March 20, 2022 –
The Third Sunday of Lent
“But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
We’re all familiar with the practice of giving something up for Lent. The saints show us how to complement that Lenten practice with the practice of doing something positive as well. That is to say, in addition to what we “give up”, we need also to “take up”. We need to take up added prayers and works of mercy.
Sacrifices, prayers, and works of mercy are, of course, commanded by Jesus Himself in the Gospel Reading of Ash Wednesday [Matthew 6:1-6,16-18]. Lent has a powerful ability to bring our spiritual life into focus through these three works. However, there is a danger here that we need to be mindful of.
Lent lasts (roughly) forty days. A year lasts (usually) 365 days. Therefore, Lent is about eleven percent of the calendar year. That’s not a large percentage. Certainly, it’s something to be grateful for when we take Lent seriously and are active in works of sacrifice, prayer, and mercy. But if Easter Week comes and all those works fall by the wayside, something is wrong. God doesn’t want His People running at 11% capacity.
In other words, for the Christian, the works of sacrifice, prayer, and mercy should be a part of one’s daily life: for 365 days a year, not forty. It’s for this reason that Jesus cautions us: “if you do not repent, you will all perish”.
The end Jesus speaks of here is a violent death: not the suffering of martyrdom, but the suffering of hell. Like the vinedresser in the Gospel Reading, God has given us another year in which to make the works of sacrifice, prayer, and mercy our own. God has given us another year in which to see these three works as the discipline—the hoeing and the pruning—by which the Holy Spirit works in our souls.
Jesus is asking each of us to reform our lives. Of course, it is a good practice to give up something we like for forty days in order to grow spiritually. However, we must also consider ourselves to be like children who each year are given more chores and more responsibilities around the home. Each new Church year should see each of us take more spiritual responsibility upon one’s shoulders. The Season of Lent is merely the best time of the year to introduce these responsibilities.
This Sunday’s Second Reading draws our attention back to the Old Testament, back to the desert that stretched between Egypt and Israel, between the slavery of the Pharaoh and the freedom of the Lord. Saint Paul, in preaching to the Christians in Corinth, is reminding them that they, like the Israelites of old, have been freed from slavery. He is reminding them that they, too, are wandering through a desert. He is reminding them that they, too, are seeking a place where they can rest in freedom.
When Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God the Holy Spirit inspired his words. This is the same Holy Spirit who inspired the saints during their earthly days to pray for guidance and strength throughout their lives. This is the same Holy Spirit who is guiding us through the desert of Lent. This is the same Holy Spirit who is guiding us through the often difficult journey of our lives, and who brings into our lives a freedom that bars cannot confine, and that death cannot destroy.
God the Holy Spirit led all the Israelites of old under the same pillar of cloud. God the Father fed all the Israelites of old with the same spiritual food and quenched their thirst with the same spiritual drink. Nonetheless, though God guided all the Israelites, we know that God was not pleased with most of them, for “they were struck down in the desert.”
God was not pleased with most of them because they were never satisfied with what they had. Most of them failed ever to express gratitude to God for what He had done for them as they journeyed through their desert.
We are foolish if we believe that we can journey through a desert without a guide. We seek the Holy Spirit as guide and comforter during Lent, most especially through the Sacrament of Confession. God through Confession graces us not only with forgiveness, but also with strength for works of sacrifice, prayer, and mercy.