Posts Tagged ‘almsgiving’

What is Lent All About

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Wednesday Ecumenical Service

Luke 4: 1-19

Deacon Larry Brockman

Lent!  It’s that time of year 40 days before Easter when some people give up chocolate or beer or any one of a number of things.  Why?  What’s it really all about?   

Well this Gospel talks very clearly about it.  You see, Jesus lived the very first Lent.  After his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, our Gospel today tells us that, filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, and that he ate nothing in those days.  That means that Jesus fasted for 40 days.  And why did he go into the desert?  To pray and reflect on his life.  Jesus felt the need to go into the Wilderness and reflect on his life!   

At the end of the reading today, we see that Jesus’ entire life changed after those 40 days.  Rather than being a humble neighborhood Carpenter in the sleepy village of Nazareth in the Hill Country, as Jesus had been for some 20 years of his life- 20 years, Jesus emerged as a teacher of a new way of life.  He visited all the Synagogues in the area and preached a message of repentance and renewing one’s relationship with God.  And all who heard him were moved by his message.   

Then in his home town, he made his mission abundantly clear.  For in Nazareth, Jesus read words from the scroll of Isaiah.  Those words described his mission., the mission of the one and only Messiah- the Christ.  And Jesus boldly told his own people that he was that Messiah; that he was fulfilling the prophecy in their own hearing.  Jesus life had indeed changed forever.  

So, Jesus emerged changed from his 40-day Lenten retreat, for that 40 days prepared him for what God wanted him to do.  Jesus emerged with the understanding that he was the Son of God; and Jesus emerged with knowledge of God’s will for him as a human person.  Jesus was ready for the mission to preach, suffer, die, and be resurrected; all to bring each one of us who follow him everlasting life in the Kingdom of God.   

Lent is simply that time in the Church Calendar when each of us is called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  We are called to prepare ourselves for the resurrection and everlasting life.  We are called to spend time “in the desert” fasting, praying, and resolving to find our mission, God’s will for us.  We are called to look forward; not backwards.  We are called to leave our sin and imperfections behind, and to be transformed by that desert experience.     

By the year 300, Lent had emerged in the Christian Church as a time of penance and reflection for the 40 days leading to Easter.  There were very strict fasting rules imposed by the early Church.  In fact, the original fast rules only allowed one meal a day at Noon, and no meat was allowed at that meal.  These rules have been greatly relaxed in virtually all the congregations that still practice Lent formally.  But the need for Lent still exists.     

Oh, before I forget it, let me mention why Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  Some of you can and probably have done the math.  If Lent is 6 weeks and 4 days long, that’s actually 46 days.  But because Sunday was always considered a day of celebration in commemoration of the Resurrection , the Church exempted the six Sundays of Lent from the Lenten fast.  Also, the word Lent is rooted in an Anglo-Saxon word that means “Spring”.  This is because Spring is the emergence of new life, a new beginning.  That is what our Lenten experience should do for us.  It should help us to leave old sinful ways behind and emerge refreshed in spirit for a new beginning.  While this is the root of the English term we use for the Season of Lent, the fact is that in most other languages, the word used for Lent is a derivative of the word 40; the emphasis is that the renewal is spread over 40 days.     

So, Lent has been part of the Church calendar since the very first centuries of the Church.  Let’s take a closer look at what happened in the Gospel this morning, and perhaps that will give us a few clues about how to spend our Lenten season.   

First, let me describe a few historical things about why Jesus did what he did.  Some of you may be familiar with the book of Jonah.  Almost everybody knows about Jonah and the whale.  But there’s more to the story than that.   

