Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti." (An invitation to hear God's words spoken through the lips of one of His sinful creatures who, like each of us, no matter how weak, God can still use to reveal His forgiveness, compassion and love. On the Third Sunday of Lent, John 4:5-42)

"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and has sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church,  may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". 

Of the many things that distinguish us Catholics from our Protestant brothers and sisters, none perhaps does it more than that reality which allows us to speak of ‘sacraments’, to use signs and symbols like oil, bread, and wine, to regard good works as important, and finally, to regard such things as crucifixes, rosaries, holy water, scapulars, etc., as revelatory, albeit in a very limited sense, of God’s presence in our lives. What allows for such kind of thinking? What reality lies behind these practices?

It is the profound Catholic belief that God’s creation, no matter how fallen, fragile, and sometimes fraught with pain, evil and suffering, remains fundamentally good. In spite of the narrative of the Third Chapter of Genesis (The Fall), Catholicism has always insisted that the true ‘lens’ by which we should see all of life remains the heart of the First and Second Chapters of the same book (The Goodness of God’s Creation).

In contrast, Martin Luther’s thought—which in a very deep way affects fundamental Protestant theology and its view of the human person and his world—remains anchored in the story of humanity’s Fall. All grace has been lost, human nature, everything in this world, including nature itself is fallen, sinful, corrupt, and depraved. We are all, in Luther’s words, “piles of dung”. How then are we saved according to him? Jesus “cloaks” us with himself, wraps a mantle or blanket around us so that when God sees us and is about to strike us down because of our sins, he instead sees his son, and relents.

We can never be truly "good", from this point of view. Only Christ is good; and so he must "wrap" or "clothe" us with himself lest God see the putrid, decaying flesh that is our humanity. Thomas Aquinas' statement that "grace builds upon nature" was unacceptable to Luther. For there is nothing that ultimately, grace can truly build upon. "Grace alone" saves us. Nature, in and by itself, is destined for the ash heap; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, good or worthy in it. 

And hence, nothing we do, no matter how great - not even the titanic acts of generosity, charity, kindness, and love of the holiest of saints - can ever contribute even one iota towards our salvation. "Faith alone" saves us; and thus, nothing, no doctrine, no sacred object, ritual, word, or  action, can lend any aid towards making us acceptable to God. Nothing except "Scripture alone" is reliable.

It is perhaps one of the most basic differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, therefore, that that despite the Fall, we Catholics continue to hold and insist that God’s creation did not lose its inherent goodness. God’s grace which was our original birthright was not totally obliterated and destroyed. God’s grace continues to lift nature and human nature allowing it to reveal or manifest the presence of God. “Grace”, says St. Thomas Aquinas, “does not destroy nature, but builds on it and brings it to perfection”. 

And so we Catholics believe that ordinary bread and wine, water, signs, symbols, statues, words, gestures, our works, our community—even if they are weak and inadequate, can still be disclosures,  manifestations, theophanies - or revelations, of God’s continued presence. They are limited for sure, but reveal God's presence they nonetheless do.

This Sunday, I invite us all to reflect upon this profound and beautiful truth about our faith tradition and relate it to one of the Catholic sacraments that’s often neglected, and misunderstood, at times, even by us Catholics ourselves: the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.

Ask a non-Catholic why he doesn’t believe in Confession, and the response you’ll most likely get is: “I confess my sins directly to God. The priest is just a human being. Who is he to hear my confession and forgive my sins?” 

Do you know that we priests are supposed to go to Confession ourselves? Canon Law (the law of the church) reminds us priests of the value and importance of going to Confession. When I first entered seminary, that was one of the things I wondered about: "What am I going to do when I’m a priest? Who’s going to hear my confession?" Well, the answer turned out to be quite simple, another priest. 

"I go directly to God himself." "I confess my sins directly to God." While these statements sound very pious and devout, what's underneath all of them is really an idea that goes directly against the heart of what it means to be Catholic.

For what these statements are really saying is this: “I go directly to God himself, because I really have difficulty trusting anything and anyone on this earth, because everything and everyone on this earth is fallen, sinful, corrupt, depraved, and perverted. I trust no one. I believe no one; in fact at times, I can’t even trust and belief in myself”.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate non-Catholic statement.

In today’s gospel reading, there’s something peculiar to the Samaritan woman’s actions. She’s getting water from a well about a mile outside town—in the middle of the day, when it’s too hot in the area and you could get sunstroke. Why? She was avoiding people. She meets Jesus and immediately she’s defensive: “Why are you, a Jew, and a man, asking me, a Samaritan, and a woman, for a drink?"  

