Fourth Sunday of Lent: To See and Be Seen

These three middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings, from John, are overwhelming.  Last week we had the Samaritan woman, this week the man born blind, and next week the raising of Lazarus.  They are each about forty verses long, and every verse of John is packed.

Searching the Scriptures

The first thing to say about these readings is that the readings themselves are an initiation.  Each one leads us through and into a deep encounter with Christ.  We learn the grandeur of Scripture.  We are called to revel in it.  And as we listen, we are like the characters: like the Samaritan woman, we talk to Christ – and, more important, we hear him talk to us – and we are amazed and want to tell our friends; like the man born blind, our eyes are opened and we can only fall down and worship; like Lazarus’s sister Mary we weep at the horror of death and see the glory of Christ the Resurrection.

No commentary can do justice to the grandeur of these readings.  Lent is about initiation; these readings are themselves an initiation.  Enjoy them!


A first theme in this Sunday’s Gospel is sin and suffering.  We think suffering is a sign that God does not love us – the reading opens with a question about whose sin caused the man to be blind.

But Jesus shows that that is not at all what suffering is about.  Suffering – also the disastrous love life of the woman at the well, or the death of Lazarus – is an opportunity for us to discover God’s strength in our weakness.  “It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

At the end, Jesus turns their thinking inside out: the Pharisees think only the ones God hates suffer things like blindness – but Jesus says, “if you were blind you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘we see,’ so your sin remains.”  When I am weak, then I am strong – but when I am too strong for Jesus, then I am weak.

That’s one of the things we learn in Lent, isn’t it?


Phariseeism takes us deeper into this weakness.  The strangest detail in this reading is that Jesus makes clay out of spittle and rubs it in the man’s eyes.  Jesus does not need clay to heal.  So what is he doing?

Mary sees

The clue comes when the Pharisees notice that “Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.”  The clay is a provocation, a little extra work to get their goats.

It brings to light their deeper blindness.  They think the man is a sinner because he is blind, they think Jesus is a sinner because he cured the blind, but in fact the weakness of the man and the strength of Jesus are the revelation of the glory of God.  They can’t see it, because they are too busy condemning, too confident of their own perfect vision.

Lent calls us into humility.


And a third element is sending.  Jesus sends him to the pool of Siloam, “which means Sent.”  John gives so many bewildering details.

But then you notice there’s a lot of sending.  Jesus has just said he must do the works of the one who sent him.  He sends the man to the pool called sent – and going out, the man encounters others to whom he must preach his good news.  His parents fear he will be put out of the synagogue.  And he becomes

Seeing and being sent

bolder, and is in fact thrown out.

Initiation isn’t such a neat orderly thing.  It isn’t that he’s formed, then sent.  His sending is part of his formation; it is in speaking of Jesus that he discovers Jesus.  We cannot meet Jesus unless we are also bearing witness.  Always he is sending us.

The same thing happened with the Samaritan woman, whose faith grew as she went out to tell her friends about Jesus.  The same thing will happen to Lazarus’s sister Mary, who has to lead the mourning and unwrap her brother and bear witness to others.  Our action is inextricably bound up with our contemplation, our witness with our witnessing.


The other two readings draw our eyes to seeing and blindness.

Samuel comes to Jesse looking for a David to anoint king.  He says, “Do not judge from his appearance.  Not as man sees does God see, the Lord looks into the heart.”  We need our eyes opened.  And then he sends for David, and anoints him, which is a kind of sending.  We see in being sent, and are sent by our seeing.

And St. Paul tells us we are called out of darkness into light.  He talks about things we want to hide in darkness, and the need to wake up and open our eyes and go into the light.  We need to see and be seen, to see and be sent.

Where do you need to go to better see Jesus?

Third Sunday of Lent: Meeting Jesus at the Waters

The first two Sundays of Lent we read the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration, which for many centuries have set the tone for the season.  But for the next three Sundays, the revision of the Lectionary after Vatican II has rediscovered readings that the early Church used for people preparing for Baptism at Easter.  (These readings are mandated for this year, Year A; they are optional for Years B and C.)