You see, Jonah tried to run away from God because he didn’t want to follow God’s orders to him to prophesy to the people of Nineveh.  Jonah had been told to march through the huge city of Nineveh and to preach a call for repentance by the people because the people of Nineveh had sinned greatly.  Jonah was afraid to march through Nineveh and make that proclamation; and what’s more, he detested the people of Nineveh over the great evil that came from within it.  So, he fled on a ship; but was thrown overboard by the crew when he revealed his secret.  You see, the crew blamed Jonah for the terrible storm that hit the ship because he had angered the Lord.  It was then that Jonah was swallowed by the whale.  From within the belly of the whale, Jonah makes a fervent cry for mercy to the Lord, and a promise to do God’s will.  After 3 days and three nights, Jonah was spat forth on dry land by the whale.   

Then Jonah did, in fact, march through the city and preach repentance.  He told the people that they had just 40 days before Nineveh would be destroyed.   But alas, what did the people do?  According to the book of Jonah, the people put on sackcloth and fasted; and the King of Nineveh arose from his throne, put on sackcloth, and urged the people to repent.  He issued a decree that all the citizens should repent of their evil fast.  And the people did precisely that. 

Meanwhile, Jonah climbed a hill overlooking the city, and awaited the destruction of Nineveh.  It never came because the people had repented; they had changed their lives and had shown humility and contrition for their offenses.   

Now I am sure the symbolism in this story hasn’t escaped you.  The people had just 40 days to repent.  They put on sackcloth, an itchy, horrible irritating self-mortifying way to walk around.  And they fasted, a common practice associated with penance.    Jonah was in the whale for 3 days and three nights.

Later in Jewish history, these elements were copied by many Jewish people who were looking to reflect on their lives.  They would dress in sackcloth, fast, and go into the wilderness for 40 days to reflect.  In fact, that is precisely what John the Baptist did before he emerged for his Baptismal ministry.  And by the way, those who were planning to enter the early Church, the Catechumenates, were required to put on sackcloth and fast beginning Ash Wednesday!  They maintained that practice during all of Lent.  

And so, it is not surprising that Jesus, who was a devout Jew, would do the same thing- go into the desert for 40 days and wear sackcloth and fast while he reflected on his life.   

Notice that the Gospel this morning mentions Jesus’ fast explicitly.  It says He ate nothing.  Why is fasting considered a requirement and what value does it have?  Well, many mystics have commented on how much fasting helps one to concentrate, to put one in the right mode for reflection.  I am sure most of you experience that mid-afternoon slumber that comes after a fine lunch.  It does make it hard to concentrate without a nap first!  Indeed, there is validity to the Mystics assertion to be sure.   

But there are symbolic reasons for fasting as well.  Consider this- Adam and Eve were asked to do a partial fast.  They were not to eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Sin came into the world as a result of the fact that Adam and Eve broke this partial fast.  And so, when we fast, we display a measure of self-discipline that is in the spirit of God’s desire for our first parents.  We are demonstrating that we will self-sacrifice something in our life as a symbol of our intent to comply with God’s will, not our own.   

Now today, I think that it is appropriate to talk about other kinds of fasting rather than just fasting from food because the reason that most of us can’t find the time to reflect on our lives during the season of Lent  Is that we are just too hung up on activities in our lives.  We get stuck in a routine that eats up all our time.  Reading fiction, surfing the internet, Facebook, checking e-mails, watching TV, playing cards, various clubs, and on and on.  These activities can sap our time so that we don’t have the time, and in some cases, we don’t have the energy to reflect and repent of our ways.  So, if you decide to make a Lenten Fast resolution, consider fasting from something that robs you of the time you really need for prayer and reflection.   

Notice that the Gospel this morning is silent on how Jesus prayed and reflected.  Only this do we know for sure:  that Jesus did his 40 days in the Wilderness or Desert; that he went there to pray; and that he was tempted by the devil.   

Now going into the wilderness is an extremely valuable tidbit of information.  You see, that means Jesus needed to go to a place where there would be no distractions.  Our desert can be the sanctity and solitude of our own homes or rooms.  But of course, that means we turn the ringers off on our phones and cell phones; we turn the radio or TV off, and truly make an effort to reflect in silence and without distractions, because distractions are a perfect way for the devil to derail us, you can be sure.  And it is best to get into a prayer routine.  Pick a time and place every day for your prayer so that you get into a routine.  

