(Ash Wednesday-Year A;This homily was given 9 March, 2011, at at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; Read Matthew 6:1-18)
NB- This homily was inspired by a Flemish priest (who shall remain nameless) who himslef holds an M.D, a Ph.D, and, of course, an M.P.A.
In our chapel each morning, as we celebrate the Eucharist, there are a number of seminarians and other students from the university who join us and who are studying for their S.T.B. (bachelor’s degree in sacred theology). Many others are currently preparing for their M.A. or A.M.A. (master’s or advanced master’s in philosophy or theology). Still others are working towards or perhaps have already received their S.T.L. (license in sacred theology) or Ph. D. (doctor of philosophy, which does not necessarily pertain to philosophy but instead connotes that the person is a “lover of wisdom” in the particular area of studies in which he or she earned the degree).
But Jesus Christ, in our Gospel this morning as we begin this Lenten Season, invites all of us to prepare for and earn—with Him and by His grace—our M.P.A. or master’s in penance administration.
Does that sound like a daunting task? Penance can sometimes have a negative connotation but that does not have to be the case. Penance and the penitential life, far from being a burden or an obstacle to our happiness, can often become the very means through which we experience freedom and joy in the spiritual life.
Penance allows us to be weaned off the things of this world, to be more detached from material things, not for the sake of detachment itself but so that we may become more attached to the things that matter most…beginning with God! The penitential life can often help clear the way for a renewal of our spiritual life and relationship with God.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Christ does not offer it to us as an option in the Gospel this morning. He does not say, “If you think of it, fasting would be a really neat thing to do,” or “If you’ve got some spare change, why not give some of it to a needy person?” No, he does not say IF, but WHEN:
When you give alms…
When you pray…
When you fast…
Preparing for and receiving one’s M.P.A. is not optional for the Christian, nor are there any prerequisites. We simply begin with Christ and seek to walk this penitential path, and we do so in an intentional and determined way throughout these next forty days.
Thankfully, Christ does offer us an essential study guide to assist us in this regard. He cautions us against practicing penance with a pretense; we should not fast, pray and give alms for the sake of being noticed or to earn respect and admiration from those around us. We should not embrace a penitential life for the purpose of boosting our pride and self importance. These are the very things which tear down and work against our spiritual growth and the virtues necessary to sustain us. Christ exhorts us instead to earn our M.P.A. in secret; to do so with a hiddenness which God alone will notice and reward.
We do well to turn to the lives of the saints, to study under the great masters of the spiritual life as we seek to follow the greatest Master of all, Jesus Christ, in the penitential life. There is a beautiful and endearing story about St. Therese of Lisieux which occurred in the final days of her life, when she was on her deathbed (see Fr. Jean C. J. d'Elbée’s classic I Believe in Love for this story and many inspirational and enlightening conferences on this beloved saint). Some of the sisters were nearby in the kitchen, talking, and they did not know that Therese could hear them. One of them said:
“Sister Therese of the Child Jesus will die soon, and I really wonder what our mother will be able to say about her after her death. She will certainly be at a loss, for this little sister, lovable as she is, has certainly done nothing worth the trouble to recount.”
They knew that Therese was a very lovable and special person, but they had no idea just how completely holy she was, how deeply rooted she was in Christ. They knew nothing of the sacrifices she was offering up daily for all of them, and for the entire world. These things would come out in time, especially after the publication of The Story of a Soul. Then the entire world would know of the profound hidden life of St. Therese of Lisieux. She truly lived what St. Paul, in the New Testament, described as a life “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
In 1997 Blessed John Paul the Great named St. Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church, but certainly she had already earned her M.P.A. with Christ.
This Lenten Season will we?