierarchy in how much we typically associate these things with Lent. Everyone knows Lent is about fasting – or at least giving something up. And maybe some people of an old-fashioned bent make Stations of the Cross part of Lent, so there’s some prayer. But almsgiving? Other than hearing it as part of that three-part list, we don’t hear much about it.

It is an essential part of our tradition, however. Next week, we’ll look a little at some examples of the “preferential option for the poor” in the tradition. I hate to tell you, my friends, but the “liberals” who talk about the poor are, at least on this issue, way more “traditional” than those “conservatives” who don’t.


Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Notice that these things relate to the three key people in our lives. Prayer is about our relationship with God. Fasting is about our relationship with ourselves. Almsgiving is about our relationship with our neighbor. It’s no surprise that these three would all fit together as key to growth in the Christian life. The neighbor, you may have noticed, is pretty central to Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, to the rest of the New Testament, and to the Catechism.

The deepest importance of our neighbor is devotion to the Church itself. St. Thomas says love of neighbor comes in insofar as when we love someone (e.g., Jesus) we also love the people they love (i.e., everyone he died for, which is everyone). It makes no sense to say we love God but we aren’t interested in the people he died for.

To say the same thing in a different way, Christianity is about communion. Philosophically, the heart of the matter is that God is the kind of good that is not diminished, but more deeply possessed, by being shared. If I give you a bite of my apple, I have less apple. But if we pray together, or I share the Gospel with you, I do not have less God. I know him and love him better by sharing him with you.

Or to put it a third way, Christ calls us into his body, the Church. Our approach to God is through Christ, and through his Church. To love our neighbor is to love the Church; to despise our neighbor is to despise the Church, and so despise our membership in Christ.

Love of God and love of neighbor, in short, are inseparable.


But why almsgiving in particular? Why the poor?

The answer is simple. Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:46) And “when you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:12-13).

To love someone who can repay you is ambiguous. Do I love the person (and the Church, and Jesus, and God), or do I just hope I’ll get repaid? To love those who have nothing to repay is to underline, and practice, true love, just love.

It’s as simple as that. The modern Church calls this “the preferential option for the poor,” but it’s ubiquitous in the tradition. The poor, those who have nothing to repay us, have a special claim on our love, because that is where we practice truest love.

“Preferential option for the poor” doesn’t mean socialism. But it does mean that in every part of our life – including public policy and economics – we put love first, not self-interest.

I have been struck to realize that, but for me, my wife and children are widows and orphans, and so I can bring this option for the poor to my own family. But if it is so spiritualized as to lose track of real, crushing poverty, real need and a real inability to pay, we weaken our ability to live this love in our ordinary life.


This Lent, let us make some effort to try it out. To at least take the first steps toward planning something, sometime, when we practice loving those who have absolutely nothing to give us in return.

What can you do to practice disinterested love? How do you relate to the genuinely needy?

Living the Sacrament of Marriage: Friendship

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Our last meditation on the sacraments as a pattern for our spiritual life is on marriage.

We can think of marriage coming last precisely because marriage is the sacrament of ordinary life. Not everyone is married, of course, but marriage represents the sacramentalization of the basic way of life. Ordinarily – not always, but ordinarily – we live “between marriage and marriage.” As Genesis says (and Jesus repeats), we leave our father and mother and cling to our wives: we go forth from our parents’ marriage to our own.

To call marriage a sacrament is to remind even those who aren’t married that marriage is where they come from. The celibate are not meant to despise their parents (Jesus condemns that – see Matthew 15 on people using religious vows as a way not to honor their father and mother). To the contrary, they are to reverence the marriage that gave them birth and brought them to life.

Many of us (myself included) were not raised in marriage. But there, too, we are meant to appreciate the tremendous pain of single parenthood, to reverence our parents all the more precisely because we know that marriage is the normal way, and that living without (whoever’s “fault” it might be) is a place of pain. Marriage is the normal place we all begin.


To recognize we come from marriage, however, is to recognize something profound about the human person: we are made for community. It is interesting, in political theory, that the great theorists of the modern world all pretend that society begins with a bunch of adult individuals deciding to form a “social contract.”

But that’s baloney – as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would remind us. To the contrary, we start off, long before we are adult individuals, in relationships. Before we know there is an “I,” we know there is mother. And marriage is the normal place for children to grow up – the only place we are supposed to be doing things that make babies! – precisely because children are meant to grow up in the context of relationship. We are meant to discover who and what we are in the context of friendship, of a mother and father who love one another.