I recently conducted a Bible Study called “Lectio Prayer”.  It was based on an age-old practice called “Lectio Divina”.   This is a Latin term for prayerful reading of the holy scriptures.  The idea is that our prayer life is enhanced by using Lectio Divina.  You see, the author of that study made this interesting point.  He said that all prayer is initiated by God.  So, that means we have to listen to God initiate prayer.   

You know, we should all approach our prayer relationship with God like we approach a friendship.  A true friend listens to what we have to say; but to be a true friend, we have to listen to them as well.  And God’s agenda for us is always more perfect than anything we might conjure up for ourselves.  So, opening your prayer with a long list of requests and complaints doesn’t seem like the way to talk to a friend; and it is definitely not the way to talk to God.   We should start our prayer humbly asking God to talk to us and be prepared to listen.   

Now I am sure many of you recognize that God speaks to us in very subtle, gentle ways.  But God does speak to us through the scriptures, the word of God.  When we read scriptures, something usually leaps out at us.  That is often God’s way of asking us to reflect more on it.   

And God speaks to us in those nagging feelings you have that something is wrong in your life.  They are God calling you to reflect and change something.  Take advantage of the time and solitude you make available in Lent to ponder God’s messages for you, and then get focused for the future, focus on making your life better in God’s eyes.   

When you are done with your reflecting and prayer, hopefully you will emerge with a new Spirit of enthusiasm for life and a determination to act on God’s will for you.  In a sense, this call to action is akin to “Almsgiving”.    Any material favor done to assist the needy, and prompted by charity, is “almsgiving”.  But what is important is that we give of ourselves out of charity, whether it is time, talent, or treasure that we give.  To be sure, a generous contribution of money really helps the poor.  But our Lenten renewal is about more than that; it means giving of yourself, especially in areas that you have the time to help in; or the talent to do something that really helps someone else.  As an example, in a place like this, there can be many lonely or new people.  Extending ourselves to these people is a legitimate form of almsgiving.   

That brings us to the majority of today’s reading- the three temptations of Jesus.  Jesus’ Lenten experience was certainly not unique in that respect.  You can be sure that the devil is going to try to derail whatever progress you make in your prayer life, especially if you are resolving to make a change and improve your life.   

Notice that Jesus three temptations are at the end of the 40 days, not at the beginning or in the middle.  The devil will do or say anything to keep us from performing the will of the Father.  He wants us to focus on our own comfort and the satisfaction of our own desires above everything else.  And so, the devil attacked Jesus after he was ready to return from his Lenten experience and do his Father’s will.   

Let’s take a look at each temptation and see if they apply to us as well.  First, Jesus is prompted to turn stone into loaves of bread.  Now Jesus fast is over; the 40 days are done.  He is going to get something to eat.  But the devil is trying to test Jesus vision of what has the highest priority to him.  He is urging him to satisfy his hunger immediately by foolishly performing a miracle, as if he must have bread immediately to live.  Jesus response is clear- we do not live by earthly food alone.  This is a recognition of the fact that even before our need for food and water there is a life force that sustains us.  We need always to recognize the God given life force above our bodily needs.  We need to be in harmony with God, the provider of our life force.  That comes before any desires of the flesh- food, water, companionship, and pleasure.    

The second temptation is one of power.  The devil offers all the Kingdoms of the world- fame, power, control- all that would be given to Jesus if he would worship the devil.  Jesus response is ever so clear- “You shall worship the Lord your God; Him alone shall you serve.”    Basically, the heart of this temptation is a desire to be totally independent.  It says that we don’t need God.  Indeed, the lust for power, money, and control all indicate the desire to be self-sufficient, for security on our terms.  Our world is plagued by many people who don’t trust in the Lord; they want to be in control.  And they foolishly seek money and power and all those things the devil offered to Jesus, as a means to security.  But all these things can pass away!  

