Sunday, 13 March 2011

Giving Up Joyfully! 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 4:1-11; Gen 2:7-3:7
We’re starting Lent now, when the Church fasts and prays in a particular way, and when we typically express this in small acts of “giving something up” for Lent. Today, I want to say a few words about why ‘giving things up’ should make us happy not sad.
I was thinking about this recently because a parishioner said, “You’ve given up so much for us as a priest, the opportunity of a decent salary, of a wife and children.” I could have responded by adding a few other things I’ve given up to be a priest! But instead I said what first came to my mind, which was that I don’t live my life feeling like I’ve given up much at all, I think I’m the happiest person in the parish, and there is no-one here I’d rather be.
Now, no doubt someone is going to come up to me at the end of Mass and say, “Father, you’re not the happiest person in the parish –I am!” And maybe we can have a competition to determine who is the happiest! But regardless, my point is that I’M certainly not miserable. And I want to take this as an illustration of how we shouldn’t expect that “giving things up” should make us unhappy.

I want to take a step back, however, and note that there is fear that sometimes lurks within us whereby we somehow think we can out-do God in generosity. That you might give up something, you might give Him this thing and He would respond without being even more generous to you.
Well, let’s remember the promise of Scripture, that “whoever sows generously will also reap generously”(2 Cor 9:6).
And this applies to Lent also.

That same passage of Scripture says, “God loves a CHEERFUL giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). When we give things up for God in Lent we need to try to do so with a light and cheerful heart not with a heavy heart –with a heart that trustfully and happily expects to get more back from God than we give.
For example, one of the things I’m off for Lent is alcohol. It is more than possible that at 9pm on Saturday night I might find myself starting to reach for the bottle, but then stop myself and crabbily say to God, “Oh, alright then, if it really matters that much to you, then I won’t have a whisky tonight!” That would not be cheerful giving!

But HOW do we give cheerfully? After all, in the short term any act of self-denial is hard. Well, there are a number of things we need to bear in mind, and to make as part of a small prayer each time we are giving something up:
First, to recall the many promises of Scripture that show He will not be out-done in generosity.
Second, to recall that He is with us in this act of self-denial. After all, we are doing this 40 days of Lent to go with Him into the desert as He went into the desert for 40 days of prayer and fasting. We have Him, and His strength, with us.
Third, we need to have the long-term goal before our eyes. The long-term happiness:

The goal of Lent is to take us to Easter. The goal of Jesus dying on the Cross was to bring us the new Resurrected life of Easter. That journey wasn’t easy for Him, and it’s not easy for us. To have the Old Man of sin (Adam) die and the New Man (Christ) live in us is a struggle. Our first reading outlined how Adam and Eve fell in sin, and we go into the desert of Lent to gradually have grace transform us from that fallen state to that of Christ. It’s a long road, the Royal Road of the Cross, but Lent leads us to a Resurrection –if we enter into it properly.

To bring this to a practical conclusion. The Catholic tradition offers us the 3 remedies for sin in this holy season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving –and we should seek a least a little of each of these 3.
(i) “Giving something up for Lent” is a small act of fasting –compare that with the way Muslim fast in Ramadan, or the way Catholics in the past fasted more vigorously. If you want some suggestions for things to give up for Lent look in the list of suggestions in the newsletter (as copied below this sermon);
(ii) Prayer needs to be the spirit with which we do this “giving up”, but is also something important in itself. Maybe add as little as extra Hail Mary each day in Lent. Or, especially for the many of you who are retired: attending weekday Mass at least one extra day per week in Lent would bring you many graces. Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings would also be very valuable. Maybe a decade of the Rosary. Resolve on one!
(iii) Finally, Almsgiving –giving to the poor, to others, in some form. Following our Ash Wednesday fasting we have a retiring collection today, that’s one way of giving. But maybe also some little act around the home or for our neighbour.

Lent is supposed to change us: it should make us generous in almsgiving. But, back to where I began, it should not make us miserable, it should make us joyful in Christ. Joyful enough that we should all strive to say, “What I’ve given up has left me the happiest person in the parish!”
from this week's newsletter:
Giving Things Up For Lent
The season that the prayers of the Church call "this joyful season" started last Wednesday. Have you thought yet about what to give up this Lent? How about one or more of: meat, alcohol, TV (maybe for one day a week at least), dessert, chocolate, unnecessary internet surfing, coffee, tea, computer games, cheese, your favourite TV soap opera, crisps, your favourite snack food, reading blogs, facebook, eating at restaurants, give up or restrict your use of your favourite radio station, limit yourself to one coffee per day. Why is Lent "joyful" when we are giving things up? Because it helps us orient ourselves to our true joy in God in heaven.

Why is it good for us to 'give things up for Lent'?
The practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’ is an important way of fasting. Fasting is good for us for five reasons: First, at a human level, like dieting, fasting disciplines our desires. Second, at a supernatural level, more than mere dieting, fasting is a prayer. It thus needs to be offered to God; ‘offer your very bodies as a living sacrifice acceptable to God’ (Rom 12:1). In particular, fasting is something we can offer in reparation for our sins. Third, fasting (and any form of penance) is also a means of detachment from the things of this world and attachment to the everlasting realities of the next. Fourth, fasting can free up our hearts to better enable us to love others. One way we do this is by the traditional Lenten practice of giving to the poor. Fifth, and most importantly, fasting unites us to Jesus: Jesus went into the desert and fasted and prayed for us for 40 days, in Lent we go into a spiritual desert to be with Jesus for 40 days of fasting and praying. Uniting ourselves to Jesus's suffering unitesus , above all, to His suffering on the Cross which is the path to the new life of the Resurrection, the new transforming life of grace within us.
Finally, this can be summed up by noting the Church’s threefold Lenten remedy for sin: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). These three should all go together, not in opposition, i.e. it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I’m not giving up things, I’m doing something positive!’ Each of us would do well to add a small part of each of these three to our Lenten season: add a small prayer to your usual daily or weekly routine, give something up for Lent, and give some money to a good charity.

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