Jesus asks her to call her husband and she says: “I have no husband”. He tells her about worshiping God, and she responds by going around in circles. This was a woman who was paranoid, who trusted no one, not her neighbors, not Jesus, and not even herself. “I have no husband”, she says; we can almost hear the defiance, but also the pain and woundedness, in her voice.

Here was a woman who had completely lost sight of the goodness of others, of the world, and even of herself.

She was probably afraid of being condemned, of being looked down upon, of being shunned and made an even bigger outcast. Instead, Jesus reveals to her the truth about herself, “Truly you have no husband, for you’ve had five, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband either”.  

Yet there was no condemnation in his voice; there was only love, only acceptance, only grace.

And she needed to hear that. She needed to feel that. She needed those words coming from the lips of another human being.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, of Penance, is a way for us to have the same experience, to hear and to listen the sound of those words spoken to us: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

It isn’t the priest who forgives us—because like us he too is sinful. Rather it is God, who despite the fallenness, weakness, and sinfulness of human nature and of creation—still reveals himself to us through these instruments.

That is what we Catholics believe. That is what separates us and distinguishes us from Protestants. That is what allows us to believe in signs, in symbols, in our good works, in bread and wine, in the sacraments.

The Samaritan woman experienced the healing power of God spoken through words. Perhaps this Lent, you may consider the Sacrament of Confession once again, and allow yourself to hear God’s words spoken through the lips of a sinful creature, who like each one of us, no matter how sinful, can be used by God to reveal his presence in the world.

When was the last time we came to the Sacrament of Confession? God will never force us to do it. Neither will the church. But today, we are all invited, to consider it once more. And like the Samaritan woman, allow ourselves to hear words Jesus himself speaks to us: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ecclesia Casta Meretrix: My Beloved Church, Loving Mother, Spotless Bride, Chaste Whore (Radical Thoughts for a Radical Season)

My first encounter with the upsetting phrase, "whore of Babylon" was through a small booklet which a grade school friend and classmate handed me many years ago. It was in turn given to him by a schoolmate whose family had left the Catholic Church and joined a Protestant fundamentalist group (obviously an anti-Catholic one). While my young mind couldn't fully understand what the phrase meant (or if there was in fact any substance to it), I found it nonetheless offensive and quite disturbing. Imagine having the church to which you (and your entire family) belonged, labeled a "whore"!

The initial annoyance at what I had read eventually passed though, and I forgot about that reading material altogether, including that derogatory label, "whore of Babylon", that is, until a number of years later - this time in seminary. I was reading the works of the great contemporary theologian (and later cardinal) Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a good friend and colleague of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when I chanced upon a rather challenging essay entitled "Casta Meretrix" ("chaste whore"). In the opening section of the text, Von Balthasar writes: 

"When Luther dares to equate the Roman Church with the whore of Babylon, it strikes us as the height of blasphemy. But he was not the first to coin the phrase. Similar things can be found in Wycliffe and Hus, and their language was not a complete innovation but the violent simplification and coarsening of a very old theologoumenon. This in turn has its origins in the Old Testament, in the words of judgment spoken by God, the betrayed Husband, against the archwhore Jerusalem, and in the New Testament's application of these texts, which are so fundamental to the old". 

This past week, as I watched and later reflected upon a rather disturbing (and, understandably, not completely unbiased) PBS documentary provocatively entitled "Secrets of the Vatican", my first encounter as a young boy with that unsettling label - "whore of Babylon" - suddenly came to mind; but so did Von Balthasar's reflections on it, which, as a seminarian, I found myself devouring. (For those who didn't get the chance to see the PBS special, I believe it can still be viewed on their website. In fact, I sent the link to one of the older priests here in the seminary who also wanted to view it.)

Why did the phrase, as well as Von Balthasar's reflections come to mind? Because while I personally found the documentary slanted in a number of ways (I thought it played up some angles a lot more than others, completely missed others, whether deliberately or not, and was - not unexpectedly - far heavier on the negative rather than the positive side), there were also a number of things in it that were undeniable true. In my three decades in seminary and sixteen years in the priestly ministry, I have come to gradually see, understand, and accept that the far-less disquieting characterization of the church as a "community of saints and sinners" is no mere pious platitude born out of a saccharine spirituality rooted in that kind of religiosity Christ and the prophets called "hypocritical", "false", "fraudulent", and "an abomination to God".