In fact, anything that serves to consume us in this way is like an idol.  It can control our lives; but it cannot give us everlasting happiness and the Kingdom of God.  But we are tempted, because we like to be in control.  

In the third temptation, Jesus is taken to the high place in the temple and is tempted to throw himself down from the heights.  The devil asserts that if Jesus is the Son of God, then the angels will come to his aid and he will not be hurt.  Jesus response is that “You shall not put the Lord your God to the Test”.   

This temptation encourages us to presume too much.  We can presume that no matter what we do, God always loves us and will save us.  We presume too much when we don’t take our sins seriously by simply saying that we believe.  Not so; for that is putting the Lord God to a test.  God gave us life, talents, and a set of rules to live life by.  He sent his son to die for us and to offer us a path to share in everlasting life.  We cannot presume that his mercy will be given to us.  It is our obligation to live our lives in such a way that we are always prepared for the day of judgment.  For after all, Faith without works is dead.   

Then, our Gospel tells us that the devil left Jesus “for a while”.   Indeed, our battle with the devil is ongoing; but it comes in increments.  It comes especially during times of weakness, like Jesus in this story.  Jesus was weak from 40 days of fasting- and weary from the harsh wilderness experience.  It is then the devil attacked him; and it is in our moments of weakness that the devil will attack us- when we are not feeling well; when we are distraught; when our defenses are down from alcohol or drugs.  In any of these or like situations, the devil will be there.  

And so, Lent is that season of the Church year in which we have the chance to follow in Jesus own footsteps in order to get ready for the Resurrection of the Lord and the Everlasting life that he offers us.  It is a time for us to practice self-discipline and self-control.  It is a time for us to break away and reflect on the meaning of our life.  It is a time for us to make a change for the better.   

We can best prepare for Easter by a regimen of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  But expect to be hounded by the devil, who is relentless in his efforts to get us to focus on self and not the Lord.   Lent can and should be a joyful experience for those who love God.  Whatever it takes to get closer to the Lord should make us joyful.  And that is what Lent is really about- a new beginning, no matter what has happened in the past.

Why Should I Observe Lent?

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Ash Wednesday Service

Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18

Dc. Larry Brockman

Ashes! All of us are gathered here to receive ashes? Why?

Is it because it’s the thing to do?  Is it because you long for something different, some change in life?  Or is it because you hope the meaning of life will come into focus for you?

When you receive ashes, you will hear these words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”.  Yes, the real meaning of life in this world becomes blurred in the glitter and the attractions of the world.  After the joy and celebration of Christmas, the Church reminds us that life in this world is not about self-indulgence; it is not about the joys and fruits of the world.  All of that, good or bad as it seems, will end as it began for us- in ashes.  And it is certain to end in ashes.  So, what is life all about?

Jesus spent 40 days just after his Baptism reflecting on his life and mission.  His whole person was in turmoil- facing the promptings from the Spirit that told him what life in this world was really all about for him.  But Satan tormented him with the other side.  “You don’t have to suffer; you’ve got it Jesus; and I can make you anything you want; just worship me”.

And that’s the way it is for all of us too.  All of us are tempted to make our lives comfortable; to focus on what’s best just for me; rather than follow the tiny whispering sound of the Spirit working through our consciences to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

The Gospel we read provides us Jesus’ advice on how to conduct our Lenten journey.  It was based on his own 40 days in the desert.  Find some time alone to reflect and pray.  And divest yourselves of attachments to things of this world.  He suggests three things.

The first suggestion is to give alms.  That means giving something to others.  But you don’t give alms to win points with those watching.  Rather, you do it to help you focus on others, not yourself.  Who or what is it that God is calling you to serve in this life?

