Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Is Lenten Sacrifice just a Catholic New Year's Resolution?

It’s likely that in the past couple weeks, you’ve heard this question one too many times: “So, what are you doing for Lent?” Or how about this one: “What are you giving up for Lent?” We associate Lent with giving something up—maybe candy, foul language, the TV or computer—or doing something extra—I’ll be nicer to my brother, give money to the poor, or pray more. These things are what we call sacrifices. Lent is a time of sacrifice more than any other season of our Church year. We see in today’s gospel that Jesus goes out into the desert, where it’s hot, there aren’t many comforts, there’s little water, and he doesn’t eat for 40 days. In other words, Jesus himself made great sacrifices during his 40 days in the desert. For us, who desire to be like Christ, to follow in his footsteps, sacrifice will be part of our Lenten journey.

Sacrifice comes from Latin, and means “made holy/sacred.” In essence, a sacrifice is a gift given by us to God. You may have never thought that your sacrifice of giving up chocolate is a gift for God, but it is either a gift for God or it isn’t much use at all. St. Augustine says that whatever good act we do—he uses the example of showing mercy to another—if it is not done for God’s sake, is not a sacrifice. This should make us think. Is the reason why I’m making the sacrifice I am making this Lent a gift for God or is it principally for my own sake? For instance, am I giving up some sort of food so I can get in better shape or because I know that denying myself that food is difficult and I do it for the love of God? Our Lenten sacrifices are no mere New Year’s Resolutions, which have the final goal of self-improvement; rather, they are gifts given to God manifesting and increasing our love for him.

Why do we have to sacrifice at all, though? Where did this idea of giving something up or doing something extra as gift to God come from? First of all, God created us and we are his creatures. The fundamental relationship of us belonging to God and receiving everything from him demands that we sacrifice. As an analogy, we don’t give Mom a gift on Mother’s Day because she’s been particularly good to us this year or because she prepared some pretty good meals. We give her a gift because of that relationship of mother and child, of having received life from her.

There is an additional reason we sacrifice to God evidenced in today’s first reading. After the Jews entered the Promised Land, Moses instructed them to offer the first fruits of their harvest every year in sacrifice to God. The reason they were to do so is given in the reading: God chose Abraham and made his descendents into the great nation of Israel. When they were in slavery in Egypt, God saw their oppression, freed them from their slavery, and brought them through the desert to the Promised Land. In other words, they were to sacrifice to God because of his freely given love for Israel and his powerful actions in saving them. To continue with our analogy, we have an additional reason to give our mothers a gift on Mother’s Day. Not only because of that fundamental relationship of mother and child, but because she loves us. She showed us that love through waking up in the middle of the night when we were crying, feeding us, teaching us to read, and in so many other ways. In a similar way, the Israelites had more incentive to offer gifts to God, because he showed his great love for them through saving them.

As Catholics, we have an even greater reason to sacrifice, to give gifts, to God. And this reason far surpasses any analogy we could make to the love of the mother for her child. As Christians we know that God became one of us. The One who created us became one of us. We see in today’s gospel that he even allowed himself to go through temptation and suffering, all for our sake. Finally, he suffered and died at our hands, he being more innocent and good than all of us put together. My brothers and sisters, Christ’s life was a sacrifice to God. As God he couldn’t give gifts to himself, but as a man, he could give gifts to his Father on our behalf. And the gift he gave, more valuable than anything else, was his own life out of love for us. This is the supreme reason we have for sacrificing as Christians. God didn’t just create us and love us—as if those weren’t reason enough—but in the ridiculousness of his love, he became one of us. This is why we sacrifice to God, especially during Lent: not to perfect ourselves so we can have the glory, but out of love for him.

We now understand why we make sacrifices, but what is it exactly that God wants us to sacrifice? Does God want an extra Our Father prayed or does he like us giving up some food better? The answer is that God finds any sacrifice of ours pleasing, provided what lies behind it is a spirit of interior sacrifice. We can go through a whole Lent and never fail to break our Lenten resolution, but if we aren’t changed, if our hearts aren’t converted, if we don’t have a spirit of inner sacrifice, than it wasn’t a successful Lent. More than anything we give up or do extra, God wants ourselves. That’s the only gift that will satisfy him. The Old Testament describes God as a jealous god. That doesn’t mean he’s envious of our new bike or fancy car; jealousy in Biblical language means that God desires us, and he will do everything possible—except violate our freedom—to win us to himself. Just as Jesus’ whole life was a sacrifice to the Father, a gift to the Father, so our whole lives should be a gift. My brothers and sisters, it’s good for us to make these exterior sacrifices during Lent, but they should always coincide with an interior spirit of sacrifice; that is, a desire to give ourselves to God. In one of the Eucharistic Prayers at Mass, the priest prays “make us an everlasting gift to you.” It’s one of the most beautiful prayers of the whole Mass and should be a motivating factor for us this Lent and throughout our lives really.

Usually, I open with a story, but today I close with one. The example of this person illustrates in a way much better than I can explain what true sacrifice is. (Plus, this story has to do with the Olympics, so I thought it’d be appropriate.)
In 1998, Kirstin Holum competed as a speed skater for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics. She was only 17 years old, but she finished sixth in the grueling 3,000 meter competition. Long distance speed skating is a sport, like marathon running, that requires aerobic endurance that only comes with age and training. In other words, this 17-year-old was predicted to one day be a star in the sport. These Olympic Games were supposed to be the time for her to shine—at 29 years old, she would just have been entering the prime of her career. Instead, after the ’98 Olympics she hung up her skates and followed a stronger calling, one from God. Now known as Sister Catherine, she joined a Franciscan order, and has never looked back. Kirstin walked away from would-be fame, maybe a gold medal, accolades, and honors to give her life to God as sister. Her exterior sacrifice of turning down fame was only a sign of her interior sacrifice of desiring to give her life to God. “Make us an everlasting gift to you.”

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