Reading I (Joel 2:12-18) Reading II (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)
Gospel (St. Mark 6:1-6, 16-18)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul says to the Corinthians that he is an ambassador on behalf of Christ who is calling out to be reconciled with God, and he tells us that this is the day of salvation, that this is the acceptable time. The Church today gives us this holy season as the acceptable time, as the time when we are called to make changes in our lives. And it is made clear by Our Lord how that is to be done. It is to be done secretly.
There are a couple of things we can look at. First of all, today is a day of fasting and sometimes when people fast they get a little on the cranky side. So Our Lord is telling us, “Make sure that you don’t do that. Make sure that the way you fast is in a way that no one else would recognize that you are fasting.” If we are going to be fasting, we need to make sure that we are trying even harder to be charitable. Not being phony about anything, but making sure that we are not allowing the hunger in our stomachs to turn into anger in our hearts and to become mean or nasty in any way. We need to make sure that what we are doing is taking our physical hunger and changing it into a spiritual hunger so that the heart becomes more longing for what is right and good.
That is precisely why we are told in the prophet Joel that we are to rend our hearts and not our garments. And while we prayed in the responsorial psalm, Create for me, O God, a clean heart, that is what Our Lord is looking for. He is looking for a heart that is open to Him. He is looking for a heart that is pure and wants to be purified even more. That is what this season is all about. If this is the day of salvation and this is the acceptable time, as Saint Paul tells us, then we need to make sure that we are calling ourselves to true holiness and seeking to be reconciled with God.
In this holy time, what we need to do, first of all, is to look at our sinfulness, to confess our sins, and to strive to overcome them. But if this is a time of holiness, then it is not just a time of a small, perfunctory kind of penance that we might do, but it is a call to truly be holy. So we need to look at our prayer life and we need to look at our relationship with God. If Saint Paul is telling us in his Letter to the Corinthians that we are to be united with Christ, then it is also to be united with Him in His suffering. When we look at the fact that this is a day of salvation, what was necessary for our salvation? It was necessary that Jesus Christ would take on our human nature and that He would suffer and die and rise again. We are asked now, because we are partakers in the divine nature, to unite with Him, to elevate ourselves above an earthly level, so that the penances we choose during this holy season are going to be truly holy penances, so that they are going to be something spiritual. If Jesus came to us and took on our nature so that He could suffer and die and give us His nature, it is so that we could be lifted up, so that we could be truly holy as He is holy.
The only way we are going to achieve that kind of holiness is through prayer and self-denial. If we can strive in this holy season to overcome sin and to increase and improve and perfect our prayer life, then this truly becomes a holy season. If, on the other hand, we are running around making sure that people know what penances we have chosen to do (as Jesus tells us not to do), then He tells us we have already received our reward. It is not a holy season for us then because it is selfish. He tells us to make sure that the things we do are done in secret. On a day like today when we are called to fast, if we become angry, impatient, or mean, then it is not a holy day. Then our fasting becomes an occasion of sin rather than a means to holiness. Again, we need to make sure that we are augmenting our fasting with prayer. The saints tell us that if we want our prayer to be heard, it is fasting that gives power to the prayer. But it is also the prayer that obtains for us the grace to be able to fast, and so we need both. These are the things we can think about, to make sure we are not doing things in order that other people would see them, to do things that are truly going to help us grow in holiness, to make sure we are doing the things that are going to help us reconcile with God and live a more perfect life.
That is what this holy season is all about, to look into our hearts and tear them open, to rend the heart. What that literally means is to rip it in half, because we know that we are sinners and we need to come before the Lord with a broken heart. Not with pride and arrogance, but with humility, with sorrow, and with a broken heart. When we come before Him in that kind of state, then we are going to be willing to deny ourselves, then we are going to be willing to do what we need to do to change so that we can stop offending Him. If, on the other hand, we want to come before Him and try to present ourselves as all put together and not really in need of anything, then it is with arrogance that we come to Him and we are not going to seek any kind of reconciliation because we do not think we need it.
So as we begin this time of Lent, the first thing we have to do is to reflect within ourselves, and the hunger that we feel from the fasting today will help us to be able to do that. Do not think about your stomach – think about your heart. Just think about how much your soul has been starving for prayer, for the Word of God, for true holiness. Look beyond the physical hunger to the spiritual hunger. Look beyond the external things to the internal things and ask yourself: What am I doing and why am I doing it? And make sure that what we are doing are the things that will help to bring a reconciliation and a growth in holiness, that what we are doing is done for the right reason: so we can get rid of sin, so we can grow in holiness and be more perfectly united with Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.