The church with which I fell so deeply in love as a young man, my "mother", the "community", the "people of God" which I have, on my day of ordination, promised to love, serve, and give of myself completely to my dying day, is truly made up of persons like Teresa of Calcutta and John Geoghan, very real "saints" and very real "sinners", in the most genuine sense of those words.

The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, have made use of the image of God's people as a "whore". Perhaps the most familiar of these images is to be found in the Old Testament book of the prophet Hosea who was commanded by God to take the harlot, Gomer, for his wife and to have her bear him children as a reminder to Israel which had "given itself to harlotry, turning away from the Lord" (Hos. 1:2). This, of course, was a reference to Israel's infidelity to the covenant. And Hosea isn't alone in using such imagery or theme; it can be found in other prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.

The New Testament likewise uses the imagery of unfaithful women, not only in the stories of those whose sins Jesus had forgiven and who had, in turn, become his faithful disciples, e.g. Mary Magdalene, but also in those women whose names are included in the lists of Jesus' ancestors, foremost of whom was the harlot, Rahab in the Book of Joshua (2:1) in whose home the spies sent by Israel found refuge and who was herself saved, together with her entire family.

The early Church fathers, among them, St. Clement, saw the cord she let down as a symbol of the Paschal lamb and the blood of Jesus himself. St. Justin Martyr interpreted her house as the ark and the Paschal lamb as symbols of salvation. St. Hyppolytus regarded her house as a symbol of the Church itself. And Origen, going even further, interpreted all these allusions as the "transformation of Rahab from whore to holy Church as the engrafting of the Gentile Church into the Jewish Church", and even coining the phrase "outside Rahab's house, the Church, there is no salvation". (This, by the way, became the foundation for that quote from St. Cyprian, "extra ecclesiam, nulla salus". Finally, St. Jerome himself, proclaimed: "Rahab, the justified whore, contains us all"

Now, granted these texts from the early church fathers emphasize the transition from "whore" to "saved", from "sinner" to "saint", such transition isn't a one-time thing, a one-shot deal. Rather, as Origen and St. Augustine both point out, it has continuing relevance. As Von Balthasar stressed, "for St. Augustine and the exegetes who follow him, the really pure Church is an eschatological concept". This means that while the church is the community of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, the fullness of this reality is both - to use a phrase I often heard in my theologate years, "already and not-yet".

There is a reason for thus the continuing relevance of that phrase, ecclesia reformada, sed semper reformanda ("the church reformed, but always being-reformed"). For as Von Balthasar continues, St. Dionysius the Carthusian says, the Church is both "spotless Church and disfigured Church", always both "virgin and harlot". "The whole, through the diversity of its parts, can get conflicting names... thus the Church is called disfigured, estranged, bloodless, or whorish with regard to believers without charity or good works, yes, those who have been befouled by vice, whose souls are not brides of Christ but adulteresses of the devil".

Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the abuse scandals that have rocked the church, used the very strong word "filth", to describe the sinful dimension of this community; and Pope John Paul II famously asked forgiveness for the "sins" committed by the Church's sons and daughters. 

For Von Balthasar, then, it becomes possible to speak of the Church as a whore in the sense of the unfaithfulness of its members, in particular, the sins of its teachers and leaders. Thus even Origen, sometimes spoke of heretics being holier in life than some of the leaders of the Church. (Reading these lines from Von Balthasar, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jesus' story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.)

In Medieval Philosophy class today, I was telling my students about the so-called "Synod of the Cadaver". We were talking about some of the "darker days" in the history of the church, and as I told them, whenever I encounter people whom I sense to have a beef with the church, and who seem to fancy themselves experts in the "ugliness" of Catholicism (usually rattling off the usual "dark ages", "inquisition", "crusades", "the Galileo affair", etc.), instead of being upset, angry and defensive, I tell them the story of Popes Formosus and Stephen who lived towards the end of the 9th century, a time when the church (and the papacy!) seemed to be populated more by "sinnners" rather than "saints".

Months after Pope Formosus died, his successor, Stephen who belonged to a rival Roman political faction, had the body of poor Formosus exhumed. It was naturally in a state of advanced decay. But that didn't prevent Stephen from having his predecessor's corpse dressed up in papal robes, setting it on the papal throne in St. John Lateran, and then proceeding with a "trial" of the dead pope, accusing him of all sorts of crimes. Unable to defend himself, the dead Formosus was found guilty, the three fingers of his right hand (the digits used to bless) were hacked off, his corpse dismembered and then thrown into the waters of the Tiber. Imagine what a sight that must have been! And these were successors of Saint Peter?!