Searching the Scriptures

We rediscover the true meaning of Easter and Lent.  Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection – but originally, Easter added to that a celebration of new Christians being plunged into Christ’s Death and Resurrection.  Easter is about Baptism.  Lent is about the preparation for Baptism.  And though at first, Lent was just for the catechumens, we all enter into their preparation – we all become catechumens, we all rediscover our need to be plunged into the waters of Christ at Easter.

The Old Testament readings for Lent give a quick overview of the history of God’s People before Christ – a catechumenate people, preparing to be plunged into Christ.  This year, those readings are Adam and Eve, the promise to Abraham, the Exodus in the desert, the choosing of David, and Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert: all awaiting Easter.

The Gospel readings for these three weeks, from John, are the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.  Each of them speaks of how we long to be plunged into Christ.


This week’s Gospel, the woman at the well, is long.  The drama is exquisite, and I can write nothing to compare with hearing that story in its entirety.  Here I only point out some parallels to Lent.

The disciples are gone, allowing the woman to be alone with Jesus.  The intimacy is exquisite.  And we come to this desert of Lent to be alone with Jesus.

He speaks to her, enters into her daily life, even her prejudice and ignorance.  In this intimate time, Christ comes to meet us.

And when he does, he confronts her sin, her many husbands.  Pope Francis speaks of the kiss of Christ’s mercy on our sin.  In the desert of Lent, when the emptiness of our fasting meets the weak but real love of prayer and almsgiving, our sin is laid bare; but Christ is so near that rather than fear, we delight in his intimacy.  Search me and know me!

From talk of sin, he moves to talk about true worship: “You Jews worship in Jerusalem,” she says.  Jesus takes her beyond talk of externals: “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.”  In Lent we discover that worship is in the heart, and so it is about truth – the truth, for example, of our own moral state.  We need this time of silence to get to the heart.

Meeting Jesus

And then she goes into the town to tell her friends.  And we find that the roots of true mission are not in programs or training – this woman doesn’t come across as a brilliant talker – but in personal knowledge of Jesus.  She can speak of him, draw others to him, because she has been near him.  The only true source of evangelization is this encounter in Lent.

John repeats the point about evangelization.  When the disciples come, he says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.”  It is John’s gloss on “Man does not live by bread alone.”  We fast, and learn that there is a deeper food that we need.  We need Jesus in our hearts – and we need to go forth.

And so the disciples, too, are sent into the fields to reap the harvest, based not on their genius, but on the work of Jesus in their hearts and in the world.


The other two readings give us a more practical and then a more spiritual take on this encounter at the well.

In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites complain, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?  Was it just to have us die here of thirst?”  Moses too complains, “What shall I do with this people?”

Really they ask, is the Lord in our midst or not?  But Jesus gives them to drink.  Just as he teaches the woman at the well through physical thirst, so he teaches them through a cup of cold water that yes, he

The Well of Mercy

cares for them.

But in the reading from Romans, we discover that the true fountain, the true living water, is not bodily, but spiritual.  “Because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Poured out from the pierced heart of Jesus, who “while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly.”

Mercy pours from his merciful heart.  These are the true living waters, the true refreshment for our souls, in this desert of Lent and in the baptismal waters of Easter.

Into what new intimacy is this Lent leading you?

The Mercy of Almsgiving

I recently heard someone summarize our Lenten observances as prayer, fasting, and fraternal charity.  On the one hand, that’s good: the heart of almsgiving is our love of neighbor, and discovering that our neighbor is our brother.  Fasting denies ourselves so that in prayer we can turn to God and in almsgiving we can love our neighbor.

File:Léo Schnug, Saint Martin partageant son manteau.jpgBut the tradition – based above all on the first half of Matthew 6, in the Sermon on the Mount – does not say fraternal charity.  It says almsgiving.


Almsgiving takes us a step further, because it specifies that the neighbor in question is poor where we are rich.