Before we are individuals, we are part of a community. We learn to be human by learning what friendship looks like. And whatever our family looks like, we learn, too, that the most profound pain is when that friendship is broken. We are made to be in relationship. We are social beings.


There is a popular idea, unfortunately invading even the thought of some modern Catholics, that marriage is about two people looking inward at one another. To the contrary, the traditional view is that marriage is about looking outward, toward family and society. Marriage creates a hearth, around which is gathered the ever growing community which is the family, eventually including even grand children and great grandchildren. It is the place where we prepare our children to go out into the world, to live as members of a broader community. It is the place we welcome in friends of the family. Marriage is a place not of exclusion, but of inclusion.

Jesus demands sexual fidelity not to make the couple turn in on themselves – “Members Only!” – but, exactly the opposite, to keep their sexuality at the service of their children and their society, to keep them looking outward, to keep them social. Marriage is about being social.


Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Marriage is an image of Christ and his Church. What a wild idea! Marriage is a mystery of unity and multiplicity. On the one hand, it shows how very close people can come together. Again, this is not restricted to man and wife: they are only the beginning. The family is, or is meant to be, a One, a communion of love. Christ comes as close to us as a family around a table. Indeed, the principal image of his closeness is not as Bridegroom, but as child, cheek-to-cheek with his mother. That is communion. That is family. That is what marriage is all about.

Yet the mystery of marriage is that we are also individuals. What a strange challenge is family life, and especially that central relationship, where we try to work together with someone who is not me! Marriage is a sign of God’s respect for our freedom, our individuality. It is a sign that individuality and communion are not at war, but in harmony. Indeed, in the sacrament of marriage, Christ is present to us not by overcoming our personal choices, but by being present within them.


What role does friendship play in your family? In your understanding of being truly human?

Pope Francis on the Preferential Option for the Poor

pope francisIn his charter for evangelization Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that true love means reaching out to those who have nothing to offer us in return. Consider the power for conversion – for our own, and for those who witness us – when we reach out in acts of truly disinterested love. Consider the counter-witness we give when we do not. How does we present the Church when we only love those who make our life more comfortable?


Jesus, the evangelizer par excellence and the Gospel in person, identifies especially with the little ones (cf. Mt 25:40). This reminds us Christians that we are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth. But the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life.

Pope Francis Delivers First 'Urbi Et Orbi' Blessing During Easter Mass In St. Peter's Square

Pope Francis embraces Dominic Gondreau, March 31, 2013. Photo Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images News/Getty Images.

It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others.


-Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Those Who Trespass Against Us

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 12 in our series on the Our Father.

As we think about the Our Father as a model of our spiritual life, let’s take one more week, this Lent, on forgiveness. This is the one part of the prayer, after all, that Jesus himself underlines: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15). It almost sounds like our entire salvation hinges on this.

An interesting aspect of this line is that Jesus does not deny, and does not ask us to deny, that there are such people as “those who trespass against us” – in fact, they are common enough to make up our whole way of salvation.

Now, there is a healthy practice of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions. Often when it seems like someone has trespassed against us, it’s all just a big misunderstanding. Often we are the bigger trespassers: we are being too ornery, or too quick to judge other people’s intentions, etc. Sometimes what we take for a trespass was an innocent mistake, sometimes they were actually trying to help us, and we are too prideful and stubborn to appreciate it. It’s good and valuable for us to make a habit of putting the best interpretation on people’s actions.

But that is not what Jesus tells us to do here. Forgiveness doesn’t mean not noticing. It doesn’t mean pretending that nothing happened. It doesn’t mean pretending there is no one who “trespasses against us.” Forgiveness is more radical than that, because it means loving even when people do trespass against us.


This comes to the heart of our Lent. Jesus did not die for the “innocent misunderstandings” of the world. He died for our sins. He loves us, and forgives us, even when what we do is radically wrong.

Or rather, he recognizes that sin and misunderstanding are not so far distant. In Luke’s Gospel, he says from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). On one side, his forgiveness recognizes that if they really knew, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

On the other hand, precisely in Luke’s gospel, it immediately goes on to the good thief: “One of the malefactors who were hanged railed on him, saying, ‘if you are the Christ, save yourself and us.’ But the other answering rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, seeing that you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing wrong’” (Lk 23:39-41). The good thief is saved by the recognition that he has sinned, not by pleading it was all an innocent mistake.


Perhaps we can put it this way. Sin is a sad predicament. The sinner is not someone we should hate for his evil. He is someone we should pity for his foolishness.

The good thief is saved by acknowledging the truth. By acknowledging, on the one hand, that sin has gotten him nothing, that the ultimate wages of sin is death. And by acknowledging, on the other hand, that only Jesus can get him out of this mess.

