Thursday, March 13, 2003

The Meaning of Lent

I am finally close to being back to my regular routine after last weekend's visit of old friends from Austin. I was able to travel around Colorado a bit during their visit since they have 11-year-old twin boys who wanted very badly to see some snow. There's lots of snow in Breckenridge (and a large snowstorm is forecast for "the Springs" early next week) if you are a ski buff.

I was reading a bit from Craig B.'s Page Fault Interrupt and, as usual, he has some interesting things to say from the perspective of one who, I think, is well on his way on the journey into the Church. I would like to offer a lengthy quote from a post in the last day or so:

"It is clear from reading the early church fathers that they viewed sacraments such as baptism and communion as ordinances prescribed by Jesus that, by their observance, deliver a measure of His grace to the participants. (In other words, they're not merely symbolic.) Now this view doesn't imply that He cannot or will not bestow grace through other means, only that He specifically sanctioned these for ordinary use. Some analogies frequently used are those of Jesus using mud to heal the blind, and Elisha ordering the Syrian leper to wash in the Jordan.
Why would this be? I don't know. I'm struggling with this question. While I don't think we can work our way into heaven, I don't think we can will our way into heaven either. Maybe the physical world is supposed to teach us something. We read in James' letter that faith without works is dead; maybe sacraments are tools to remind us of that fact."

Craig is right on several points here. First, the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, are not just symbolic. I was thinking just today that we can gather some idea of the importance of the Eucharist to Jesus from the fact that he instituted the Eucharist in what was virtually the last act of his earthly ministry, just hours before his arrest. Would he have done something that he considered unimportant, or merely symbolic, at just that moment? It hardly seems likely.

The fact is, God created us and knows how we function. We do not just operate on a spiritual or intellectual level, we are incarnated souls and when we are resurrected it will be both soul and body. This is why we have the sacraments, to give us both a taste of the physical and spiritual realities of our existence and God's grace in our lives. So, in a sense, Craig is also correct when he says that God gave us the sacraments for our benefit.

Now, as to Craig's question why the Church has viewed the Sacraments as coming at Jesus direction. You see, to a Protestant, salvation is gained by faith alone, there is no need for sacraments or Tradition, or anything other than the act of the individual in professing faith in Jesus Christ. Taken to the extreme it means that the reality of sin is denied and overcome by a single individual decision to "accept Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior."

Now, accepting Jesus into our lives is something each of us must do, but there is more. It seems nearly impossible to read very deeply in Holy Scripture without understanding that what we do is important to God. The details of our daily lives are of tremendous importance to God our Father. Just read the books of Leviticus and Numbers, the history books of the Bible, Jesus Sermon on the Mount, these books are not about what we believe, they are about what we do and what we are. Jesus was asked point blank by the rich young man what he must do to be “have eternal life.” It is interesting what he did not say. He did not say, "You must accept me as your personal Lord and Savior." He did say, "Obey the Commandments", and then, "Sell all your possessions." It seems hard to deny that Jesus was concentrating on what the rich young man did throughout his life, not what he believed at one particular moment.

All of this does not mean that we earn our passage to heaven, it is equally clear from Scripture that this is not the case. But the Sacraments, the Church, the liturgical seasons, are meant to help us to repent, to "change our minds", as it says in the Greek. These things are given to us as a foretaste of what is to come and to help us, to give us the grace, to achieve it. They are all part of our preparation to spend eternity with God, as part of his family.

This is part of the reason we have the penitential season of Lent, to reinforce practices in our lives that bring us closer to God. We don't succeed or fail at this practice, this is not the objective. The objective is to change, to become something better, more pleasing and more conformed, to God. We will never know here on earth the eternal consequences, and benefits, of a Lent that we believed to be a spiritual dud. The fact is, it’s not up to us anyway, all we are supposed to do is try.

The following is an AP story on the widow of Columbia astronaut Rick Husband and illustrates the faith of someone who has endured what might be considered the unendurable. I think this is a reminder of our total, daily, dependence on God's providence in our lives.

Widow of Shuttle Commander Supports Probe
March 13, 2003 03:52 PM EST

NEW YORK - The widow of the space shuttle Columbia's commander said Thursday that she strongly supports continued space exploration and believes investigators will find the cause of the accident.

"I think space travel is incredibly important to our country. There are certain risks and Rick accepted it, and so do I," said Evelyn Husband, wife of Rick Husband, who piloted Columbia on its final flight.