It means recognizing our own gifts.  On this level, almsgiving brings together two things that seem like opposites.  On the one hand, we should be grateful for all God has given us.  On the other hand, we should deny ourselves.  Those two seem to be in contradiction: we often find ourselves thinking that if we are grateful to God, we ought to feast, not fast.  In almsgiving, we make our fast out of our neighbor’s feast.  We give thanks to God for what he has given to us by denying ourselves and sharing with our neighbor.  Quite nice.

Almsgiving also means recognizing our neighbor’s need.  This recognition goes against our tendency to make excuses for ourselves and demands of our neighbors.  I am needy, he ought to help me.  But almsgiving calls us to recognize that I have more than enough, and my neighbor is hurting.  We need to see how our neighbors hurt.

File:Meister des Schwabacher Crispinus-Altars Hl Sebastian Martin und Rochus c1500.jpg

St. Martin and the Beggar

And almsgiving calls us to get over our assumption that when I lack, I don’t deserve it, but when I possess, I do deserve it – and when my neighbor lacks, he does deserve it, but when he possesses, he doesn’t deserve it.  In its most basic, traditional form – what Jesus is talking about and the tradition practices – almsgiving means finding someone you don’t know, someone whose merits you can’t judge, and helping them out, purely out of mercy.  It means renouncing our tendency to judge—and, even more, always in our own favor.

It teaches us to see ourselves as rich and our neighbor as poor.  And it teaches that the right way to deal with that is to share our riches.


Where can we practice almsgiving?

I have said before and I will say again: the traditional call to almsgiving should remind us that there is something very strange about our society.  If you read the life of any saint, they regularly came across beggars.  Beggars have always been a part of life – including anonymous beggars, not just people you know all about and can judge worthy or unworthy.  Jesus and the whole of the Bible treat it as a normal part of life that you will encounter beggars.

Why, in our normal American lives, don’t we encounter beggars?  This website is about theology and spirituality, not economics, so I can only assert as a moral judgment, not prove: we have constructed our entire American way of life on making sure we never see beggars – making sure we never have to give alms.  That should disturb you.  There are lots of beggars in America – we have just organized our lives to make sure we don’t have to encounter them.


And yet there are beggars in our life.  Elizabeth Foss, a homeschooling writer I very much respect, once pointed out that Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 about caring for him in the hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick, and imprisoned almost exactly describe the vocation of motherhood.

Mothers see more literal naked beggars than even the most traditional society.  We might need some metaphor for the foreigner, but our children’s lack of social graces, their inability to act according to our expectations, makes them pretty “strange”: can we welcome them nonetheless?  And though they are not typically in prison, like the prisoner they are often accused, sometimes falsely, sometimes legitimately – and Jesus calls us to ignore that distinction and love them, be present to them, either way.

We can give alms to our children.


Sometimes I like to meditate on the Old Testament injunction to care for widows and orphans.  I simply add to it that to the extent that I fail in my vocation, my wife is a widow and my children are orphans.  So along with caring for the poverty of my children, I can care for the poverty of my wife, who relies on me.

And so too I can realize that everyone who depends on me, at work, in my extended family, in my neighborhood, or elsewhere, even in my economic relationships, is an orphan and impoverished to the extent that I fail them.  I give alms when I recognize that they deserve my generosity.

Finally, I give alms every time I recognize the suffering and poverty of the people around me.  Real almsgiving teaches us, and our call to almsgiving calls us, to see the brokenness of the people around us and to come to their aid.

And it teaches us that, though prayer is the highest thing, our love of Jesus means not only “spiritual works of mercy” (which are not explicitly taught us by Jesus) but far more, “corporal works”: simply giving up our material stuff to care for the concrete needs of our neighbor.  That’s why we have material stuff in the first place.

Where can you give alms?

Second Sunday of Lent: Lenten Transfiguration

The first Sunday of Lent, for obvious reasons, gives us Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days.  But the second Sunday takes us to a different image: the Transfiguration.  (In the coming weeks, the readings Duccio di Buoninsegna 039b.jpgof the post-Vatican II differ from the old Lectionary.  But these first two weeks are traditional – in fact, before Vatican II both Saturday and Sunday of this weekend had important liturgies centered on Matthew 17:1-9.)

