A few years back, during one of my weeklong vacations I was enjoying time with my family back home. One of the evenings, my mother and I were talking about places that we’d like to go on vacation some day … you know, kind of a “bucket list” of places we’d like to go to. I mentioned that I’d like to go to Hawaii someday … to sit on the beach, tour Pearl Harbor, and most especially to go snorkeling in the ocean and be able to gaze downward through the beautiful blue water on all of the coral and salt water fish swimming beneath me. My mother, having been there at least once or twice before, said she would love to go back and immediately started talking about when we’d be able to go … I thought she was going to go on the computer and start booking tickets right then and there (must have been a day similar to today, with all of the snow outside)!
I told her it would have to be a while … after all, this is a bucket list thing, so I hope to have at least a few more years in which to live out this dream! But there were two things that were a hold up to this vacation in my mind … first, on a priest salary, this would take a while to save up the money for! Secondly, and perhaps the one with more difficulty, is my body size … unless I was going to be the only one sitting on the beach, to keep from scaring people away or having them stare at such a big guy, I’d want some time to get in shape … like as in years! And as you can tell, we haven’t booked that trip yet, as I’m not much in any better shape than when we first talked about it!
But how often do we see this? I see it on Facebook and hear it in conversations with family, friends, and parishioners … a big trip is planned where we are going to bathe in the sun for a few days, and months ahead of time we start to prepare – we go on a special diet, we maybe start putting extra effort into our exercise regimen, and we really work hard towards the goals of looking nice or fitting into that new swimming suit we bought as our incentive!
But what often happens when the vacation is finished … or even while we’re still on the vacation itself? The goal is reached, the vision of the trip is realized … and we’re back to the way things were before … same old diet, less effort and zeal for excercise.
As we set out on our Lenten journey with this Ash Wednesday, Jesus warns his disciples not to behave like the hypocrites, for in each work of prayer, fasting, and giving alms, by being recognized, they have already realized their reward. Jesus instead tells us to focus on a reward that lies ahead of us, a reward that is greater than honor among others, a reward more beautiful than that of even Hawaii … the reward of heaven!
Each year, our Holy Father Pope Francis, as other popes before him have done, puts out a yearly Lenten message weeks in advance of Ash Wednesday so that we may enter into our days of Lent with a proper mindset. This year, Pope Francis implores us to consider our 40 Days of Lenten observance as a journey … a journey towards the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ that we will not only celebrate in our Easter celebrations at the end of the liturgical season, but an Easter of unending glory where in our own lives, as we share in Christ’s sufferings, one day conforming our death to His, we too at last are called to share with him in eternal glory.
To aid us in the journey, Pope Francis uses the gospel story of the Rich Man and poor Lazarus. He points out that, while the rich man feasts daily on sumptuous meals, has more drink than he could ever consume, has the finest of clothing and a very nice home, right outside of his front door sits on a daily basis the poor man Lazarus, who begs for just a morsel of food, a drop of water, or any care at all … and day after day, the rich man walks past Lazarus without paying him any need. Pope Francis notes that, while the rich man is never mentioned by name in the story, only Lazarus is known to us, as becomes evident when they both suffer the same fate at the end of life and enter into their eternal rest. Just as our Lenten observance will begin in a few short minutes with the distribution of ashes, they enter into the prayer “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In their eternal life, Lazarus is known by name by God in reward; the rich man who is sent to suffer is not.
As the story continues, the rich man calls out to God for but a drop of water to satiate his thirst and cool his burning tongue, and God points out what he did not give to Lazarus shall not be given to him. When he asks God to send a messenger to tell his brothers to change their ways to prevent the same fate in death from happening to them, God reminds him that they have already had the message of the prophets given to them, and they will not listen to them either. The rich man is left to suffer, for his reward had been received in life; the poor Lazarus shares in eternal glory, because his reward had not been received in life.
These days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving offer us a time to reflect on the two main commandments of Christ – that we love God and love our neighbor. While the three Lenten observances apply to all of them, perhaps we could look at them each affecting a different part of our Lenten journey:
- In works of prayer, we take the time to deepen and grow our relationship with the one with whom we should have the most intimate of friendships – our God who has created us, our God who has redeemed us, and our God who fills us with holiness. In prayer, we take time to read scripture and allow God’s Word to speak to our hearts, or we listen from the silence of our lives and allow time for God to speak to us directly; and as in any relationship, we then offer our words to God, turning to him with prayer of thanks, of petition for our needs, and whatever is in our hearts.
- In works of fasting, much like a person preparing for a vacation, we give up certain things … things like food, television, internet use, whatever it may be … and by giving these up, we seek ways to form ourselves bettter and be filled with the gifts that God has in store for us.
- Finally, in works of almsgiving, we stop to notice the poor man that sits maybe not outside our door, but down the street, or the neighbor who thirsts, or anyone who is need.
These days of Lent are indeed a time of personal journey and communal preparation for our involvement in Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection … and with these changes, changes that can form us for life, we are made ready for a reward that is much greater than any beach or the acceptance of any person in our life … we prepare ourselves to be known by God, like poor Lazarus, by name for all of eternity.
May God Bless You!