Why do I share such horrific (even revolting) episode with people I sense are anti-Catholic? Because based on my experience (you'll have to forgive my inelegant expression), it "shuts them up". Seriously! 

As I was telling my students this morning, in my head, what's usually going on is this: "You think you've got a corner on what's bad, ugly and sinful about my church?! Well, let me tell you a thing or two about what's bad, ugly and sinful! You've got nothing on us!"  

It may sound daft, but really, what I'm trying to tell such folks is that, we Catholics aren't ignorant of the reality of sinfulness in our church. We know it's real; we know it's there; we're not denying it. At least most of us aren't. And true enough, the question I'm usually asked after my retelling of Formosus and Stephen's story is, "But how can you still belong to such a church?"  

(Ah! And if I were a fisherman, that question would be my "baited hook".)

Years ago, when the clergy sexual abuse scandals were "exploding like bombs all over the place", a good friend of mine who left the priesthood (not because of any scandal or problem, but because, as he said, he had become so discouraged and depressed that he just "didn't feel he could still be part of an institution that allowed such horrific crimes"), asked me similar questions:  

"How could you still belong to that church? How could you still be a priest? I don't understand how you could stay in there."

As I watched that PBS documentary last week, and the narration moved to the truly horrific, evil (and yes, criminal) deeds of Marcial Maciel Degollado, my mind went back to an experience I had a number of years ago when a priest friend had to take time off from active ministry and confine himself to a facility on account of severe depression. 

He had been sexually abused as a child and the painful memories which he had repressed, began to resurface and wreak havoc in his life. He had been a hard-working, kind, loving, generous, and solid priest - until the wounds of his very early childhood, long-forgotten, were reopened by the abuse scandals that were in the news on a daily basis. 

[Yes, there are good priests who are themselves victims of abuse. This is a painful reality that is often forgotten, their stories left untold.]

While visiting him at the facility, I had the opportunity to visit a neighboring place that housed a different group of priests - those who can no longer be in active ministry because they have committed acts of abuse against children. I remember, one morning, walking into the dining room, a hall where time seems to have stood still, the atmosphere (and furniture) straight out of the 70's. What greeted me as I entered (I merely passed through the room in order to get to the exit which was on the other side of the building) was a sight that made my heart sink and made me want to cry, a sight that I believe will haunt me for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of my life.

There they were, a group of them, having their breakfast. I don't remember their exact number, but it was significant enough that the first thought that came to mind was "this could very well be a refectory in any seminary". That's what it looked like. For a couple of seconds that seemed like an eternity, there I stood, my vision seemingly tunnel-like, the peripheries all blackened, with only those men sitting there having their coffee and cereal and whatnot, illumined by a hazy, yellowish-kind of light.

"What happened to these men?" I thought to myself. "These were seminarians once, young men who were most likely filled with hopes, dreams, visions, a strong desire to give their lives in the service of God's people. Surely they prayed, studied, worked hard, did everything they were asked to do by those the Church had tasked to teach and mold them. What happened?"

I still do not have answers to these questions; and it may take me a very long time to find the answers that would satisfy them. I have, since the morning of that encounter though, immersed myself in greater research, reflection, and prayer, in the hope that the ministry in which I am involved, i.e. forming and teaching future priests, would be enriched by the findings and conclusions at which I may eventually arrive. My daily prayer since that day has always included the heartfelt plea that God in his mercy, may shield, protect, and safeguard my students from such tragic fate, and that I may somehow, in my own small way, assist them in keeping on the straight and narrow path. 

We priests are called to heal the wounds of those who have been hurt by life, not to add even more to their scars.

And so, to my friend's questions: how could I still belong to this church? How could I still be a priest? How could I continue to stay in here? I think that booklet given to me by my grade school classmate many years ago, which first introduced me to that upsetting phrase "whore of Babylon" - from hindsight, and perhaps given the distance of time, challenged me to grow in my knowledge, understanding, and yes, love for this church that, as St. Augustine pointed out, is made up of "wheat and tares".

As I ended that brief mention of the episode between Popes Formosus and Stephen in class this morning, I said something to my students that was also my reply to my friend's question, how could you remain in that kind of church? 