In the past, the Transfiguration was seen as a central mystery of the faith.  It reveals the deepest mysteries of grace and the Incarnation, the total penetration of humanity by divinity.  But here at the beginning of Lent, let us notice the penitential themes in this reading.


The setting is a high mountain, by themselves.  In a sense, we are recapitulating the story of the Temptation: the Spirit drives Jesus into a lonely place, and Jesus leads his disciples into another one.  In the Temptation, we saw Jesus triumph over the devil – here, we see him shine forth with divinity.  We go into the wilderness of Lent to battle with the devil – and so to see the glory of Jesus.  We will do the same thing a third time on Good Friday.

Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.  As we were reminded in the Sermon on the Mount, Moses is the lawgiver, the taskmaster.  Elijah and the prophets called the people deeper into the Law, to a more perfect observance.  And Jesus takes us deeper still.  We are reminded of the moral radicalism of Jesus.

Peter wants to make tents.  He wants, on the one hand, to stay in this lonely place with Jesus, and on the other hand to do something for him.  So too in Lent we both offer Jesus our hard work – and, more deeply, we spend a few weeks dwelling alone with him, pitching our tent with no one but Jesus.

But a voice from a cloud interrupts Peter’s proposal.  It says, “Listen to him,” and the disciples fall to the ground afraid.  More and more radical.  In Lent we shut ourselves up for a few weeks and fall before Jesus in reverence.  We enter into a holy fear, realizing we need to be more radical, more obedient, less inclined to follow our own desires and more inclined to live for nothing but Jesus.

And they look up, and see no one else, but Jesus alone.  Nothing but Jesus.  That’s why we put aside Transfiguration by fra Angelico (San Marco Cell 6).jpgother things, that’s why we fast, that’s why we enter into this Lenten wilderness: to spend a few moments with nothing but Jesus.  What a grace!

The story ends with Jesus telling them to keep the vision to themselves, “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  We look forward to the Resurrection.  But we look forward, to, to the Cross.  Lent does both those things.  A hard Lent teaches us the joy of looking forward.  It also teaches us that there the only path to Easter joy is through the Cross.


If we open our Bibles, we find that the Transfiguration, in Matthew 17, immediately follows Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him.  And that came immediately after Peter’s confession, with Jesus’s first prediction of the Cross and his rebuke of Peter.  Peter proclaims Jesus Lord, he looks forward to the Transfiguration – but Jesus tells him that the only path to that mountaintop is through the wilderness of Lent.

And right after the Transfiguration, in the rest of chapter seventeen, Jesus talks about the radical call to conversion of Elijah and John the Baptist, he casts out demons, and he talks again about resurrection.  At the heart is the divinity of Jesus – but all around it is the call to radical conversion.

Finally, Matthew’s Gospel is organized around narratives leading up to great sermons.  Chapters sixteen and seventeen are part of the lead-up to the sermon on community, in chapter eighteen.  In that sermon, he calls us to be the least, not the greatest; to cut off the hand that leads us to sin; to seek out the lost sheep; to forgive seventy times seven times; and not to be liking the unforgiving servant, who refuses to extend to others the mercy his master has shown him.

The Transfiguration is like the Temptation.  To have the glory of Jesus is to do battle with the devil.


The other two readings remind us that grace is at heart.  St. Paul teaches us to be hardships – as in Lent – but with the strength that comes from God.  In all these battles we learn that it is only the glory of the Transfiguration that carries us through the challenge of conversion.

And the reading from Genesis simply tells us that it is God who will make us a great nation, God will will bless us, God who make our name great, and God who will make us a blessing to the nations.

The path of Lent is a path of radical conversion – but far deeper, it is the work of God within us.

How is Jesus calling you to put him more radically at the center of your life this Lent?

