Thursday After Ash Wednesday
by Fr. Hildebrand Garceau, O.Praem.
On Tuesday morning, when we filed into the room where Fr. Leo was lying having recently passed, we were greeted with an unforgettable and consoling image: Fr. Leo’s hands wrapped lovingly around a crucifix, his face serene, at peace. Today we hear the Lord say to us: “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
As Christians, we are followers of Christ from the time of our baptism. We walk the road of life alongside our fellow humans, but our faith points us to the goal of life’s journey, which is eternal life in heaven. And Christ calls us to bear our cross along the way.
Nevertheless, we find it hard to embrace the cross because we don’t want to suffer. Usually we find that the best we can do is accept the cross each day. Most of us don’t go through the day looking for opportunities to suffer. However, inevitably some suffering, even a small one, will come our way whether we choose or not. Then the challenge is how to deal with it. We’re inclined to complain and rebel; our human nature takes over. We grit our teeth and hope no one notices.
Little crosses often come in a series, not just one a day. They sometimes add up to a “bad day”, and we make sure others know it. But wait, we are Christians; we’re supposed to smile our way through a bad day. Unfortunately, after a series of trials, our emotions tend to rebel against our better judgement. We erupt with a colorful word or phrase. Where do we find help? Two thoughts might help here.
First, bearing the cross alone without Christ is like punishment. Why is God punishing me? We remember that Christ walked the way of the cross first and we are His followers. He should be our example and inspiration. But He is much more. He is the source of our merit; through His suffering our suffering has both meaning and merit, as long as we suffer in union with Him. So let’s remember to make a morning offering of our “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day”.
Secondly, in our Lenten Collect today we heard: “Prompt our actions with your inspiration, O Lord, and further them with your constant help.” We are not alone in carrying our cross. The Lord is there with His grace of inspiration and His sustaining grace. When we fall, He is there to raise us up and set us back on the road. If that were not enough, He has also given us a mother, Mary, comforter of the afflicted, who accompanies us all along the way.
We will suffer trials during Lent. That should not surprise us. Our Lord and Master “endured temptation and suffering” throughout the forty days. Why should it be different for His followers? He is with us during these 40 days for “without Him we can do nothing,” but with Him all things are possible.
A final image: in recent days the sun in its course has been shedding brilliant light on our large crucifix over the altar during Vespers, illuminating the Rex Gloriae. He is the King of glory, glorified by His death on the cross. It reminds us of the passion hymn: “Forward the royal banners go / The Cross shines forth in mystic glow.” He who bore the cross sheds the light of grace on our way. We bear our little crosses now by our daily dying to self, and our Lord points to the cross and says to us: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In our Lenten journey, let us keep our eye on the goal, life on high with the King of glory.
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). My whole life has in one way or another revolved around the desires that make up the very core of this single verse. Sometimes intentionally, but most times unknowingly, I found that the direction of my life was set by the principles which form the bold application of this verse.
Even as his health declined, Fr. Leo continued to orient his life to the service of the altar, recognizing in the Holy Eucharist the source of every grace and heavenly blessing. At that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to be a Norbertine priest, “lifting high the Holy Eucharist over the miseries and errors of this world.”
The Gospel passage we just heard comprises the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, all thirty-two verses. It reminds me of St. Justin Martyr’s second century description of the Mass: “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members,” he says. “The recollections of the Apostles are read, as long as there is time.”
Fortunately the three parables are fairly clear in their literal meaning; let us examine but some few points for their spiritual import. In the parable of the lost sheep, notice how our Lord even phrases the question: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” The scribes and Pharisees may not have been shepherds, but they weren’t stupid. Not one of them would have left the ninety-nine to find the one because that’s the best way of losing the ninety-nine and still not finding the one.
But in this they did not understand the deeper contrast Christ Jesus was drawing between God and man. Man has to leave one place to go to another. God remains with the ninety-nine even as He goes off to find the one. The life of grace is not lost in the ninety-nine while He seeks by grace to draw back the heart of the one. And the only way man can have a glimpse at how much God wants a sinner’s heart is by realizing He is so crazy with love as to leave the sure thing in favor of the impossible risk.
The other side of this perspective is the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Without ever leaving his house, his vision extends to his son who is “still a long way off,” which implies not only that he was looking for him but that also his sight sees him where he is. Put the two parables together, and we see that only if the Good Shepherd goes in search of the stray can the squalid son lift his head from the pig sty to dream of happiness at home. Only then does the Father see his wretched son afar off and in mercy run out to meet him.
The reaction of son and father are perfect. The son resolves to confess, and in his shame to accept a dignity lower than is truly his. He does confess, but the father does not let him even ask for what is beneath him, let alone allow him to ask and then deny it to him, and instead enriches his son with tokens of love and esteem: the finest robe, a ring, sandals to wear, and the fattened calf to feast upon.
When in our sins we can no longer hide from the Good Shepherd and so we confess our sins to the Father’s representative, we are never lowered beneath our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Rather, every mark of honor we threw away is returned to us in love. We are again clothed with the finest robe of sanctifying grace and charity which we received at baptism. The ring is the signet whose seal of the Holy Spirit we received at confirmation. Sandals are mortification from worldliness by separating us from the earth and keeping us from getting dirty as we tread the paths of this life; they also prepare our feet to run with the truths of the Gospel. “How beautiful upon the mountains,” says Isaiah, “are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.” In such a state, the full Catholic life in all its majesty, we are ready to feast on the fattened calf, Christ Jesus Himself sacrificed for our sins and given to us as food in the Holy Eucharist.
This is the happiness of our eternal Father. His food is our salvation. His joy is our redemption from sin. As St. John Chrysostom says, “He feasts on the fruit of His mercy by the sacrifice of His Son.” This is the festivity of the household ministers, the harmony of the angels, the symphony of the saints. And it is for us every time we go to confession.
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