We enter the church, we enter into the priestly ministry, not with rose-colored spectacles, nor squinting or half-open eyes. Rather we enter with eyes that are wide-open, with a realistic mind, and a heart that truly and fully comprehends the greatness, the beauty, and the goodness of this community which we call the church, but one that acknowledges and accepts as well, the weakness, the fallenness, the sinfulness, and the genuine and constant need for Christ's redeeming compassion, forgiveness, and love.  

Ecclesia reformada, sed semper reformanda. The Church will forever be in need of reform, of transformation into that community envisioned by Christ.

I fell in love with this church many years ago as a young man, and the more I got to know her, the more I realized how truly human she is, but how truly divine she is as well. And every single day, I come to know a little more about her: the things that make her beautiful, but also the things that make her unpleasant, the tremendous good, and the awesome sinfulness that can likewise dwell in her. She truly is a "loving mother", a "spotless bride", and a "chaste whore". And yet I love her still, all of her. Because like the prophet Hosea, we are asked to love her still; because God loves us still - we who are, in the final analysis, the Church, sinners and saints, truly.

Quoting once last time from Von Balthasar, "the spirit of God co-exists in the Church with the spirit of Babylon, and the latter can erupt at any moment. The Church can become a victim of Babylonian captivity... by corrupt clergy, and by Christian rulers who tempt her to simony. The Church's hope and salvation is in conformity to her head, in clinging to Christ, in always adopting the posture of a penitent... The Church prays, "forgive us our trespasses", and will do so until the consummation. Until then, as St. Isidore of Seville says, 'the one and only house of Rahab, the one and only Church... remains as a whore in Jericho'."

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Choosing the way of Christ (Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent, Matthew 4:1-11)

A number of years ago, while still teaching at university, one of my bright students came to talk to me, asking if it were at all possible for me change his grade from a B+ to an A. He was a good student, very smart, diligent, and hardworking, but his results simply didn't merit anything more than a B+. So I told him, I'd give him an A if he could live with the fact that while I thought he didn't really deserve the grade, he nonetheless "asked" me for it, and that the A he'd get was simply something I "gave" him. He scratched his head, smiled, and replied “no”. "It's okay, father," he said, "I understand completely". 

I did tell him that I actually admired his attitude. I said it showed aggressiveness, drive, and the will to succeed and make it big. (He said he wanted to raise his GPA as he was seriously considering going to Law School.) At the same time, I had to remind him that while aggressiveness, drive, and the desire to make it big, can in fact guarantee a good degree of success in life, it's only integrity that can give true fulfillment and peace of heart and mind. And those are two different things.

We read in today’s gospel of Jesus going to the desert to prepare himself for the difficult work that lay ahead of him. The story goes that while in the desert, he had a vision of the suffering he would endure and the death he will face—all in the name of doing God’s will. And he found himself wondering whether he in fact wanted it. Can’t there be an easier way? 

That’s when the tempter shows up and says: “You want to save people? Why do it God’s way? Why make it difficult for yourself? I’ve got an easier way for you”. And he presents Jesus with three temptations: bread—the symbol of wealth, power, and finally, fame and popularity.

These are the world’s solutions to all our problems.  They’re the easy way out. The interesting thing is, Jesus was himself tempted by them. Here he was, at the beginning of his ministry, being shown two ways of doing things: God’s way, which was tough and required sacrifice, and the world’s way, which was quick, painless, and easy. Would you have chosen God’s way? Would I? Why would anyone want to do that? 

In the story of Christ’s passion and death, no character is more fascinating and perhaps compelling than Judas: the man who sold his friend for thirty pieces of silver. Judas, we are told by bible scholars, was the most intelligent of the disciples. More than any other disciple, Judas was convinced that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah.

But he also wanted the Messiah to be a political and earthly king whose power would easily destroy Israel’s enemies. Judas wanted the easy way. Forget integrity; it is the goal that matters most.

Judas did believe in Jesus. But he wondered why Jesus seemed more interested in taking the hard road rather than the easy one. And so in one last act of desperation, Judas betrays Jesus. Why? Because, like the devil in the gospel today, he wanted to force the hand of God. He believed that when Jesus was finally suffering, God would be forced to save his son. And that would finally reveal Jesus’ true identity to the whole world.

Judas completely misunderstood the way of Christ. Like the devil in today’s gospel, Judas wanted Jesus to choose the easy way out. He wanted Jesus to choose the world’s way. Instead, Jesus chose God’s way.

Judas wasn’t alone of course. The other disciples thought the same. Peter tried to persuade Jesus not to go through with his plan. It was then that Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and tells him to think “the way God does”, and not the way men do. The brothers James and John asked Jesus to give them the seats of power on his left and his right when he comes to power. And the rest of the disciples kept arguing about who among them was the greatest.