A Bowl of Lentils

Lentils are a good Lenten theme.  Tasty, but pretty meager and penitential.

And lentils can be a symbol of our worldliness.

File:Lentil ( মুসুর ডাল) ০২.JPG***

This first week of Lent, I have been thinking about worldliness, about how often we prefer the world to God.  St. Louis de Montfort takes as a model of worldliness Esau, son of Isaac, brother of Jacob.

Now, Esau is the first born and the stronger.  He is a hunter and especially beloved of his father.  He is who we all want to be.

But he is also foolish.  In one of the weirdest passages of the often-weird book of Genesis (Gen 25:29-34), Esau comes back from his hunting and he is hungry.  His younger brother Jacob, the unimpressive one, has been at home, cooking soup.  (The Hebrew is kind of funny: he was boiling boiled stuff: sounds tasty.)  Esau sees the soup and says, “oh, give me some of that red stuff.”  (Genesis says this is one of the reasons he is called Edom, “the red”: he doesn’t even seem to care what is being boiled in the pot.)

Jacob says, “Sell me your birthright.”  (These stories are so strange and repetitive: Jacob gets his twin Esau’s birthright by fighting with him as they come out of the womb, by dressing up with goat hair and tricking his blind, dying father into thinking he is his hairy brother – and here.)  And Esau is so greedy, for that boiled red stuff, that he agrees to sell his birthright.

Only in the last verse of the story do we learn that the soup is lentils, which Jacob serves with bread.  Esau sells his birthright for a Lenten supper.


It’s a strange story, but it gives us a vivid image for thinking about our relationship to God and our Lenten observances.  In sin, we are always selling our birthright for a bowl of lentils.

File:Rembrandt adam and eve.jpg

Rembrandt: Adam and Eve (note the serpent on the tree)

The same thing happens in the Garden of Eden.  There, it sounds a little more exciting.  The fruit is “good for food, and pleasing to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make wise.”  It is the tree of Life and the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, at the center of the Garden.  And Satan talks up how good it is, and how slight the punishments.

And yet what did our first parents do?  They sold their birthright for a pot of lentils.  They had everything.  On earth, they had paradise itself, everything provided for them.  Beyond that, they had friendship with God, who walked with them in the garden in the cool of the day.  And they chose a piece of fruit.

It is not the food, of course, that is evil.  It is the choice to sell our birthright for it, the bad priorities.

One of my favorite places in Christian literature is in St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (somewhere around Book 1, chapter 21) where he meditates on the magnitude of sin.  Somehow we have to see how astonishingly foolish it was to trade Paradise for a piece of fruit – to sell our birthright for a bowl of lentils.


Sin isn’t a problem for God.  It’s not that God gets angry.  It a problem for us, a problem of upside-down priorities.  When we think about God’s side of things, modern man (including most Catholics) can’t imagine why there would be a Hell: God doesn’t want to put people into Hell.

But when we think about our side, we should see how very likely Hell is.  I sell my birthright for a pot of lentils all the time.  When I pray, I’d rather look out the window, or cultivate angry thoughts, or daydream.  I really do choose those things over God.  When the precious children God has given me come to speak to me, I’d rather look at my stupid phone.  When the magnificent sacrament of the present moment is before me, all the glories of my vocation, I constantly turn away to lesser things.

God offers me himself.  I would rather have a bowl of lentils.


Temptation-of-Christ-in-the-Wilderness.jpgThat’s what our Lenten penance is all about.  When we embrace the Cross, we are saying that if we lose absolutely everything and have Christ, it is okay.  But we have to recognize that it’s not just the Cross we shy away from, it’s the slightest inconvenience – how often I refuse to take even one step out of my way to see the glory of God.

I need to wrestle with that, to go out into the desert of fasting and face the temptations of Satan head-on, until I understand that man cannot live on bread alone – nor bread and a bowl of lentils, nor even a really nice piece of fruit.  We need to learn to hunger for every word that comes from the mouth of God.

How do you get yourself to wrestle with the lentil problem?

