February 20, 2015
Friday after Ash Wednesday
Jesus Changes Root and Fruit
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Fasting was something a “good Jew” did. And those who did it thought they were good Jews—both those who were open enough to listen to John the Baptizer (his “disciples”) and those who weren’t (the Pharisees). They were both shocked because the disciples of Jesus weren’t into fasting.
Jesus answered them by asking what fasting expressed. Was it just something a good Jew did, or was it a physical hunger one embraced in order to be aware of spiritual hunger for God?
If it expressed hunger for God, the disciples who were listening to Jesus every day were already getting what they hungered for: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”
The Second Vatican Council (“On the Sacred Liturgy,” no. 48) said the same is true of those who are present at Mass, not “as strangers or silent spectators,” but as disciples of Jesus who “take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.” Their hunger is being satisfied.
Authentic “disciples” are those members of the congregation who seek to be “instructed by God's word and be nourished at the table of the Lord's body.” They are there consciously to learn. They have a hunger to know God. And to satisfy this hunger, the Council bishops decreed that the readings at Mass should systematically cover the whole Bible over a three-year cycle (Sunday readings for Years A, B, and C, with daily readings for Years I and II in Ordinary Time):
51. The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.
This means that if we listen, we will be fed. And the homilies should help by focusing on the mystery within the doctrines we are taught, and on practical principles for living them out in action:
52. By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year.
We should note the difference between principles and rules. A principle is defined by Aristotle as “that from which something begins.” A rule is commonly assumed to be the pronouncement in which a reflection process ends. Law-abiding Catholics keep rules unreflectively, as if there were nothing more to think about. They just do what the rule says. But the Council bishops wrote that in the homily it is “the guiding principles of the Christian life” that should be explained. In other words, the homily should teach us to think.
That is how authentic disciples of Jesus Christ listen to the readings and to the homily: they are making a conscious effort to learn his mind and heart. They are the only ones who can truly understand the purpose and correct interpretation of Church rules. Non-disciples just follow them blindly—and often destructively.
The Council bishops insist that listening to the readings and homily with a fervent intention to learn is just as important as entering reverently into the Eucharistic Prayer:
56. The two parts which make up the Mass; namely, the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship. Accordingly this sacred Synod strongly urges pastors of souls that, when instructing the faithful, they insistently teach them to take their part in the entire Mass…
We legitimately ask, “Why, then, do so many people find Mass so boring they ‘get nothing out of it’?”
The simple answer is, “Because they are not really listening to the words or paying attention to what is happening.” They are “just there.” They are not doing what the Council bishops taught:
48. They should give thanks to God [how many consciously do this at Mass?]. By offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.
This is not the place to explain full participation in the Eucharistic celebration (see my books Experiencing the Mass and A Fresh Look at the Mass). But if you need an explanation, that explains (in part) why the Mass may not be for you the nourishing experience it should be.
There are two other explanations. Jesus is referring to the first when he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” This too would be long to go into. In a nutshell, it means that sometimes the human experience of Christ’s presence, of the truth of his words, the reliability of his promises, the reality of his love for us, and of ours for him, just goes away. The spiritual writers call this “desolation,” or if it is extreme and extended, the “dark night of the soul” (read St. John of the Cross). Saint Ignatius echoes Jesus when he tells us that the right response when this happens is to “fast”—for example, by “ insisting more on prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination, and some suitable way of doing penance” (Spiritual Exercises, no. 319).
The reading from Isaiah gives the second explanation. Nothing we do will nourish our souls or satisfy our hunger for God unless we live out love for others: “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish… Setting free the oppressed… sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless… and not turning your back on your own.”
Any time, or any place, in which the Church seems to be ineffective—whether on the level of parish, diocese, or in the home—the first thing we should examine is the way we are living out love for others. Pope Francis says this is a key to parish renewal:
The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach (Joy of the Gospel, 28).
When we change at the very root of our being—in our attitudes and values—and begin to live out the words God speaks in our hearts, the divine life of God within us will begin to bear fruit in our lives and for the world:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
Do I choose to do this? Do I choose to let the words of Jesus transform the “root and fruit” of my Christian living?
Pray: “Lord, let me know the breadth and length and height and depth of your love, so that I may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18).
Practice: Lay the ax to the root of the tree (Matthew 3:10).
Discuss: How do your Christian attitudes “take flesh”: in action?