The bad thief is lost because he insists on the way of selfishness. That selfishness is itself his condemnation. It’s not that Jesus decides whether he “deserves” to be “punished.” It’s that being a bad person is itself a horrible thing. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. The world condemns itself, by choosing hate over love. That choice is hell.


Sin is all around us. People do trespass against us. They do many wrong things. They choose not to love. They crucified the Lord of glory.

If we are spiritually alert, we realize that sin is within us, too. How petty, that when people trespass against us, we look for ways to fight back. What do we think that is going to get us? What good does it do us to hate people for their sin? It hurts them more than it hurts us.

Forgiveness is the recognition that sin hurts the sinner. Forgiveness is salvific because it helps us to detest sin as we should, to turn from the way of self to the way of love. And forgiveness is the recognition that we too need forgiveness, and turn to a Lord who always gives us a chance to repent, even when we are both hanging on the Cross.


What are some examples where your failure to forgive is truly foolish?

Third Sunday in Lent: The Fountain of Life

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 17:3-7; PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 5:1-2, 5-8; JN 4:5-42

Our first reading this Sunday is fitting for Lent. Moses is leading the people through the desert, and they complain that they are thirsty. “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die of thirst?” Does God love us? Why does he let us suffer?

But God is with them. He tells Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you,” so that when he strikes the rock, there will be water for the people.

“The place was called Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there, and tested the Lord.” Massah and Meribah becomes one of the great proverbs of the life of Israel. “Is the LORD in our midst, or not!” Somehow, God offers us these challenges precisely to help us know the answer to that question.


In Romans, Paul shows us that this is an allegory for something deeper. We are “justified by faith,” “in hope,” “through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access.” We are called to wander in the world of faith and hope – of things unseen – precisely so that we can learn that he is our provider, so that we can trust more deeply in him.

If this is true of our physical thirst, it is even more true of our spiritual thirst, our hunger and thirst for justice, and “justification.” We must constantly learn that it is Christ himself who makes us good. He calls us to come back to him, over and over, so that he can offer us true conversion.

The Cross is at the heart of this reminder. He “died for the ungodly.” It was not because we are good that Jesus came, but so that he might make us good. He wants us to ask, to trust. He is here to help, but he wants us to let him be our sufficiency. “The love of God has been poured into our hearts,” a spiritual drink infinitely greater than any we would find by our own efforts.


The Gospel reading from John fabulously ties these threads together. The setting, fabulously, is Jacob’s well – another story of God’s provision.

Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to give him a drink, but she cannot – because of the moral and social ills of their time (and ours). There are just too many obstacles. Ah, but, “If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him.” Jesus, the giver of divine gifts, is stronger than our weakness, greater than our obstacles. He is “standing there in front of her,” as he was with Moses, to show that he is the provider.

Jesus offers her “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” We aren’t talking about physical water anymore. We are talking about the Creator of water, who is also the Creator of our hearts, who can supply every good in abundance, if we will but turn to him.


The conversation quickly turns, first to the woman’s many marriages, then to a discussion about Samaritan vs. Jewish opinions about the proper location of the temple.

In fact, we are talking about the true water. The woman’s deeper thirst is not just for the water from the well. Her deeper thirst is for a good life, for “righteousness” and “justice,” not in the sense of something hifalutin’, but of happiness, rightness. She keeps marrying because she wants to get it right. Jesus puts his finger on the deepest challenge of her life. And on her inability to solve it on her own.

She herself sees that this is connected to worship. And here, again, we find unsolveable disputes, because who can reach to God himself? Jesus’s answer is “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth,” because “God is Spirit.” Out of reach!

In our relationship with our neighbor and our relationship with God, we can’t do it. We can’t get there. But Jesus can.


In the next scene, he tells his disciples, “I have food to eat of which you do not know. . . . My food is to do the will of the one who sent me.” Jesus offers us this water, this food: true union with God, so that we can know God as God is, as we long to know him; and so that we can love our family as we long to love them.

This is the grace of Jesus. And he provides. He is “standing there in front of you.”


What does it mean for you to let God provide your deepest needs?

Lenten Practices: Fasting

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

Obviously fasting is key to Lent. Before Vatican II, every day of Lent (except Sundays and Solemnities – maybe this is why we have St. Patrick and St. Joseph in March!) was a fast day, and the fast was pretty rigorous: typically two to four ounces for breakfast, eight ounces for lunch, one real meal, and meat only at that meal.

