Pope Benedict: How to Make a Good Lent

(Homily for Ash Wednesday)

Bottom line: Pope Benedict explains the three tasks for Lent with special emphasis on almsgiving.

Pope Benedict stunned the world by announcing his resignation, effective February 28. I feel mixed emotions - sadness that physical weakness makes him unable to continue in this office. At the same time, I feel a tremendous gratitude to have been a priest under two of the most amazing men to occupy the Chair of Peter - Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. As we begin Lent I ask you to join with me in prayer for Pope Benedict in the final weeks of his papacy - and for the cardinals as they meet in March to elect a new pope.

Along with sadness and appreciation, the pope's announcement has also brought some humor. One jokester quipped: The pope has set a really high bar for giving up something Lent! Whatever you and I give up, it will not be so dramatic as...giving up the papacy!

Humor aside, that does raise the question: how will you and I observe Lent 2013? We are living at a crossroads in human history - and in our own lives. How we observe Lent has more urgency than ever. I can think of no better person to help us than Pope Benedict himself. For this homily I would like what Pope Benedict wrote about how to observe the season of Lent.

In a Lenten message Pope Benedict gave some concrete suggestions. He recalls the three basic Lenten "tasks" - prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Sometimes people think that these practices are passé, that Jesus has somehow spiritualized everything. You know, it's the 21st century - we don't have to get on our knees, or reach into our wallets or pass up a tempting dessert. For people who have fallen into a vague "spirituality," I ask them to re-read today's Gospel. Jesus does not say, "If you fast." He says, "When you fast." He does not say, "If you feel like praying." He says, "When you pray." Nor does he say, "Give if you happen to have something extra." No, he says, "When you give alms."

That last penitential practice - almsgiving - is what the Holy Father focuses on in his message. He notes that Jesus "became poor for us." That, he says, is what Lent, and especially Holy Week, is about: Jesus' abject poverty, his self-emptying for our salvation. He became poor for us so that we might become rich. Becoming rich refers to sharing God's life. It also includes temporal blessings. They are a sign of God's goodness, his abundance. Jesus puts those things in our hands, says Pope Benedict, so that we can assist those in need. That is what we mean by almsgiving.

The pope points out that giving alms not only helps the person who receives. More important, it helps the person who gives. Almsgiving, says the pope, is "an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods." The force of material riches attracts us and they can easily become an idol. If that happens, we cut ourselves off from God. Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and mammon." The person who gives alms rejects the idol of mammon and, instead, serves God.

Almsgiving - also known as generosity - has complications. I honestly do not give to every person who shows up or to people with cardboard signs. Generosity means being a good steward, using one's 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. I ask you to do something similar.

Many people ask, "How can I help the poor when I am in so much debt?" That's a tough question. Lent is a good moment to address the issue of family finances. You can find a lot of help from a man named Phil Lenehan. I encourage you to take a look at his website. In the bulletin I've put some information about his program: "How Getting Your Spiritual House in Order Helps You Get Your Financial House in Order." Putting one's life in order, returning to God - that's what Lent is about.

Almsgiving, generosity, builds on prayer and fasting. On other occasions I have asked you to spend at least 20 minutes each day in prayer. Are you doing that? If not, Lent is a good time to begin. St. Alphonsus said "Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned." You can find that quote in this book (hold up) - the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism gives this description: "prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy." If you want to know what prayer is, read the Catechism. The important thing is to get started.

Along with prayer comes fasting. Like almsgiving, fasting can be a bit tricky. 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 linguine. We are not Manicheans or Puritans. We enjoy food and the conviviality that often accompanies a good meal. Nevertheless we also must find a place for fasting. Start with meatless Fridays. On the seven Fridays of Lent, we abstain from meat - that is, beef, chicken, pork, all warm-blooded animals. The U.S. bishops are considering a return to meatless Fridays - a very good idea. The bishops of England and Wales have already reinstated this practice. But we do not need to wait for our bishops. Friday abstinence - in honor of Jesus' Passion - is a good penitential practice. 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.

So fasting, prayer - and then generosity, these are the three ways of returning to God. I would like to now give you something to help you with these Lenten practices. 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, put it together (hold up) and place it on your dining table. Inside you will find a guide for Lent, including simple recipes from around the world. The Rice Bowl will help you pray, fast and share.

So, brothers and sisters, welcome to Lent. In a few moments you will received blessed ashes on your forehead. Everyone - from infants to seniors - can receive the ashes. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Therefore, repent and believe the Gospel. And the Gospel is this: Jesus, who did not know sin, became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Hear his invitation: Return to me with your whole heart. Amen.

As your receive the ashes at this Mass, I invite you to make a good Lent: to do voluntary fasting, to find new moments for prayer and - in response to the message of the Holy Father - help the needy and yourself by giving alms. Welcome to Lent!


Spanish Version

From Archives (Ash Wednesday homilies):

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"):

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 (St. Mary's Parish)

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Parish Picture Album

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Seattle Men's Conference

March 2, 2013 at St. Mary of the Valley, Monroe

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