Saturday, March 1, 2014

Giving Up

On the way out of church this morning, one fellow said, "I've got to get home, Father: it's time to put three beers in the fridge..."

   Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

Having recently moved into a small Irish town,
a man pays his first visit to the local pub.
He orders three beers, sits quietly at a table,
and drinks all three on his own.
The next evening, he repeats the routine.
Before very long the whole town is whispering
about the Man-Who-Orders-Three-Beers.
Finally, the bartender broaches the subject:
“I don’t mean to pry, but a lot of us are wondering
why you always order three beers.”
“’Tis odd, isn’t it?” the man replies.
“You see, I have two brothers:
one moved to the States, the other to Australia.
We promised each other 
that we’d always order two extra beers
to maintain the family bond.”
Well, the locals are quite pleased with that answer,
and quickly embrace the newcomer as one of their own.
Then, one winter day, the man comes in…
…and orders only two beers.
The bartender pours them with a heavy heart.
Word spreads through the town like wildfire,
and soon everyone is offering prayers
for the departed soul of one of the man’s brothers.
Once again, it’s up to the bartender to break the silence:
“All of us around here are so very sorry for your loss,
and want to offer our condolences on your brother’s death.
You know, now ordering just two beers and all…”
Smiling, the man replies,
“You’ll be happy to hear that both of my brothers are alive and well.
It’s just that I myself have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”

With Ash Wednesday now clearly in sight,
it’s that time again when so many Catholics are considering,
“What should I give up for Lent?”
I’ve been pondering that very thought myself.
Some people will give up candy or dessert;
others, an hour of TV or Internet;
still others, coffee, soda, or alcohol.
Among other things, as I’ve done several Lents in the past,
I’ll probably give up using the snooze bar on my alarm clock.
(Just ask the folks who attend the 6:45am daily Mass
and you’ll understand how much of a sacrifice this is for me...)
This habit of giving something up
is a form of the traditional spiritual practice of fasting:
willfully going without something good or even something necessary
for a certain period of time.

We all know (even if we fail to heed the principle)
that we must give up bad things…
…and not merely for a limited season of 40 days.
To turn from our sinful ways is the very definition of conversion;
being a follower of Jesus demands it.
But why give up good things?
Chocolate, sitcoms, cocktails, sleep:
these things are not bad,
especially when they’re not used improperly or to excess.
So why choose to go without them?
It’s much the same idea as lies behind
the Church’s long-standing discipline of priestly celibacy.
Are Roman Catholic priests expected to be celibate
because marriage and sex and family are so very bad?
Of course not!
These things are actually very, very good—even holy—
when exercised in line with God’s plan;
that’s what makes foregoing them such a sacrifice.
But the priest makes this sacrifice because the priesthood calls him
to another sort of intimacy and a different kind of fatherhood
for the sake of not just a single household,
but the benefit of the entire Church.
Living our faith challenges us
to sometimes give up good things,
even necessary and very good things,
to give evidence that there’s something—
that there's Someone—even better!

This Sunday’s gospel reading is only 10 verses long,
but in them we find Jesus using the verb “to worry” six times—
and four of them, he’s telling us, “Don’t worry!”
Jesus is trying to drive anxiety out like a demon from our souls.
We oughtn’t give an uneasy thought to tomorrow,
since today’s trouble is enough for today.
Now, Jesus is not encouraging his followers
to be imprudent or impractical.
His words are not about neglecting
to take appropriate care of ourselves or one another;
they’re about trusting God above all else.

Jesus is asking,
“Do you really think that the One who created you out of love
will then leave you—in the face of every struggle—
to your own devices?”
God, who provides us with the greater necessities—
the breath of life, the forgiveness of sins,
the promise of eternal salvation—
will not fail to provide us with the lesser ones—
such as food and drink and clothing.
One of the most powerful experiences of love any of us will ever have
is a mother’s love:
a love which is—by and large—lavish and without limit.
But even should a mother
be without tender love for the child of her womb,
the Lord will never forget us.

You see, what God wants for his children
is that we be free of all needless fear and anxiety—
that we avoid becoming slaves to our lesser needs.
How often the sentiments of the human heart
are bestowed upon money (or the things that money can buy)
with the same intensity
that should be reserved for God alone.  (cf. E. Leiva-Merikakis)
God did not free his people from slavery in Egypt
only to have them become slaves again
by bowing down to a golden calf in the desert.
And God does not free you or me from our slavery to sin
only to have us become slaves again
to the works of our hands or other creatures—
including ourselves and our selfish desires.
How quickly we fall into the trap
of serving someone or something other than God:
our self-image or our spouse, our two-year-old or our teenager,
our business or our boss, our house or our car,
our social status or our stock portfolio, our own ego.  (cf. M. Schumacher)
So many good things…but not one of them
on which we can depend in any absolute way.
Jesus makes it clear:
for those who are his disciples,
there is no room for any idols, any false gods.
We can serve only one master—
and which one, we must decide.

Where do you find your personal security?
In what does your troubled soul attempt to find its rest?
Is it in your heavenly Father?
Or in something more earthly?

Spend some time trying to answer that question,
and it just might help you to figure out
what you ought to give up this Lent.

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