Written by Bill Mattison, Ph.D. - Senior Advisor, Theological Formation
I absolutely love the coming of Lent. As Ash Wednesday approaches, I actually look forward to the penitential period. I come up with a plethora of observances. I give things up: "I'm going to not look at my phone while in the house;" "I'm going to drink less alcohol." I make positive commitments: "I will be sure to pray each day;" "I will exercise more." I realize for me the arrival of Lent is sort a New Year's resolution period, with the added bonus of religious motivation.
It is right about this time of Lent, however, just over two weeks in, that my grandiose plans are a shambles, and my observances lay in tatters all around me. It happens every year. Each year I say "Not this year!" And each year I arrive at this state right around this time, teetering toward despair.
I recently heard a homily where the priest said so often our fasts fail because they are our fasts, not God's. From the Tower of Babel until today, we humans have always had grandiose plans for ourselves, and at times we co-opt our religion to be a venue for them. My Lenten observances were more about me than about what God is calling me to do. In this Sunday's Gospel Jesus strikingly dispels the merchants from the temple. The admixture of commerce and worship may strike us as unseemly, but all those sacrificed animals had to come from somewhere! However, Jesus makes it clear that their activity had become more about their own enrichment, often at the literal expense of the poor, rather than about true worship of God. They foisted their own self-aggrandizing projects onto religious observance.
We read throughout the Scriptures that God desires mercy, not sacrifice; He invites us to rend our hearts, not our garments; He seeks hearts close to God, not merely honor from our lips. We are still toward the start of Lent. I need to ask myself, and I invite you to ask yourselves, what is God asking of me in this season of penitence and preparation? It may of course involve fasting and sacrifice. But no doubt it will entail turning our hearts to God. Our first reading contains the Ten Commandments, which open with the striking "I am the Lord your God, you shall not have other gods besides me." Among other things this is a call to stop instrumentalizing our relationship with God and our religious observances as ways we really honor and serve ourselves. We are called to allow our projects to be God's projects, which of course are ultimately most life-giving for us, individually and communally.
As Paul reminds us in the second reading, and as we look forward to on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it is Christ crucified who, even though a scandal and stumbling block to others, is truly the wisdom and power of God. On Good Friday Jesus said "Father, not my will but yours be done." He obediently accepted death, even death on a cross. And because of this God highly exalted Him. Let us pray as disciples, as students of Christ the teacher, that we say to Our Father with Jesus "Thy will be done," and that we embrace the cross, our only hope, so that like the Lord we may rise to fullness of life, not simply in the next life but beginning in this one.