Lenten Evening of Recollection
Baltimore Area, Order of Malta
“The Joy of Forgiveness”
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
Mar. 4, 2020
Once again, it is a joy to be with you early on in our Lenten journey. On behalf of my Mom and my family, I want to thank you for the prayers you have offered for my Father as he journeyed home to the Lord and for all the consoling messages we have received. My Mom is 100 years old and she and Dad were married 73 years. As Mom accompanied Dad in his last days, sitting by his bed and praying, I saw in summary form a lifetime of love, a love rooted in faith and hope. Hard as it is to bid farewell to our loved ones, it is consoling when, at their passing, they are surrounded by love, a love that is both divine and human.
This evening, I would like to speak about the joy of forgiveness – the joy of being forgiven and the joy of forgiving others. And I would begin with this simple observation: both joy and forgiveness seem to be in short supply these days. I would say that one thing is pretty obvious about the culture we live in: a lot of people are unhappy, anxiety ridden, and alienated from God and others. I’m not a big consumer of social media but I would venture to say that unhappiness, anxiety, and alienation are on display in the world of the Internet, Tweets, Instagram(s), and the Blogosphere. It’s pretty much a wild-west of rash judgment and invective. And it could happen to almost anyone at any time. I often quote the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who wrote that today’s culture “permits everything and forgives nothing….” And once a person has been found wanting in social media, there is no redemption. Is it any wonder that we live in a state of “high anxiety”?
But let us complete Cardinal George’s famous quote. After telling us that the culture “permits everything and forgives nothing”, he goes on to say that the Church does not permit everything but forgives everything, not on her own, of course, but in the power of the Holy Spirit who links us to the saving Death and Resurrection of Christ, to Christ who is our Redeemer and the Lover of our souls.
My main point this evening is not to criticize social media. Like the radio and the telephone, it “is here to stay” and is thus a part of our lives. It can be used well and often is used well by people like Bishop Robert Barron, and, of course, you and I must use these forms of communication well and wisely. But our true identity is not our social media profile. Our self-worth cannot be measured in how many “likes” we garner on social media. Our identity and self-worth are not measured in these things any more than in our possessions, our fame, and our influence. As disciples of the Lord and as members of the Church, our identity and our self-worth are summed up in the episcopal motto which, long ago, Pope Francis chose for himself: “Miserando atque eligendo”, which means, “lowly but chosen”. These few words, which are hard to translate accurately, are taken from a homily by a medieval author, the Venerable Bede, on the calling of St. Matthew, the tax collector; he wrote: “Jesus saw Matthew through the eyes of mercy and chose him.” And, indeed, God’s merciful love remains a central theme of Pope Francis’ papacy, not only the Year of Mercy called for back in 2015 – 2016, but indeed almost every homily, every encyclical, every exhortation.
Cause of Our Joy
The very thought that Jesus would see us through the eyes of mercy, and nonetheless choose us to be his disciples and entrust us with his mission – that very thought ought to bring us a great measure of peace and joy. But let us not lightly trip over the word joy because, in Lent, job one is actually to retrieve the joy we lose by sinning; job one is to retrieve the joy we can experience when we allow Jesus to see us through the eyes of mercy. As St. Teresa of Calcutta often urged us, “Give God permission!”
A word like joy might seem to be kind of obvious but really it is not. It means many things to many different people. For some, joy might be a reaction to a surprise, like an unexpected gift, or a feeling that overtakes one’s heart in the early stages of falling in love. Joy might be thought of as an emotion that accompanies achievement, such as passing one’s comprehensive exams or getting a promotion or a raise. Joy might surprise us after we have taken time to help someone and then receive that person’s thanks and appreciation. Or we might associate joy with pastimes, such as cooking or golf, or another hobby that distracts us from our problems, if only temporarily. Or joy might be thought of as the happiness that comes from friendship or a fleeting feeling of contentment that comes upon us when things seem properly aligned in our lives – as for example, our friendships, our finances, and our professional lives.