And what about ourselves? How often have we promised to say ‘no’ to the temptations that come to us, only to find ourselves giving in to them again and again. How often have we resolved to choose the way of integrity only to fall back on the easy way out?

By saying ‘no’ to the world’s temptations, Christ had in fact sealed his fate: he was to suffer and die. But by doing so, he also affirmed once and for all, that he was God’s Son and secured for himself, God’s promise that after suffering and pain, there will be victory and everlasting joy.

Likewise, by saying ‘no’ to the temptations we encounter in our lives, we also seal our fate. For our life will be a constant struggle to do what is right. And that is never easy. But by doing so, we will, like Christ, affirm that we are sons and daughters of God, and not of the world. And in doing so, we secure for ourselves true greatness in this life and in the next—a greatness that wealth, power, and fame cannot buy.

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, Christ confronts us with a question: Shall we choose the world’s way, or God’s way? Shall we choose the way that sells ourselves short, or shall we go for the way of integrity: Christ’s way? The choice, of course, is ours alone.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It is what lies deep within our hearts that is of the greatest importance, in Lent, and every single day of our lives. (Reflections on Ash Wednesday, Mathew 6:1-6,16-18)

 The word “secret” in relation to religious practices appears so many times in the gospels that we are led to suspect that Jesus was really trying to stress a very important point to his disciples.

In the gospel passage we just read, the word “secret” appears four times, the word “hidden” appears twice, but the idea of keeping our good deeds from the eyes of others appears no less than thirteen times. Thirteen times in a relatively short reading!

It makes you think twice, especially on a day when you can tell who the Catholics are by simply looking at their foreheads. I know. When I entered the classroom at the college where I was teaching at a couple years ago, one of my students was standing there to greet me, the first thing he did was to look at my forehead with this puzzled look. “Father you have dirt…” but before he could even finish his sentence, he says, “Oh, right…Ash Wednesday. I guess I’ll be getting mine later today”. 

But why all the admonition to secrecy? We could ask. Did Jesus not say in another part of the bible that we should let our light shine for others to see.  One doesn’t light a lamp only to put it under a bushel basket, he says. And isn’t it good to let others see the good we do so they can perhaps be influenced to do the same? Why does Jesus insist on so much secrecy?

It is certainly true that the world must know of our faith and our commitment to doing good deeds. We must not hide the fact that we are followers of Christ, Christians, Catholics. There is something to be said about letting the world know we’re “Catholics”. And there’s nothing wrong with being proud of it either.

But what Jesus was really warning against in today’s gospel, was not so much the external manifestations of faith, but the internal dispositions that lead to them. What he was warning against are external acts that are inconsistent with our internal motives. Is the person we are on the outside consistent with the person we are on the inside? Or are they two different things? Worse, are there two contradictory selves in us: one good, the other not.

This was in fact, what the Pharisees were like. What people saw was different what they really were—and so the religious practices they did were also different from the true inclinations of their hearts.

One’s internal motives and intentions make all the difference. Why does one give alms? Is it to truly assist the poor? Then that is a worthwhile expression of faith. Or is it to call attention to one’s generosity? Then it doesn’t mean much in God’s eyes.

Why does one come to church more during Lent? Is it to renew one’s heart and soul and recommit oneself to God, or is it simply because it’s a practice one does every year? Why does one have ashes placed on his forehead? Is it to remind him that—life isn’t forever and God’s invitation to transform our lives is short? Or is it because it’s Ash Wednesday, and that’s simply what we Catholics do?

As I heard a priest once say, if we come to Mass on Ash Wednesday simply for the ashes—then that’s all we’ll get—ashes. But if we come to Mass on Ash Wednesday, knowing what these ashes mean and allowing God to renew our hearts, then the Ashes mean something.

For Jesus, it is what lies deep in our heart that’s of the greatest importance. The externals only matter because of what goes on inside us. Who we are on the outside has to be consistent with what we are on the inside.

Ash Wednesday begins the great season of Lent, when we are invited—as the first reading says—to “rend our hearts and not our garments” and to “offer to God a sacrifice of a humble and contrite spirit”.  As we enter into the spirit of this Lenten season, it is good to remind ourselves of the truthfulness and honesty that Jesus asks of us.

May our prayer this Lent be: “Make us true, O Christ, to God, to hers, and most especially, to our selves”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)