The Beginning of Lent

I led a day of recollection today for the seminarians at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee. It was a quiet and prayerful day and what follows is a summary of my homily.

In our first reading (Joel 2: 12-18), God tells us to return "with your whole heart" and to "rend your hearts, not your garments."  We are half-hearted.  Our hearts are divided.  We need our hearts to be healed, to be made whole.  We need to open our hearts to God so that the Holy Spirit may pierce and soften these sin-hardened hearts.

What divides our hearts?  What hardens them?  The self-centeredness of sin.

Last week the first readings at Mass were from Genesis, the story of the first temptation and sin.  Our ancestral parents had hearts open to God, but fear and mistrust closed and hardened them. They were tempted to believe the serpent who suggested that God might not be telling them the truth when warning them that the fruit of a certain tree would bring death. They mistrusted God and thought it would be better to be independent, to get control, to be like gods who could determine for themselves what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad.

They ate and the effect was immediate. They felt shame in each other's presence.  They were no longer open to each other but covered themselves. When God came for their daily stroll, they hid.  The man's response shows the self-centeredness that began the hardening of his heart, closing him off from God and the woman. He said: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.  Me, me, me.  The world now revolved around him.

Then, when God pointed out that this response clearly indicated he'd eaten of the fruit, the man responded, "It was the woman you put here...."  He blamed his partner and God.  Turned in on himself, the man turned against God and his neighbor.

Sin works the same way in our lives.

Those who work in the Church and offer their lives in service of others are not immune from sinful self-centeredness.  It creeps into our relationship with God and into ministry. In the Gospel (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18), Jesus warns against "righteous deeds" which are done to gain others' attention and affirmation.

We need this time of Lent for conversion.  Our divided hearts, which seem to be serving God while all the while serving themselves, need to be made whole and undivided.  We need this time to develop hearts like the Heart of Jesus which he described as "meek and humble."  Humble hearts don't pray and serve in order to receive glory.  They give and serve without seeking a reward because they are motivated by love.

Jesus was so in touch with the infinite love of the Father that he was free to love totally with great freedom, with a whole and undivided heart.  Knowing the love of the Father, he, in the words of our second reading (2 Corinthians 5: 20 - 6: 2) became sin.  Just as he reached into the isolation of the leper in last Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1: 40-45), touched him, and made himself unclean in the process, so Jesus reached into human darkness and took upon himself the sins of the world when he was nailed to a cross.  With his attention focused totally on the God and those whom God sent him to save, Jesus made a total offering of himself.

Now he calls us to renounce the self-centeredness of sin that hardens and closes our hearts. We begin this time of purification and healing by remembering that we are dust. We are not God.  We are not in control.  Nor do we have forever for our hearts to be made more like the Heart of Jesus.  "Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation."