Friday, February 20, 2009
MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI FOR LENT 2009
"He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry" (Mt 4,1-2)
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
At the beginning of Lent, which constitutes an itinerary of more intense spiritual training, the Liturgy sets before us again three penitential practices that are very dear to the biblical and Christian tradition – prayer, almsgiving, fasting – to prepare us to better celebrate Easter and thus experience God’s power that, as we shall hear in the Paschal Vigil, “dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy, casts out hatred, brings us peace and humbles earthly pride” (Paschal Præconium). For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to focus my reflections especially on the value and meaning of fasting. Indeed, Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt 4,1-2). Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (cf. Ex 34,28) and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19,8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter.
We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting. In the very first pages of Sacred Scripture, the Lord commands man to abstain from partaking of the prohibited fruit: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2, 16-17). Commenting on the divine injunction, Saint Basil observes that “fasting was ordained in Paradise,” and “the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam.” He thus concludes: “ ‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence” (cf. Sermo de jejunio: PG 31, 163, 98). Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God. Such was the case with Ezra, who, in preparation for the journey from exile back to the Promised Land, calls upon the assembled people to fast so that “we might humble ourselves before our God” (8,21). The Almighty heard their prayer and assured them of His favor and protection. In the same way, the people of Nineveh, responding to Jonah’s call to repentance, proclaimed a fast, as a sign of their sincerity, saying: “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” (3,9). In this instance, too, God saw their works and spared them.
In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who “sees in secret, and will reward you” (Mt 6,18). He Himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4,4). The true fast is thus directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4,34). If, therefore, Adam disobeyed the Lord’s command “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.
The practice of fasting is very present in the first Christian community (cf. Acts 13,3; 14,22; 27,21; 2 Cor 6,5). The Church Fathers, too, speak of the force of fasting to bridle sin, especially the lusts of the “old Adam,” and open in the heart of the believer a path to God. Moreover, fasting is a practice that is encountered frequently and recommended by the saints of every age. Saint Peter Chrysologus writes: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself” (Sermo 43: PL 52, 320. 322).
In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. In the Apostolic Constitution Pænitemini of 1966, the Servant of God Paul VI saw the need to present fasting within the call of every Christian to “no longer live for himself, but for Him who loves him and gave himself for him … he will also have to live for his brethren“ (cf. Ch. I). Lent could be a propitious time to present again the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution, so that the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice may be rediscovered, and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel (cf. Mt 22, 34-40).
The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord. Saint Augustine, who knew all too well his own negative impulses, defining them as “twisted and tangled knottiness” (Confessions, II, 10.18), writes: “I will certainly impose privation, but it is so that he will forgive me, to be pleasing in his eyes, that I may enjoy his delightfulness” (Sermo 400, 3, 3: PL 40, 708). Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.
At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, Saint John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?” (3,17). Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother (cf. Encyclical Deus caritas est, 15). By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up (cf. 2 Cor 8-9; Rm 15, 25-27), the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast (Didascalia Ap., V, 20,18). This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent.
From what I have said thus far, it seems abundantly clear that fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person. Quite opportunely, an ancient hymn of the Lenten liturgy exhorts: “Utamur ergo parcius, / verbis cibis et potibus, / somno, iocis et arctius / perstemus in custodia – Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.”
Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 21). May every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent, therefore, in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor. I am thinking especially of a greater commitment to prayer, lectio divina, recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and active participation in the Eucharist, especially the Holy Sunday Mass. With this interior disposition, let us enter the penitential spirit of Lent. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Causa nostrae laetitiae, accompany and support us in the effort to free our heart from slavery to sin, making it evermore a “living tabernacle of God.” With these wishes, while assuring every believer and ecclesial community of my prayer for a fruitful Lenten journey, I cordially impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, 11 December 2008.
BENEDICTUS PP. XVI
© Copyright 2008 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Not too many years ago, I thought that fasting was too difficult for me. During Lent, I did the obligatory fasting and abstinence the Church requires but no more. My Lenten sacrifices rarely included any type of food. I vaguely recall one year in college when I gave up chocolate for Lent, but I also remember breaking that fast.
A few years ago, I opted to finally give up chocolate for Lent. I thought it would be miserably difficult and almost impossible to do - the ultimate sacrifice. :) My self-discipline, in general, has always needed work. I can be incredibly reliable in doing things that I want to do, but if I do not want to do it, that is a whole other story.
Instead, giving up chocolate was a gift! It was only difficult on a few occasions, and I was successful in making that sacrifice. It proved to me that I was capable of such self-discipline, finally mature enough to control my cravings. The following year, I also gave up chocolate, and the year following, I gave up all sweets. A bit of spiritual pride ensued, of course, which I continue to battle.
But only recently, within the past few months, have I made fasting a part of my daily life and not restricted it to Lent. Our mother's group felt a calling to fast and pray one day a week for holy priests and the priests of our homes (our husbands) through the intercession of St. Joseph. As soon as I heard the idea, I knew God was asking this of me. It was a new challenge, something I had never done before (fast outside of Lent).
