Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Word for Lent: Cross!

(This homily was given on February 22, 2012 (Ash Wednesday) at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ash Wednesday 2012]

I asked the Lord to give me a theme word for the season of Lent two years ago, and the word he gave me was “perseverance.”  He didn’t speak it to me audibly (no, Fr. Ray isn’t hearing voices these days); he simply, I believe, brought the word to mind and put it on my heart as I was praying in preparation for Ash Wednesday of 2010.

And so I spoke in my homily that day about the need to persevere in our Lenten disciplines—especially if and when we’re tempted to give up on them halfway through the season.

Last year I did the same thing, and the word that came to mind was “consistency”.  So I spoke on that Ash Wednesday about the importance of being consistent in our prayer, fasting and works of charity during the season of Lent—and throughout the year.

So I figured that if it worked twice, I should try it again this year.  And when I did—when I went before the Lord in prayer to ask for a theme word to share with you today—what popped into my mind was the word, “cross.”

Now when that happened my first thought was, “Well that makes sense, Lord, since the season of Lent prepares us to celebrate our eternal salvation—the salvation you won for us by your sacrifice on the cross.”

But as I reflected on it a bit more, I also came to realize that the cross symbolizes (or at least it should symbolize) the two purposes of this season for us and for all Catholics: deepening our relationship with God, and improving our relationships with other people.

It’s not one or the other of those two things; it’s both.

Notice that every cross has two beams: one is vertical, the other is horizontal.

That vertical beam symbolizes our relationship with the Lord; the horizontal beam symbolizes our relationships with other people.

The season of Lent is a time to bring both these realities together (so that they, hopefully, will stay together for the remainder of the year!).  We are to work, first of all, at deepening our relationship with God by spending more time in prayer, and Scripture reading and adoration; and perhaps by coming to daily Mass and the parish mission; and by getting to Confession if we need to.

But that can’t be the end of it.  If it is, then we’ve really missed half the message of this season—and half the message of the Christian life!  Remember Jesus said that there are two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. 

And that’s where the horizontal beam comes into the picture.  That beam of the cross symbolizes our relationships with our brothers and sisters.  Improving those relationships (and healing them when necessary) should also be a primary focus for us, especially during this season of the year.  That’s why “almsgiving” is included among the 3 traditional activities of Lent.  Prayer and fasting concern our relationship with God, but almsgiving directly involves our relationships with our brothers and sisters. 

And it symbolizes more that just giving money (although it certainly includes that!).  To give alms is to extend charity—love—to one’s neighbor.  And that charity can take many forms.

To forgive, for example, those who have offended us in any way is an act of charity symbolized by the word “almsgiving”.  (That means if you’re harboring a grudge against anyone else in your life right now, you need to work at forgiveness during this Lenten season!)

Visiting a sick relative or friend is another act of charity symbolized by “almsgiving”.  So is showing patience to those who try our patience.  So is giving your time to worthy causes at your church or in your local community.

Even praying faithfully and persistently for the needs of others is a form of giving alms—since we’re asking God to help those people in whatever way they need to be helped.

So I ask you to keep that word “cross” in your mind during the next 40 days, and to evaluate your Lent by that standard. 

Every once in awhile say to the Lord, “Lord, am I truly ‘living’ the cross this Lent?  Am I really working to improve my relationship with you and my relationships with my brothers and sisters?”

And if the answer to either of those questions is no—then make the changes you need to make, so that when you reflect on those questions again later on in Lent, you’ll be able to answer them BOTH with a resounding yes!