First Sunday of Lent: Hunger for God and His Word

The first Sunday of Lent takes us to the temptation of Christ in the desert.  It’s a tremendously rich reading.  I will not give you Dostoevsky’s reading, but if you have not yet read his “Grand Inquisitor,” promise yourself that you will.

File:Temptation of Christ by the Devil.jpgThe Temptation is a fine reading for the first week of Lent, because it introduces fasting, then goes deeper.  The second sentence introduces Christ’s forty-day fast, and then quickly moves on (with one of the great understatements of world literature: “afterwards he was hungry”).  It introduces that fast by saying that, deeper, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness – not only to fast, but to be tempted by the devil.  The fast is needed, but it is about something much deeper.

The devil offers three temptations.  The first is bread – an appropriate temptation for someone who is hungry.  The third is to be king of the world.  But the second is funny: to cast himself from the temple and be caught by angels.  It is not as tempting a temptation.  What is going on here?


One answer is in the Biblical quotations.  To the offer of bread, Jesus responds with a quotation from Scripture about Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”  Jesus defeats temptation by relying on Scripture – and what Scripture teaches him is to rely on Scripture.

One way the second temptation is significant is its use of Scripture.  This time, the devil too quotes Scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  There is a saying, “the devil quotes Scripture,” and it seems to suggest that we should be cautious about quoting Scripture.

Indeed we should – but Jesus keeps doing it.  Jesus’s response to the devil quoting Scripture is not to give up on Scripture, but to prove that he knows it better – by quoting it back.  Jesus does not deny the devil’s quotation of the Biblical teaching that the angels will care for us. He only denies its particular

Searching the Scriptures

application: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”  Jesus overcomes the devil by knowing Scripture better.

Then comes the devil’s final attack.  The temptation is the greatest – to receive “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” – but this time the devil does not bother quoting Scripture.  Jesus showed in the second temptation that he will win at that game.

There’s a note of desperation in the third temptation: the devil asks Jesus to “prostrate yourself and worship me”; not going to happen.  Jesus has already defeated him, in the Scriptural contest of the second temptation.  And Jesus defeats him a final time, by again quoting Scripture: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve.”

With this Biblical citation, two things happen.  The devil slinks away.  And the angels come to minister.  That’s an interesting detail: the devil was right, when he quoted Scripture, about the angels taking care of him.  There was just a bigger Biblical context that the devil was missing.

It’s a contest of Scripture.


Jesus’s first Biblical quotation contrasts bread with the word of God.

Fasting is an emptying out – but we empty ourselves so that God can fill us.  We fast to remind ourselves of our deeper hunger, for God.

In the desert, Jesus empties himself so that he can be filled by the encounter with God in the Word.  In the traditional practice of Lent, we empty ourselves by fasting so that we can encounter God in prayer and our neighbor in almsgiving – or rather, so that we can encounter Jesus in both: when we give alms to the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you have done it to Me.”


Do we really need fasting in order to have this encounter?

The other two readings are about original sin.  “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death . . . .  Sin was in the world” until “the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.”  We need to be saved.

One detail about our reading from Genesis 2: the tree of life is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Watch how the reading talks about “the tree in the middle of the garden.”)

God gives them the food they need.  But immortality is not something to be grasped at.  God does not want us to be ignorant – but we can never be self-sufficient.  We must always be hungry, waiting for God to fill us.  Our temptation to be full of earthly food covers our temptation to forget God.

The only goal is to encounter God.  But to do that, we need to struggle with sin, face temptation, empty ourselves, and know hunger.  Without fasting, we don’t get to that real encounter with Scripture, with prayer, and with almsgiving.

In what ways do you find yourself too full to hunger for the word of God?

Bad Catholics

Years ago I heard someone on talk radio, I don’t remember who, defending his position as a “bad Catholic.”  He was speaking against the likes of Nancy Pelosi, I think.  He said, the problem with these people is that they try to pretend they’re good Catholics, instead of acknowledging that they can’t square their beliefs and actions with their attachment to the Church.  This guy acknowledged: I am a bad Catholic, I don’t represent the Church’s teaching.