In the beginning, I skipped lunch and did not snack between breakfast and dinner. Since I do not eat much anyway, this seemed a simple way to start and ended up being relatively easy. Within a few weeks, though, I began to skip breakfast, as well. Now, on Wednesdays, my practice is to not eat anything until dinner. I drink fluids throughout the day, especially tea to keep me going, and I can say that I genuinely feel hunger in the middle of the day.
The graces brought through this sacrifice, however, have been tremendous! Thanks be to God, Wednesdays are truly my best days! I am in the most control of my tongue and my heart is focused on kindness and compassion towards my children and others. Because the lack of food causes me to slow down, this bit of fuzzy-brain requires that I focus carefully on what is really important. And, when I feel the hunger, I offer it for others.
These graces are now starting to overflow into other days of the week when I am not fasting, and such positive results come more naturally. I guess inadvertently training myself to gentleness on days of fasting has made it more of a habit during the rest of the week. The biggest joy has been to see that through prayer and fasting I really can change some bad habits! I have always prayed to change (and worked at it), but until I began fasting, I never really saw significant results. Putting them together is the key.
The Holy Father's insistence that fasting integrated with prayer become a more regular part of our Lenten journey has me in awe. I am praying and discerning what the Lord wants me to sacrifice during Lent and what my fasting will look like. I urge you to do the same. Fasting, far from being a painful struggle, is really a grace, allowing us to depend entirely on God and offer that complete gift of self John Paul II so often mentioned. When our tummies rumble, the only way we can overcome the feeling is to offer it to the Lord, which trains our souls to turn to Him every day!
Just as fasting from food gave Jesus the strength to overcome temptation in the desert, our fasting can give us the gift of His strength to conquer our own sinfulness. This is only logical, and I have seen firsthand the truth of this Gospel message. The kind of fasting Pope Benedict is encouraging is not our culture's type of fasting for the purpose of dieting or cleansing of our systems. Its purpose is to cleanse our souls, wipe them clean from sinfulness, and bring about our salvation.
May you, dear readers, be mightily blessed by fasting and prayer this Lent and beyond!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
—he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.
"He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."
Ever since Vacation Bible School last summer, I love this Gospel story! What amazing friends this person has! There was a song on our VBS CD about this healing, and it is full of energy and faith. Here are the words:
It was a moment of desperation for my three friends and me.
We heard the Miracle Worker was somewhere down the street
We ran to get our sick friend, and we carried him in his bed
When we got to the house it was crowded and somebody turned and said,
"Better give up now. Better give in now. No way he's gonna see Jesus.
Better give up now. Better give in now. No way he's gonna be healed."
It didn't stop my determination. We had to find a way
To get our friend before Jesus, so we climbed to the roof that day.
We lifted up our sick friend by hoisting up his bed.
I gathered my friends around me and this is what I said,
"Tear the roof off, everybody. There's a way he's gonna see Jesus.
Tear the roof off, everybody. There's a way he's gonna be healed.
Don't give up now. Don't give in now. There's a way he's gonna see Jesus.
Tear the roof off, everybody. Our friend is gonna be healed."
It was a moment of inspiration to lower that bed down in.
When Jesus saw our faith, He said, "Son, I forgive your sins."
Some religious men were angry, said, "Only God forgives our sin."
Jesus knew what they were thinking, He said, "Son, get up and walk again."
Tear the roof off, everybody. There's a way he's gonna see Jesus.
Tear the roof off, everybody. There's a way he's gonna be healed.
Don't give up now. Don't give in now. There's a way he's gonna see Jesus.
Tear the roof off, everybody. Our friend is gonna be healed.
(I wish I could play the song for you, but if you want to giggle at some brave young adults trying to entertain a VBS crowd - and hear how fun and funky the song is -, this video is the song above.)
These people are so determined to get their paralyzed friend in to see Jesus that they take apart the roof and lower him down! Are we that devoted to our friends? What are we doing to bring our friends to Christ? Sure, we all live good lives and try to be an example to others, but are we inviting people to Mass if they do not go? to Adoration if they do not go? to some sort of class or retreat? to Confession if it has been too long?
Are we inviting them to really sit down with us and talk about our spiritual struggles and how Jesus has healed us in our lives? I cannot imagine that one single friend of mine would not appreciate a heartfelt discussion about faith. I appreciate these talks myself!
We are all called to evangelize; we know this. But, we are not asked to only evangelize to those outside of the fold. I think our life goal needs to be to get to Heaven and take as many people with us as possible. So, we must evangelize in our homes, in our families, in our neighborhoods, and with our friends, as well as out in our community among the poor and faithless.
Our faith needs to be openly discussed as part of everyday conversation, no matter how awkward or difficult it may be. If we are rejected, then all we can do is pray for that person, but we have to be witnesses to the light we have been given! We must bring others to Christ in whatever ways we can. Lord, give us the courage to show others your love in this way!