Since Vatican II the Church has tended toward less universal solutions, recognizing the differences between cultures and the place for prudent decisions according to particular situations. For example, lobster on Fridays might match the old rules for abstinence, but not make much sense as penitence in our culture. Similarly, some people might do better giving up television rather than breakfast. And the Church has always recognized that fasting is not practical for every situation, for example when you are sick or have hard work to do.

But Vatican II did not abolish fasting; in fact, it called for more public, communal acts of penitence during Lent, and for a deeper appreciation of “the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 109-110). And though there is much room for prudence, there is also much to learn from the tradition’s insistence on fasting from food. Both Thomas Aquinas (a beefy guy doing very hard intellectual work) and, more recently, the great mid-century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, insist that not only can we handle fasting, but it’s actually good for our minds and our work ethic.


That last point is perhaps the key. Fasting is not meant to be unhealthy, it is meant to be healthy. According to a doctor friend of mine, secular studies show that the single greatest thing you can do to increase your lifespan is to eat less. And of course our culture heartily agrees with the Church that eating too much is not good for you.

The Church has always condemned fasting that does damage to your body. The point is, reasonable fasting does not damage your body.

We can think about this in terms of various virtues, and our lack of them. The first one is the virtue of prudence. Prudence just means being smart, making wise decisions. Fasting is an exercise in prudence. According to the great fifth-century monastic founder John Cassian, part of what makes food such an interesting place for spiritual growth is precisely that there is no external measure, because every body is different.

No one can tell you how much fasting is healthy for you, how much or how little you can stay healthy on. Fasting is a practice of prudence, of just being awake enough to figure it out.


Fasting is a reminder, too, that we generally are not very prudent. Fasting reminds us that much of what we think we need is not needed. One of the functions of Lent is to remind us that we have a lot of growing to do. Our relationship with food is unhealthy – not because food is sinful, but because we are! – and our prudence is often falsified.

The deeper problem, of course, is the virtue of temperance. We always want more. Again, there’s nothing wrong with food. Food is not a sin. But there is something disordered when we want more food than is good for us, and insist on more than we really need. Fasting is a reminder of how little we really need.

Of course it’s not meant to say we should never enjoy ourselves. Lent is only forty days of the year, and the celebratory season of Easter is ten days longer. But again, this should make us all the more suspicious of ourselves. Really? Am I so addicted to food that I can’t live on the healthy minimum for just a month and a half (with interruptions!) of the year?


Finally, fasting is about relationships. It is, first, about solidarity. An awful lot of people don’t have the luxury to play fasting for a couple weeks out of the year. Much of the world, and much of history, is full of hungry people. Could you not watch one hour with them? Can we not, occasionally, and without actually hurting ourselves, enter into the experience of our brothers and sisters who are genuinely hungry? Fasting is connected to the more important practice of almsgiving.

And fasting is also about our relationship with God. God is our Creator, our Father, who commands us to ask for daily bread. He doesn’t want us to starve. But honestly, do I love the Giver more, or the Gift? Can I not spend a few days a year reminding myself that God is more precious to me than bacon and eggs? Fasting is connected, too, to the more important practice of prayer.


What is it like for you to be hungry? What do you learn about yourself?

The Priesthood and Our Spiritual Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

We continue with our meditations on how each of the sacraments can serve as a metaphor of the spiritual life.

This week we consider the Priesthood. The basic image for the priesthood is the laying-on of hands and apostolic succession. When we see the priest, for example standing at the altar, we are meant to see not just that man, but the bishop, as it were, “behind” him, conferring his power. And as we imagine the bishop, we should imagine the bishop behind him, and the bishop behind him – a long line of men laying hands on one another – all the way back to the twelve apostles in the upper room, with Christ breathing his spirit onto them.

Apostolic succession is a vivid image of everything coming to us from Christ. When we imagine that long line of bishops, we see that the Eucharist comes not just from human power, but from the power of Christ, poured out on the Church. This is precisely why we confess to a priest: so that we can see it is not human power that unbinds us, but the power of Christ.


Imagine a world where everyone was a priest, where I could confess my sins to anyone at all. The problem is, first of all, at the level of symbol. It would look to me like the power of the sacraments is a purely human power. But the priesthood is there precisely to remind us that it comes from God. Thank God he has intervened, he has come with a power greater than our power. It is that action of God that we celebrate when we look to the priest.


Now, “priesthood” is not actually the proper theological term for what we are talking about. Technically, a priest is someone who offers sacrifice. And, on the one hand, we have to be careful to understand what we mean when we say we “offer sacrifice,” and on the other hand, every Christian is called to offer spiritual sacrifices and the sacrifice of the Mass. To distinguish our “priests” by them offering sacrifice and us not is actually an error.