And Jesus advises us to pray in a quiet of space, not openly for all to see.  Jesus is not against public and group prayer.  That’s not his point.  His point is that when you need reflective prayer, and all of us do, then that prayer is not for show, for others to see.  Rather, it is for us to get in tune directly with God so that the Spirit can help us to focus on God’s mission for us.  Where can you go and when can you go there so that Jesus has a chance to touch you in that way?

And lastly, Jesus advises us to fast.  Again, not to call attention to our self- induced suffering and how holy we are; but rather, so that we divest ourselves of what is blocking our spiritual growth.  Just what is it that is blocking your spiritual growth?  What is it that is taking so much of your time, so much of your energy, or so much of your resources that you cannot hear your inner voice; you cannot focus on God’s mission for you.  Give that up for Lent rather than beer or chocolate or coffee or whatever.  Maybe it’s TV or the Internet or, God forbid, Facebook!

Lent is an opportunity to come to grips with the real meaning of your life so you are ready for the Resurrection and life everlasting in the Kingdom of God.  Take advantage of the 40 days just as Jesus did.  Or the ashes you receive today will have lost their meaning.

Returning to the Lord

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Ash Wednesday Service

Joel 2: 12-18

Dc. Larry Brockman


“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart”.  Yes indeed, it is never too late to turn back to the Lord.   

Today is an especially good day to begin that process because we will all receive ashes on our foreheads,  And as we receive them, we will hear the statement:  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” to remind ourselves that life in this world is not what life is all about. It’s a somber reminder, but one that most of us in this hospital can understand.  Because many of us see life as we know it end here for a patient or a loved one. 

Just a month ago, my own Mom lay here just down the hall, a woman of 91 years, who had lived a full and vibrant life.  But it was clear that her life here was ending.  Was that all there was to life for her?  Was life ending, or was there something else just beginning?     

For those of us who are Christians, we know that there is more to life than life in this world.  But we have to be ready for it.  We have to recognize that God wants to be part of our lives, and that he has something special in mind for us in this life, something that will prepare us for the next life.  That’s what Lent is all about.  And that is what the Church is trying to do for the next 40 days, to get us all ready for the Resurrection and the promise of everlasting life that comes to us with Easter.   

Joel says it well.  “Proclaim a fast, gather an assembly, gather the people”.  And then:  “And say, spare, O Lord your people”.  Joel is asking the people to listen up, repent, and mend their ways.  And as the last sentence of the reading implies, the Lord was stirred to concern for His people.   

All of us are corrupted by the world.  It’s a fast moving lane that most of us live in.  We have many things to do and precious little time to stop and listen for God’s voice among the noise and clutter.  But we have to do it.  The season of Lent is the perfect time of year to do it. 

How?  Well, first fast from things of this world that clutter your mind and keep you from responding to God.  TV; the many obligations we book in our lives; and addictions to a person, a food, or an activity; be sensitive and respond to others in need- in other words, almsgiving.  Find some time to pray and also to just listen to God.  In other words:  “Take the time, and return to the Lord with your whole heart.” 

Making 40 days Count

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

Gen 9: 8-15; 1 Pet 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15


You have absolutely no excuse, because God has given you 40 days.  Yes, you have 40 days- and that’s a long time- to prepare for Easter and the Resurrected Christ.   

Why do you need to prepare, you might ask?  Because just like the man Jesus, your human nature is seeking the real meaning of your life and what God’s will is for you.  It’s called the process of conversion, and conversion is an ongoing activity, a continual need.  Yes, you and I all need to be converted from our normal, everyday way of life, which is based on our needs, our goals, and our desires; to a life that is primarily centered on God’s will for us.   

Many of you remember Fr. Larry Richard’s recent Mission with us.  Well, that was his basic message to us too- we have got to have Jesus so ingrained in our being that everything we say and do is part of God’s plan for us.   