Are we ready to tear the roof off and go out of our way to get others to the Lord? Lent is about to begin. Let us use this time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to really reflect on how we can not only find our own salvation but, perhaps more importantly, facilitate that of others, especially those whom we love the most!
Sunday, February 15, 2009
First of all, I begged God to not send so much wind this time, and that prayer was answered. It was a beautiful, sunny day, a little hot but tolerable! We opened with prayer, as usual. I think it might soon be time to teach them another opening song, since they have all mastered Mother Mary very well!
As I got the girls settled, I gave another little presentation on Faith and St. Catherine of Siena to elaborate on what we started last time. We started by processing the Blindfolded Obstacle Course we did last week. I asked the girls how it felt to lead, how it felt to follow, and what it had to do with Faith. Their answers were amazing, from the four-year-olds to the eleven-year-olds!
Then, we talked about things we cannot see. I talked about rocks on the moon and asked the girls how they know they are there, loosely basing it on this idea - http://www.kidssundayschool.com/Gradeschool/Activities/1activity01a.php. I also held up the book Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss and asked for a summary of the story and how Horton knows there is a town on the clover when he cannot see it.
Next, we discussed things we cannot understand. A little out of order, I followed the following lesson - http://www.sermons4kids.com/understand.html. I thought this did a great job of demonstrating the concept of believing while not understanding until after the meeting one little five-year-old and one little six-year-old told me separately she could explain to me how a flashlight works. LOL! Of course, I connected all of this to how we cannot see God and we cannot fully understand God, but we still must believe.
We talked about how it is not always easy to have faith in God, and I read a story about St. Catherine from William Bennett's Book of Virtues that demonstrated what God can do with our small acts of faith. The story is about how she gave an old, worn, tiny silver cross she had to a poor man who needed food, because it was all she had. Later, while praying, she had a vision of Jesus in a room of treasures and in His hand was the tiny silver cross changed into gold and surrounded by jewels.
I had intended to also talk about sin and how it can keep us from faith and how the world around us is full of temptation, but the natives were restless. So, I saved that for another day, and we went straight into our craft. This was a success, I thought!
The idea came from a thread on the Little Flowers Leader's yahoo group and was to make a plaque out of Popsicle sticks to hang somewhere to remind you of your faith. I printed pictures of St. Catherine and St. Therese, as well as the Act of Faith and Scripture verse we are memorizing for Faith, off the computer in color on card stick. Then, the girls glued together the sticks, added a picture, prayer, and/or verse, and decorated with glitter glue, fabric paint, stickers, and markers. We also glued a ribbon to the top for hanging.
The smallest girls, ages four and five, instead decorated paper mache plaques I found at Michael's. I thought the gluing of the Popsicle sticks might frustrate them, and they had a great time decorating the plaques! Both projects turned out great, and now they have something to put in their room. My daughter has hung her St. Therese plaque on her bed, and tonight I caught her kneeling before it with her hands folded. My heart sighed.
Snack break was next. The girls then split back up into their rose groups and went away from the pavilion with their leader moms. I gave them the M&M Questions below. Basically, each girl picks so many M&Ms. Then, they answer the questions that correspond to the colors of their M&Ms. The youngest group did one, and the oldest group did four. It looked like it went well, although I was unable to ask the leaders at the end.
Since the younger girls finished first, I was ready with the Scripture verse song from the Little Flowers CD. As the groups finished, they came over and practiced singing the verse. This was the first time we did this, and the girls really caught on fast. I had a poster board where I had put the words to the verse. We held it up and sang until all four rose groups were finished and sang it two more times for the last group.
I explained to the girls that the patches would be handed out in a few weeks for those who have completed their Faith Patch Projects. Several girls turned in completed sheets. Many moms told me their daughters wanted to do more than the mom would have expected, mine included. I asked her to pick three to five things, and she filled all twelve lines on the page. This week and next, we will see what we can get done. She has done three or four already, I think.
Finally, we closed in prayer and recited the longer Act of Faith in the Leader's Manual that I had put on a poster board, as well. That was nice. It is working really well for the girls to write down their own prayer intentions. I need to remind the leaders of the youngest rose group to ask the girls for prayers, since they cannot yet write on their own.
We are going to start having a Water Mom in addition to a Snack Mom and a Drink Mom, because it is getting warmer. The girls were thirsty before the meeting ever started, but I knew if we gave them the juice for snack time, they would be really thirsty at snack time. I am also starting to look for an indoor meeting location, so we can continue to meet through some of the summer. Several of the mothers told me they hope we only take a short break, so that is my plan.
I am learning that there is very little for our children to do here during the summer, mostly because of the heat, but also because some families go away for most of the summer. I hope the Little Flowers meetings will be something for those who do stay to look forward to attending.
When I see the girls at Mass or at Park, they seem very excited to be a part of Little Flowers and often come share something with me. I also hear that they are enjoying the opportunities to talk with their mothers and fathers at home about their faith while working on their Patch Projects. Praise God! May He help me in my unbelief and strengthen my faith through these precious children!