”The Son of Man will be delivered to the Gentiles, and they will put Him to death; and on the third day He will rise again.”
This morning’s Gospel is a bit ominous – it won’t happen immediately, but our Lord is telling the Apostles that some day soon they must go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be lifted up and put to death on a cross. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record this as the third time our Lord predicted His impending death. With the benefit of hind-sight, we know, and the Apostles probably did not, that our Lord was going to Jerusalem during the feast of the Passover, and, wittingly or not, the Jews and the Romans would sacrifice Him – the Lamb of God – on the altar of the Cross. We know, and they probably did not, that this sacrifice would forever replace the animal sacrifices that had heretofore been offered at Jerusalem by the Jewish priests – a perfect sacrifice would replace the imperfect sacrifices of the Old Law. Instead of making completely inadequate offerings of atonement for sin, the priesthood of the New Law would offer the One sacrifice that that would radically redeem mankind, and make individual men and women capable of receiving forgiveness of their sins and able to grown in true holiness.
The Apostles were, of course, to say the least, disturbed about this idea of Jesus’ death. As usual, Peter was particularly outspoken, “Far be it from me, Lord, this will never happen to thee.” At Jesus’ transfiguration, Peter suggested erecting some shelter and staying on the mountain top. “Lord, it is good to be here. Let us set up three tents … one for You and one for Moses and one for Elias.” You can almost hear him thinking: “We just need to get this idea of going to Jerusalem out of Jesus’ head – why would He want to do such a thing?”
Why, indeed?! Some years later, the Apostle and Evangelist, Saint John would write the words which he heard Jesus speak at the Last Supper, just as this sacrifice of the New Law was beginning:
This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.
That was probably very difficult for the Apostles to understand. It is still difficult, even for many of us who have the benefit of hind-sight gained by reading the entire New Testament. It is not particularly uncommon to meet Christians who fail to understand the implications of our Lord’s love. Perhaps that is why the Church has us read this beautiful passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today as we are about to begin Lent.
For many of us, Lent seems to be some sort of an ordeal. For some it is a sort of contest, either with others or just with themselves. Who can observe the most rigorous fast; read the most spiritual books; say the most Rosaries; perform the greatest number of acts of charity for the poor; or kneel for the longest time before the tabernacle? For others it is more a time of personal improvement: Can I go forty days without a drink, or a cigarette, or a piece of candy; can I lose two dress sizes; or discipline myself to say my morning and evening prayers every day for forty days?
Obviously, none of those things are bad. Indeed, they may be very good and necessary. But perhaps they are not exactly “on target.” No matter how good they may be, they are radically incomplete without the love of God. “If I deliver my body to be burned, yet I do not have charity, it profits me nothing,”
What exactly is this thing “charity”? We usually use the word to mean a gift to the poor – perhaps food, or clothing, or some help with the rent. But that is not how Saint Paul is using the word here. “If I distribute all my goods to feed the poor, yet do not have charity, it profits me nothing.” Charity, or caritas, is a Greek word – one of three words which we translate into English as love. It is not the love of a husband for his wife, for that the Greeks call eros, a very good thing in itself but not caritas. It is not the love that we have for one another as members of a parish or neighbors in a community – that is also a good thing in itself, which the Greeks call agape. Caritas, or charity, is the kind of love that flows only from a higher principle – or, perhaps, more accurately, directed toward a higher principle, for Paul is using it exclusively to mean the love of God.
If I do not have the love of God, none of these other activities are of any real and lasting benefit. It doesn’t matter how much I fast or abstain, or even how much I pray, if I lack this essential virtue of Charity.
The obvious question, then, is: “how do we go about loving God”? All too often we hear people say that God is a bit too intangible to love – too hard to relate to, for we lack the kind of contact with Him that we have with a husband or wife, or with our neighbors or fellow parishioners. Well, some of that may be because we don’t make much effort to spend time with God – in fact, in may lives He comes in dead last, with no time at all devoted to the prayer and spiritual reading that would make Him more familiar – or maybe just a hasty few minutes as we run through a few stock prayers. It may also be because we make no effort to remain in the state of sanctifying grace; that we rarely come to Confession and Communion and Holy Mass, or that even when we do, it is a distracted affair; more of an outward demonstration of religion than an inward exercise of piety. Remember that when we are in the state of sanctifying grace, God infuses our soul with Charity (as well as Faith and Hope).
Let me suggest an additional approach – particularly for Lent, but also good throughout the rest of the year. Remember that quote from Saint John’s Gospel: “Greater love has no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.” Recognize that Jesus Christ – under absolutely no obligation, but purely for love of His creatures – became one of us, and laid down His life for us, in a bloody and painful manner; in three hours of agony on the Cross. If nothing else, perhaps gratitude will inspire love in us.
Pray the Rosary with special attention to the sorrowful mysteries – put yourself in the picture, and try to imagine what it was like to be there on that day – to suffer with Jesus and Mary – maybe even to suffer as Jesus did. Try to imagine what these events must have meant to His Blessed Mother – how difficult it must have been for her to lose such a loving Son.
But in addition to the Rosary, make the effort to join us for the Stations of the Cross each Friday evening starting next week. And, if you are able to come early for Mass once in a while, don’t hesitate to make the Stations before Mass. It doesn’t have to be anything formal – you can just meditate on what you see in each of the pictures, and make a genuflection at each one. I think you will find that the physical act of moving from Station to Station, and the little bit of effort of making the genuflection will help set the scene for your meditation.
In any event, let me urge you to make a good Lent. Join us Wednesday night for the Ash Wednesday Mass if at all possible. Plan to join us for the Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings starting next week. Plan to make a good Confession early in the Lenten season, and try to be with us frequently for Holy Mass. Whatever you are able to do this Lent – and I hope you will be generous with your efforts – try to direct all of them to the love of God. Come to know Him and Love Him and serve Him in this world, so that you may be happy with Him in the next.
Remember that without love – specifically, with out the love of God – we have nothing.