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

I thought of these comments today at Ash Wednesday Mass.  (I’m going to turn them inside out.)  My school has a small chapel with a respectable but small daily Mass crowd.  Today, we packed the gym.

I’ve heard of surveys that say American Catholics respond “Ash Wednesday” to the question “what is your favorite sacrament?”  They turn out to get ashes on their heads.  And, of course, many of them leave before communion – and even more receive of them communion unworthily.


Now, I think “good Catholics” tend to get annoyed about such people.  I just want to suggest the opposite.

First, doctrine.  There are not clear dividing lines between good and bad, in and out of the Church.  Among those in a state of grace, there is of course the problem of Phariseeism: the moment we think we are good Catholics, we are not.

But on the other side of the mortal sin line – which is certainly a bright line – there are many distinctions.  There are those who have faith but not love; Thomas calls this “dead faith,” and he emphasizes that it is real, and supernatural a gift from Christ that leads to Christ.  On the one hand, dead faith is a state of mortal sin – on the other hand, having faith is hugely more advantageous than not having it, and traditional theology calls this faith a kind of membership in the Church.

Thomists also talk about “dead hope”: based on authentic Catholic faith, one can hope in God’s mercy, but not love him.  This is mortal sin – and it’s also a profound kind of membership in the Church.

St. Vincent Ferrer preaching to sinners

Many “Ash Wednesday Catholics” have dead faith or dead hope.  Why do you suppose they are receiving ashes?  Similarly, the “normal” state of one going to Confession – that is, someone in a state of mortal sin – is a person with dead faith and probably dead hope.  They wouldn’t be going to Confession without that hope – and yet they are in mortal sin.  That faith and hope should not be despised.

Then there are those with Baptism but no faith.  The Church teaches that even these people are members of the Church.  (See CCC 1213 and 1267.  Or CIC 204.)

And there is no small difference between those unbaptized people who worship one God and those who don’t.  Among atheists and idolators, it is not clear who is in a better state.

It’s just not so simple as to say there are good guys and bad guys.  The problem with such characterizations is that we tend to throw out the good the Lord is doing in people.


Pastorally, it’s common today to say you can’t have ashes unless you come to Mass.  I’d do the opposite.  If people want to hear that they are dust and to dust they will return, or that they should repent and believe in the Gospel, welcome them in!  And don’t force communion on them!  We should be trying to encourage people to come and not receive communion, not keeping people out or forcing communion on those who are not in a state of grace.

We should have more penance services, more liturgies of the Word, more room in the Church for Bad Cahtolics, even if they can’t receive communion.  We should have reverence for the hope, or faith, or cultural attachment to the Church, or even desire for repentance or transcendence, that brings people that close.  We should have reverence too, of course, for the people themselves.

We need not say they are good Catholics in order to welcome the bad Catholics.  Indeed, it was the Pharisees, attacking Jesus Christ, who rejected that distinction.

Getting ashes is not a sign of being a perfect Catholic.  There are no qualifications necessary, and all the ashes tell us is that the person has been told he is dust and a sinner.  Shout from the rooftops, welcoming anyone who wants to receive ashes!


There’s a deeper point here.  Many orthodox Catholics today enthuse over a smaller Church, a Church

The Good Samaritan

without Bad Catholics, a Church of the perfect.  I think the bigger thing driving the so-called “Benedict Option” is not a desire to go back to the land, but a desire to separate ourselves from bad Catholics.

If Jesus goes to the sinners – as he does constantly in the Gospel, to the chagrin of the Pharisees – they’d rather be separate from Jesus than close to the sinners.

But Jesus calls blessed those who mourn, not those who hate.  We should mourn over the sins of the bad Catholics.  But we mourn by being close, not by being far away.

Pray for sinners, and revere the work the Lord is already doing in them.  And whatever you do, don’t think of yourself as one of the good.

Do you know any Bad Catholics who received ashes today?  Why do you think they did it?