Which is why the Church has never actually called this sacrament “priesthood,” but “Holy Orders.” (Though I won’t challenge you if you keep calling your priest a “priest”!) In fact, the proper word for our priests is “presbyter,” which means “elder,” and the word bishop comes from “episcopus,” “overseer.”

All of these are words that speak about hierarchy. (In fact, hierarchy is just the Greek word for “holy-order.”) There are “orders” within Christianity, higher and lower. There are elders and non-elders, and those in charge of overseeing.


Why is Christianity so hierarchical? Why does it have “holy orders”?

First, for the reason stated above: to show that the power comes from Christ, not from us. The priest is “higher” in the sense that it is through him that Christ acts. If a priest understands that, it’s actually a radically humbling kind of “higher.” The priest is not his own: he is there, not for his own sake, and not by his own strength, but to confer Christ’s power to us. Anything else he does is out of line, an abuse of power. That’s the only reason he has a place in the hierarchy: to teach Christ’s teaching, to confer Christ’s power in the sacraments.

Second, leadership creates community. Again, imagine we were all priests, then imagine Mass: we would all be doing our own thing. To come together requires a director, a leader, a focal point. Another reason the priest uniquely has the power to make Christ present in the Eucharist is so that we will gather around one table, and pray in communion with one another. The priest is a sign both of Christ’s power and of the unity of the Church. Again, this is part of why we don’t want too many priests!


We can practice devotion to the sacrament of Orders in two ways. One is by devotion to the sacramental order. Both by going to the sacraments themselves, which actually have power, but also by asking the priest’s blessing. In fact, he has no power except the sacraments. What we practice, though, when we receive his blessing, is precisely devotion to the power of Christ which acts through those hands.

Second, by practicing devotion to the unity of the Church. Love of parish, love of diocese, love of the universal Church comes out in our love of priest, bishop, and pope. Affection, not for his personal goodness, but for the office he holds, and the way it draws us together in communion.


How do you practice devotion to the priesthood? How do you live out your love for the Church?

Augustine on Charity: Loving Christ by Loving the Church

st-augustine-of-hippo-2St. Augustine reminds us that our truest profession of faith is the way we love one another. One essential part of loving one another is working for unity in the Church. If we love Christ, we love his body, the Church.


Whoever therefore has not charity denies that Christ has come in the flesh. Here then do you now question all heretics. “Did Christ come in the flesh?” “He did come; this I believe, this I confess.” “Nay, this you deny.” “How do I deny? You hear that I say it!” “Nay, I convict you of denying it. You say with the voice, but deny with the heart; say in words, deny in deeds.”

How, do you say, do I deny in deeds? Because the end for which Christ came in the flesh, was, that He might die for us. He died for us, because therein He taught much charity. Greater charity than this has no man, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You have not charity, seeing you for your own honor divide the unity.

Therefore by this understand the spirit that is from God. Give the earthen vessels a tap, put them to the test, whether perhaps they be cracked and give a dull sound: see whether they ring full and clear, see whether charity be there. You take yourself away from the unity of the whole earth, you divide the Church by schisms, you rend the Body of Christ.

He came in the flesh, to gather in one, you make an outcry to scatter abroad. This then is the Spirit of God, which says that Jesus has come in the flesh, which says, not in tongue but in deeds, which says, not by making a noise but by loving. And that spirit is not of God, which denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; denies, here also, not in tongue but in life; not in words but in deeds. It is manifest therefore how we may know the brethren.

–St. Augustine of Hippo, Homily 6 on First John


But Augustine also points out that another part of loving the Church is loving those who are not in the Church. The only way we bring them into the Church is by love, and the only way we truly love the Church is by loving those who are outside of the Church.


Love all men, even your enemies, not because they are your brethren, but that they may be your brethren; that you may be at all times on fire with brotherly love, whether toward him that has become your brother, or towards your enemy, so that, by being beloved, he may become your brother.

Wherever you love a brother, you love a friend. Now is he with you, now is he knit to you in unity, yea catholic unity. If you are living aright, you love a brother made out of an enemy. But you love some man who has not yet believed Christ, or, if he has believed, believes as do the devils: you rebuke his vanity. Love, and that with a brotherly love: he is not yet a brother, but you love in order that he may be a brother.

Well then, all our love is a brotherly love, towards Christians, towards all His members. The discipline of charity, my brethren, its strength, flowers, fruit, beauty, pleasantness, food, drink, meat, embracing, has in it no satiety. If it so delight us while in a strange land, in our own country how shall we rejoice!

–St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 10 on First John