And so, just like Jesus, you too need to get away from it all, and enter into the wilderness so that you can listen to God and find out what God’s will is for you.  And if you seek after that, then just like Jesus, the Spirit will drive you to a time and place and a means where you can commune with God.  But just like Jesus, you will be tempted along the way by the devil, who is hell bent on having you do anything except commune with God.  You won’t have the time; you will have other commitments; you will be distracted; and you will have interruptions; and there will be plenty of other reasons to avoid a truly Lenten renewal.  But the fact is, 40 days is a long time, and ultimately you will not have any excuse.   

“Lent”, as St. John of the Cross proclaimed, “is a time when men and women collaborate with God in creating something divine”.  That’s how sacred and special these 40 days are.  Because if you live according to God’s true plan for you then you will be doing something really sacred; you will be led to sacrifice something of yourself, whether it be your agenda. your selfishness, or your comfort, for the purpose that God intends for you, whatever that is.  And that is a piece of the divine plan; it is God in action.   

Now it doesn’t need to take all 40 days to commune with God because God can hit you over the head with His truth in just a moment.  But, you do have to give God your undivided attention to hear what He wants from you.  And unfortunately, for most of us, that can take some time.  Why? Because of the influence of the devil- those temptations, those distractions, and those interruptions that occur when even the best intentioned of us are seeking the Lord.  They will keep you from hearing the Lord.  So, you need to be persistent, and stick to your guns.   

Secondly, you need to be in the right frame of mind, a frame of mind that gives you the time and the energy to listen to God..  And that’s why the Church recommends Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving- so that you can be in the right frame of mind.  I want to share some thoughts with you now on these three- prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.    Let’s talk about fasting first.

Why fast?  Well first of all, fasting isn’t really effective if it is just giving something up that meets the letter, but not the spirit, of fasting.  Classically, we all fast from food or drink.  And if you are really dedicated, you might fast from something you really like, such as beer or chocolate.  Ugh!  But according to St. Leo the Great, fasting needs to be a form of great hearted abstinence- abstinence with a goal, abstinence that transcends our wants, but rather, gets to the heart of our sinfulness.  For example, you could fast from idle chatter and gossip.  Or you could fast from addictive watching of sports on TV.  Certainly you can see how this type of fasting gets you closer to the right frame of mind to talk to God.   

Second, let’s talk about almsgiving.  Almsgiving is not just dropping a few extra bucks in the basket, or taking a load of your excess to St. Vincent de Paul.  Almsgiving needs to be from your heart.  St Augustine says that almsgiving means:  “Expelling from the heart that which is more difficult on us to keep than to give away.”  Now at first, that doesn’t seem to make sense.  But when you really think about it, it makes perfect sense.  Augustine means that almsgiving should include those things that bind us up, keep us occupied, and so, they make it more difficult for us to do God’s will than if we gave them away.  That’s why some classic saints like St. Anthony of the Desert and St. Francis of Assisi, gave away their wealth, so they would not be distracted by that wealth in living God’s will.  And so, what is it that you have that has value that you need to give away so that you are not distracted from God’s plan?   

Lastly, let’s talk about prayer; because that’s how we communicate with God.  And it is not just any form of prayer.  Rather, we need to have an authentic union with God through prayer that is selfless.  What does that mean?  Well, a lot of our prayer is asking for something from God.  But selfless prayer is different- it is opening our hearts and minds to what God wants to say to us, not what we want to say to Him.  It is the kind of prayer where we hear God’s tiny whisper that answers our heart’s pain, the things that trouble us, that we feel guilty over, or that we don’t know what to do about.  It is that tiny urge that moves us in a direction we might not like, but if we are honest, that God is pointing us towards when we hear Him. 

Yes, these are the three tools that we need to get in the right frame of mind for a Lenten conversion.     

You know, it seems like just yesterday when we were all sitting around the Christmas tree celebrating the joy of Christmas.  But in reality, 40 or so days have passed since Christmas.  And you know what, 40 days from now we will be celebrating Easter.  You have a choice.  Those 40 days can pass by like a flash as you go through the blur of everyday life.  Or they can be 40 days that change your life.  The choice is yours.  How will you use those 40 days?