This weekend will be the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and next week, with Ash Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent.
The readings today invite us to avoid unnecessary worries by putting our trust in the love and providence of a merciful and loving God, who loves us more than we can imagine. Today’s first reading, taken from the prophet Isaiah, begins with the Lord’s beautiful and comforting question, “Can a mother forget her infant?” His solemn pledge follows: “Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” This is one of the most touching expressions of God’s love in the Bible. Through the prophet, God assured the Israelites that they had His unfailing love when the people cried out in despair, believing that they had been forgotten by God. Like a good mother, God does not forget us.
In the second reading, Paul warns the Corinthian community not to worry about who brought them to the Christian faith and not to judge him or other preachers. He reminds them that it is only God who is right and has the right to judge. In the first part of the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes the impossibility of serving two opposed masters — God and wealth. Our ultimate goal and Master is God, and not material things. Material possessions help us reach our ultimate goal, God, only when we share them with the needy. Hence, Jesus calls us to a detachment from material goods and to live a life of simplicity and dependence on God. In the second part of the reading, Jesus tells us to avoid unnecessary worries. Worry is a pagan or an irreligious attitude of those who don’t believe in a loving and providing God. In nature, other creatures, like birds, work hard for their daily food, but they don’t worry about tomorrows. Worry is useless because we cannot increase even an inch of height by days of worrying.
Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, ashes were used as a symbol of repentance. Baptized Christians who felt guilty of sin and sought forgiveness were enrolled in the Order of Penitents, and the placing of ashes on the forehead was a sign of this membership as well as a sign of repentance. We continue this practice today to remind us of the fragility of life; from ashes we came, and to ashes we will return.
During Lent, the Church encourages all Catholics to fast. All of those who are 14 years old and older are to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on all of the Fridays of Lent. Those of us between the ages of 18 and 59 are to limit ourselves to a single full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The other two meals should be modest and together should not equal one full meal.
We are also encouraged to make more personal sacrifices, such as giving up chocolate, soft drinks, beer, snacks between meals or our favorite chips. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, invites us to spend less money during Lent and care for the poor. I see three values in fasting, and it is valuable for us to understand these. First, the experience of physical hunger reminds us that our deepest hunger is spiritual. Nothing can satisfy our deepest hunger but God. Second, our voluntary experience of hunger creates a bond with those who are hungry involuntarily. It bonds us with those who are in need and who depend on the generosity of others even for the basics of life. In this way, fasting can lead us to charitable giving of our money as well as our time and talent. And third, fasting from food often leads us to discover some behavior from which we need to “fast.” For example, we may need to “fast” from making negative comments, engaging in gossip and other idle conversation, or by spending an excessive amount of time or by visiting inappropriate sites on the Internet. We have four Masses scheduled for Ash Wednesday. I look forward to seeing you at one of those services. We have many parish activities scheduled during the Lenten season including a parish mission, penance service, etc. Please see the flyer that we mailed to you a few days ago and call the parish office if you need more information on any specific programs. I pray that you all make use of these opportunities in order to make this Lenten season truly a time of prayer and renewal.