In the Collect, or the Opening Prayer at Mass for Ash Wednesday, Lent is referred to as a campaign for Christian Service. Isn’t that a powerful phrase? Sometimes we think of Lent as a time to give something up, or a time to focus on sin. But the Church invites us to see this as a campaign (a connected series of operations designed to bring about a particular result). How is that? What it means is that this is not simply a one-time thing. Rather, we asked God to help us to engage in service over and over again, in a campaign designed to help us to become more of service.
If the entire season of Lent is a campaign for service, then perhaps Holy Week is a retreat for holiness. This is true because there is simply so much packed into this week. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that all we believe about Jesus and the Church is contained in this week. Each day we will see our best and our worst.
But the week is also not just about “navel gazing” but rather serious self-reflection about how we can grow closer to Jesus. It is about the type of spiritual self-reflection that leads to conversion, to repentance. It is a time of intense focus where we are placed into the heart of the Paschal Mystery, the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Paschal Mystery is everything in our faith.
It is through the Paschal Mystery that we experience the fullness of faith life. First, there is the personal relationship with Jesus. This is life changing. This helps us to see most clearly our best selves, the selves given so many gifts and talents by Jesus. And it helps us to see these gifts are talents and are to be used for the good of ourselves and others. What does that mean?
Well, if we have been given a gift by God, a personal charism, shall we say, it is to be used for the “building up of the body of Christ.” And so an authentic personal relationship with Jesus compels us to reach out to help others. It compels us to enter more fully into this campaign for service. It compels us to see that the closer we grow to Jesus, the closer we grow to his body, the Church, and the closer we grow to humans made in the image and likeness of God, which is, of course, all humans.
And so, each day this week, how is it God is calling you to holiness? In today’s gospel, there is an act of authenticity and an act of phoniness. The authentic act concerns the actions of Mary. We hear, “Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” The story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus is one we cannot fully understand in terms of the historical details, but it is clear from today’s gospel that Mary’s life, at least, has been completely changed by Jesus. Today’s actions are reflected as an act of extreme hospitality that welcomes Jesus completely into the moment.
The act of phoniness is the concern of Judas. On the surface, we might think that he is most concerned with the poor. But we know that this outward show is far from a legitimate expression of the heart. No, he is not concerned for the poor. If Mary’s actions express the amazing generosity of extreme hospitality, Judas’ actions are extreme selfishness. Judas wants the money for himself. And this causes him to be blind to the reality of Jesus.
Of course, we too can become blind to the reality of Jesus. We can see only what we want to see and miss those areas of life that we do not want to see. What do I mean by that? We can focus on our own struggles and dismiss the struggles of others. We can even judge others for their struggles while excusing the bad effects our own struggles produce.
More specifically, we can miss the needs of refugees, migrants because we choose to overlook the blessings God has placed into our lives, and more importantly, fail to see that “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” The reality is that almost all of us in the United States have much. We may think we do not have as much, but the truth is often that we have so much more than the poorest around the world.
We can miss the connection between denying the right to be born to children and the horrific instances of brutal treatment of others. Should it come as a surprise to us that we have horrific murders when we cannot declare human life the right to be born, to be a right? Should it come as a surprise to us when we degrade sexual activity to pornography that we have terrible, brutal, and violent sexual attacks? Should we be surprised that in a time when greed can happen unchecked that people are too focused on material goods and steal from others? Or that we can become very angry at people who are given access to basic needs like food while ignoring those who commit terrible financial crimes and allow them to go free without conviction?
What is most troubling when I examine my own life is that I can see an issue like abortion which makes me very angry, to be terribly wrong, but not be consistent when I become comfortable with capital punishment, especially when its application is unequal and the legal representation unfair. I am frustrated because the hypocrisy of Judas is really my hypocrisy. I am the sinner who looks to become indignant at a perceived sin while seeking to hide the real sin in my own life.
Jesus warns us about this in our lives in Matthew chapter 7. “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.” “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?” It is not that we can never offer a correction to another, but we cannot take the attitude of superiority or arrogance that suggests we have no sin in our own lives?
So today is meant to remind us to seek mercy and forgiveness from God. Try to find in your life the opportunity for repentance. Is there a chance you could go to confession this week? Is there a time where you can express contrition for those instances when you were harsh or judgmental towards others as a way of avoiding your own sin?
Jesus does not hold grudges. Jesus is always and everywhere helping us to grow closer to him in every aspect of our lives. You may feel far away from God. Indeed, Mary, in today’s gospel probably felt very far from Jesus earlier in her life. But the real focus of today’s gospel is the incomprehensible mercy of Jesus for each one of us. We need this mercy and forgiveness. And Jesus longs to give us his mercy and forgiveness. Jesus wants to welcome us back with as much excitement as the father welcomed his youngest son back to him in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Today, this very day, this very moment, you have the invitation to express to Jesus your sorrow for your sins. Today, this very day, this very moment, you can accept the invitation of Jesus to follow him wherever he goes, wherever he leads. Will you?