She's grateful her spouse, one of seven astronauts killed when the shuttle broke up Feb. 1, was able to fulfill the dream of being an astronaut he had harbored since age 4.

On the search for the disaster's cause, Husband said, government experts "are incredibly thorough and determined to find what went wrong...I feel strongly that it was not negligence. It's not a perfect world."

Husband, 44, a stay-at-home mother, has declined most media requests to concentrate on helping the couple's children, 12-year-old Laura and Matthew, 7, cope with the loss of their father. But she did several interviews in New York on Thursday.

She said her grief would have been unbearable the past six weeks without faith in God, along with support from friends at NASA and Houston's Grace Community Church, where the Husbands and the family of Columbia crew mate Michael Anderson attend services.

The spouses and children of the Columbia astronauts meet at least once a week to socialize and, occasionally, pray together, she said.

Husband said she doesn't follow the day-to-day developments in the investigation and hasn't watched television since the news broke, apart from fleeting glimpses while working out at a gym.

Rick Husband was a devoted father, she said, who prepared separate videos for each of his children just before the Columbia flight. The tapes had segments for each day he was away, following Bible readings and prayers in their devotional guidebooks. The Feb. 1 segment closed with a greeting that he'd be seeing them soon.

The last time Evelyn saw Rick, the night before liftoff, he led a brief devotional for the crew and spouses and recited Joshua 1:5-9 from memory. The biblical passage contains the words "I will be with you. I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and of good courage."

Husband said NASA saw to it that officers were posted to control crowds at the family home in Texas even before the family flew back from Florida.

Astronaut Steve Lindsey, a veteran of two space flights, was assigned full-time to help the family. A couple from her church who run a ministry offering free financial counseling, Richard and Janetta Curtis, calmly took charge of things like financial details, fielding telephone calls and poring through "buckets of mail" each day.

In the end, Husband said, her religious faith has been strengthened, not weakened, by the experience. "God is so close to me it's impossible to doubt," she said.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

[This was a post I originally prepared for Ash Wednesday. As I reviewed it, however, I came to see that it needed considerable editing and revision (perhaps still does) which I was not able to accomplish until now due to a heavy work schedule and the arrival of old friends from Austin, Texas for the weekend. I thought it might be better to post this – better late than never.]

Lenten Reflections

As a convert Ash Wednesday, and the liturgical season of Lent, is still a bit of a culture shock to me. Growing up a Protestant meant the liturgical calendar was never significant to my religious experience. The idea of fasting for Lent wasn't to be taken seriously. As you may know, most Protestants view the Lenten fast as part of an exaggerated Catholic effort to earn one's way to Heaven, and I rather unthinkingly accepted that point of view.

It has taken me a few years but now I am actually beginning to develop an appreciation for the season of Lent. Fr. Steve aptly described the reason for this in his Ash Wednesday homily. He talked about the scientific principle of entropy -- the tendency of everything in the universe to become disordered. When a system move in the direction of disorder, chaos, it takes energy to restore order to it. Fr. Steve made the point that this was true in many areas of our lives. The desk in my study is a good example. It seems that as soon as I get it cleaned up and everything put away, within a day or so it's a mess. The solution is to add energy to the system in order to restore order, to clean it up. This is true for our spiritual lives, as well. We go through the Lenten season reintroducing prayer, fasting and almsgiving into our lives. However, if we don't maintain these disciplines in the weeks and months after Easter, entropy sets in and our spiritual lives tend to degenerate. We need the disciplines of another Lent to restore order to our spiritual systems. Lent is a time to restore order to our spiritual lives.

In light of this, I have been debating the effect that the season should have on this blog. My original thought was based on meditating on our Lord's words in the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading:

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

I thought that perhaps it would be appropriate to take Jesus words literally when he suggests that, at least to the outside world, there should be no apparent difference in our countenance when we are fasting and praying. After all, we should be constantly at prayer, not just during the season of Lent. It seemed to me that if the purpose of this blog is attempt to show how our Catholic faith influences our daily lives in a practical way, then, perhaps it would be appropriate for there to be little apparent change in outward appearances here, in the days and weeks leading up to Easter.

However, on further reflection, I realize that Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving -- a time for recharging the spiritual batteries, so to speak, and the fact of the matter is, I feel the need to recharge those batteries. So it is likely that I will either reduce the posts here, or shift their focus, in order to allow you the reader and myself a little more time for where our focus should be right now, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

I belatedly wish all of you a very blessed Lenten season, looking forward to the coming of the Light of the world on Easter morning.