All these instances of joy are legitimate and all of us have experienced them. But Christian joy runs deeper. For us who follow Jesus, joy is not a momentary feeling that we generate as the result our efforts and accomplishments or just plain good luck. Rather, joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit – one of the Spirit’s seven gifts. After all, it is only in the Holy Spirit that we can say that “Jesus is Lord” and it is by the Holy Spirit that “the love of God is poured into our hearts” and it is through the Holy Spirit that we receive the forgiveness of our sins. This leads to another kind of joy that is deeper and more permanent than the worldly joy for which we can so easily find ourselves grasping.
Worldly joy is tied to pleasure, to enjoyment – and indeed, there are many wholesome forms of pleasure and enjoyment. But even those things in which we legitimately take pleasure are fleeting. They are meant to be signs or indicators of a deeper and more permanent joy that only the Holy Spirit can impart to us in the depth of our hearts. In one of his daily homilies, Pope Francis said that for us who follow Jesus, joy is like the air we breathe – it cannot be forced and it cannot be purchased. It comes from remembering what the Lord has done for us, how he has loved us, how he has reached out to us, and how persistent is this great lover of our souls. Joy comes when we recognize by faith that there is no love like his – no love that can actually reach the very bottom of our hearts, no love that is as merciful, no love that is as powerful – for this redeeming love of Jesus has the power to bring the entirety of our lives into alignment with the will of our heavenly Father, and when our wills are aligned to the heavenly Father’s – then we have the joy of that permanent friendship with the Triune God, that infinite and majestic love for which we were created. Or, as the immortal Dante put it, “In his will is our peace.”
The Purpose of Lenten Penances
All of which brings us to the purpose of the discipline of Lent, namely, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – three disciplines that can take a multiplicity of forms. People sometimes deride these practices as somewhat infantile – “What are you giving up for Lent, licorice?” Or they will see Lenten penances as a way to earn our way back into God’s good graces – if I give up enough cake and alcohol – why, then, I’m practically on my way to heaven.
Take it from me, the bodily penances of Lent are difficult, and sometimes when you are facing a lot of pressure or coping with some sorrow, these forms of penance are all the harder to undertake. Thus, there is a great danger that the season will slip through our fingers without our engaging the season and its discipline for some spiritual benefit. But what spiritual benefit can we hope to derive from prayer, fasting, & almsgiving – an umbrella term that includes the many forms of charity we can perform. Well, there are various answers to that question but here’s mine: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving do not earn us God’s mercy and forgiveness. Rather, they are the key that unlocks our hearts, the means by which we give God permission to enter our hearts and there, in the power of his life-giving spirit, to convict us of sin, to grant us sincere and perfect contrition, a sorrow for sin based on love, not fear; and then the resolve to experience the depth of God’s mercy and forgiveness in the beautiful Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Through prayer, we encounter the Lord Jesus. It is not so much a matter of talking to the Lord, much less at the Lord. Rather, prayer is more a matter of letting the Lord speak to us, through the pages of Scripture and in the silence of our hearts. When we pray, not merely by rote but from the heart, it is as if the Lord holds up a mirror before our eyes and asks the question, “Are you anything like me?” “Do you resemble me, the Christ of the Beatitudes?” “Is your life shaped by consistent obedience to the law of love?” In this way Jesus reveals us to ourselves and brings to light our most high calling. When we fast – abstaining from food or drink or entertainment or the like – the Lord allows us to experience a deprivation of the bodily senses. It might be hunger, thirst, or a desire for mindless amusement. This deprivation is also an object lesson, for it calls vividly to our minds the deprivation of friendship with the Lord, and thus a deprivation of joy, that is brought about in our lives by sin in its various forms. Then, there is almsgiving – charity in its various forms – a charity that causes us to go out of our way for the sake of others. This charity demands that we repurpose resources we might have used for ourselves. It demands that we focus our time and energy on others less fortunate. And it often demands that we get our hands dirty, perhaps even enter the world of a homeless person or a person who is chronically ill, or a person who is addicted or troubled or abandoned. The deprivation we may feel by engaging in acts of charity is this: we are torn away from our “comfort zone” as Pope Francis often says.
