Back to the Basics

(Homily for Ash Wednesday)

When parents send their children to school, they want them to learn the basics: how to read, write, and work with numbers. With those three skills - reading, writing and arithmetic - a child can succeed in this world. Today Jesus gives us the three basics in order to succeed spiritually, that is, to attain a relationship with God. Not only Jews and Christians have practiced them, but almost every religion in the world has followed them. The three basics are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Of the three basics, prayer has first place. Quoting St. Alphonsus, the Catechism states: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.”* Salvation is an eternal relationship with the Triune God in the Communion of Saints. That relationship begins in this life - or it does not begin at all. To use a human comparison: If you desire friendship - that is, a relationship with another human being - you have to do things together, be in each others presence, talk...and listen. The same applies in our friendship with God. It will not happen automatically. For sure, the most important is what you are doing now, participating in the Mass. It is the greatest prayer because it renews Jesus’ sacrifice which opens heaven to us. After Mass, next in importance is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. During Lent we might make a resolution to come a few minutes early or to spend some time in our Adoration Chapel. Here are some other things you can do: Read a good spiritual book, such as the writings of C.S. Lewis or Peter Kreeft, which will help you focus on God. Pray the rosary or take a walk asking the Lord to accompany you. As Jesus says, don’t do it for show – so that people will think what a spiritual person you are – but to grow in your friendship with Jesus.

The second basic practice is fasting. This is tricky for us today. Our culture has so much guilt around food that I am afraid of adding to that guilt, making you feel bad about eating a Big Mac or a plate of linguini. We should certainly enjoy food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal. Nevertheless we also must find a place for fasting. Until about 1960, every generation of Christians fasted. It's time to return to the practice. I cannot say I am a great example, but I can help you make a start. Give up for Lent some food you particularly enjoy. Cut out eating between meals or – I am speaking to myself now – that snack before bedtime. When I do it, a voice inside of me says, “Oh no, don’t go to bed hungry.” But the times I have done it, I survived fine. At a very minimum we must follow the rules of no meat today and the seven Fridays of Lent. If you are under fourteen, talk to your parents about it; few children will suffer a negative consequence from eating tuna fish or macaroni and cheese instead of fried chicken. Fasting, giving up some favorite food or eating less, reminds us that if we are going to get to heaven we must deny immediate impulses, take up our cross and follow Jesus. The goal of fasting is not to have a sleek body one can be proud of. Some saints were quite corpulent, others were virtual skeletons, but they had this in common: They practiced the voluntary self-denial of fasting.

Finally, we come to almsgiving. This practice, while simple in itself, has some complications today. I honestly do not give to every person who shows up or to the people with cardboard signs at stoplights. It is not so much stinginess as a desire to be a good steward, to use resources in the best possible way to help others. For me this means supporting the parish and the archdiocese - and helping the needy in Peru. St. John Chrysostom said that after we have satisfied our own basic needs and of those we are directly responsible for, all the rest belongs to the poor: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” (Homily on Lazarus) Lent is time to look at the things I spend my money on. Do I really need that new book or could I go to the library? How about what I spend on other things? Lent is also a great time – and I am really speaking personally here – Lent is good time get rid of some of the clutter in ones room and ones life. With a bit more organization, I could better serve the needy. We do this not so that people will consider us generous. Someone who gives one dollar might in reality be more generous than any of us. On the other hand, Bill Gates gives away more in a week than all of us together will give away in a lifetime, but that does not necessarily mean he is more generous than you and I. We have to give not by human standards, but according to God's generosity. If we did, our world would not have children living in dire want.

I would like to give something very practical to remind you of the three basics. It is a flat piece of cardboard that you can form into a small box called a “Rice Bowl.” I ask you to take one, place it on your dining table. Say the prayer on the side - and as you do some voluntary fasting, place in the box what you save. Then bring the Rice Bowl to the church on Easter Sunday. It will help you during Lent to fast, pray and give alms.

In a few minutes, we will each receive a black cross on our foreheads. It reminds us that soon, very soon, you and I will return to dust. How do you want to use the time God has allotted to you? Lent calls us back to basics: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.


*Here is the full text of paragraph 2744:

Prayer is a vital necessity. Proof from the contrary is no less convincing: if we do not allow the Spirit to lead us, we fall back into the slavery of sin. How can the Holy Spirit be our life if our heart is far from him? Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult, easy. . . . For it is impossible, utterly impossible, for the man who prays eagerly and invokes God ceaselessly ever to sin. (St. John Chrysostom) Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned. (St. Alphonsus Liguori)

Spanish Version

From Archives (Ash Wednesday Homilies):

First Things
New Mind and Heart
Go to Your Inner Room
Return to Me
The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2016: First Things: Prayer
2015: New Mind and Heart Week 1
2014: Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1
2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012: The Convenant with Noah Today
2011: The Purpose of Temptation
2010: Who Is Like God?
2009: Knee Mail
2008: The Devil is a Logician
2007: More Powerful than Satan
2006: Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005: The Temptation of Sloth
2004: Temptation of Spirituality
2003: Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002: First Signs of Spring
2001: How Satan Operates
2000: The Rabbit's Foot
1999: Original Sin & Temptation
1998: Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997: Jesus' Temptation & Ours

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Participation in Sunday Mass)


my bulletin column

SMV Bulletin (be patient - sometimes we have problems uploading)

Parish Picture Album

Separated at birth?

40 Days for Life (Everett, WA)

From Fr. Frank Pavone:

The recent revelations about Planned Parenthood’s willingness to cover up sexual exploitation build on revelations uncovered many years ago. Life Dynamics called hundreds of Planned Parenthood facilities nationwide. The caller, posing as a minor made pregnant by statutory rape, was consistently taught how to lie so that the abortion clinic would not have to report the incident.

As I always say, you can’t practice vice virtuously. Planned Parenthood carries out, justifies, defends, and even celebrates the horrifying dismemberment of children in the womb. After doing that, they are hardly going to have much of a conscience left in regard to any other kind of right and wrong. If one devalues the child in the womb, one will devalue the child outside the womb.

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