If none of this sounds like joy, then please do not forget the Gospel paradox – ‘in giving we receive and in dying we are reborn to eternal life.’ It is by experiencing something of the deprivation of the Cross in real-life terms that our hearts are unlocked to a torrent of love that washes away our sins, to the life-giving breath of the Spirit who resuscitates our flagging spirit. It is by experiencing something of the Cross, at the level of our senses, that we become free enough and disciplined enough to invite God into our lives, there to bring about in us a thoroughgoing conversion from sin which, left to ourselves, we are powerless to accomplish. Yes, by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we give God permission to forgive us.
Joy in the Lord and Freedom to Serve
Throughout the pages of the Gospel, Jesus often heals the sick and forgives sin. The reaction of those who were thus forgiven is often one of joy and wonderment. They experience a newfound alignment with God, peace with the Lord, and a newfound alignment with themselves, a deep personal peace and joy, and a newfound alignment with those around them, especially their families. Sometimes the Lord asks them to keep this miracle all to themselves but most of the time, those whom he has cured in body and spirit, cannot do so. They end up broadcasting what the Lord in his mercy had done for them.
When we have finally allowed ourselves to be forgiven, we too should feel a deep personal joy and a great sense of wonderment. As Psalm 8 and the Letter to the Hebrews testify, “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him?” (Heb. 2:6; cf. Ps. 8). And more than that, we might ask ourselves, “Who am I that the Lord forgives me?” “Who am I that the Lord deigns to see me through the eyes of mercy, that the Lord never fails to pick me up when I’ve fallen, that the Lord showers mercies on me that are new every morning?”
Deep-seated joy comes when we are lost in the wonder of God’s love but also when we are conscious that a burden has been lifted from our shoulders. The song of the Hebrews that they sang when they were freed from the slavery of Egypt comes to mind: “I heard a tongue I did not know: I removed his shoulder from the burden; his hands were moved away from the basket” (Ps. 81:7). The burden lifted from our shoulders is not necessarily a physical burden but rather the very real if metaphorical burden of guilt and sin and death. Thus we cry out with St. Paul, “He loves me and he gave his life for me” (Gal. 5:22).
When we are freed from the burden of our sins and our guilt, our spirits are set free – free to soar to the heavens where Christ reigns in glory – and free as well to forgive those who have offended us, including those against whom we harbored grudges, those who harmed us, those we harbored bad feelings about, feelings that stymied our spiritual growth. There is a simultaneity involved in receiving God’s forgiveness and forgiving others. As God forgives us, so too our capacity to forgive others should increase; and as our hearts are enlarged by forgiving others, their capacity to receive the fullness of God’s mercy increases. Thus we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The forgiveness of God also has a way of opening our eyes more widely to that neighbor of ours who is truly in need. For forgiveness, when totally embraced by penitential practices, frees us from all forms of self-centered slavery and helps us to cast our gaze upon the other who is also precious in the Lord’s eyes. The joy of forgiveness thus includes the joy of serving the needs of others, whether a perfect stranger or a family member or a co-worker. As we have received much, so now we are in a position to give much, and we have the joy of knowing that God loves a cheerful giver.
A Joyful Season of Repentance!
So, my prayer for you and I hope your prayer for me is this: that during the forty days of Lent we will truly experience the joy of being forgiven, a joy that comes from knowing that the Lord’s love is stronger than our sins, that his mercy has the power to dissolve our feelings of guilt, and that his forgiveness frees us to forgive and serve others. I would recommend that we all receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation several times during the course of Lent and at least once a month at all other times.
The Lord’s mercy is always available to us and his mercy endures forever. May we truly know this Lent and at all times the joy of his forgiveness! And my God bless us and keep us always in his love!