February 22, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.

Elevate!

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Last Sunday, the first of Lent, I had the great joy of welcoming some 67 persons on their journey of faith, along with their godparents, families and friends who this Easter Sunday will become fully initiated in our Catholic faith. Those who are catechumens, who will receive all three of the sacraments of initiation — Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist were inscribed in the Book of the Elect. Others were present who would be completing their process of initiation, receiving one or more of the sacraments of initiation after Baptism, and we prayed for them on their ongoing process of conversion.

We often think of “conversion” as a changing of religions, as when a Baptist or Methodist, for example, becomes a Catholic. Those of us who received the sign of the cross on our foreheads last Ash Wednesday, however, may have heard words accompanying the imposition of ashes like: “Turn away from sin, and believe the good news!” This is a pretty good description of the daily, indeed life-long process of conversion, which is an act of will, or love actually, for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who invites us to an intimate relationship with him.

Jesus is the one who meets us exactly where we are on our life’s journey. He does not ask us how many Masses we have missed or how long it has been since our last Confession. These are the kinds of questions that many Catholics are afraid of when they may take that baby step of turning more fully to the Lord. We can all get caught up in habits that distract us from our true goal, which is to get to heaven. Whether we believe it or not, or even know it, that is what God wants for all of us. God does not want to lose a single soul to the treachery of the Evil One who always sends temptations and distractions our way, to take our attention away from the loving gaze of our Lord. Conversion is a decision — actually, more of a process because it involves many decisions, day in and day out — to be attentive to the invitations God sends us, what we call graces that are sent to elevate us, to lift us up out of the quagmires and quicksands that threaten to depress us, to pull us down.

We all can stray off the path from time to time. The great poet Dante wrote his famous “Divine Comedy,” beginning with the lament of a middle-aged man who was beginning to realize that he had lost his way. With Virgil as his guide, this man is led to the very depths of hell, which is a frozen place in the poet’s imagination, where real life becomes impossible to live and through other stages that parallel the vices and distractions that plagued the lost soul throughout his time on earth, the sins he succumbed to. 

Recently, a good friend sent me a very wise saying of G.K. Chesterton, the English writer, philosopher and Christian apologist of the early 20th century. “Man has always lost his way,” he writes. “He has been a vagrant ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for… Now, for the first time in history, he begins really to doubt the object of his wandering on the earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address!”

Well, what is our address? Do we realize that we are made for heaven? Has it occurred to us that the reason nothing — and no one of earth — can really satisfy us, our hopes and desires, is because this earth is not our final destiny? St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions — like the Divine Comedy, well worth reading during Lent — that he had been, in effect, looking for love and beauty in all the wrong places. “Late have I loved you, Lord…and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” He had everything this world treasures, health, athletic promise, a keen intellect, physical attractiveness — in any age he would be of “celebrity” quality — yet he was profoundly unhappy, even depressed by his every conquest and achievement. He was missing the whole point of his life: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Those who do not share our Christian faith may find a relationship with God or a “Higher Power” as they refer to it in the twelve-step programs. Not all religions share our belief in a benevolent God who not only created us and has a design on our lives, a plan for our happiness and salvation, but desires a personal relationship with us. During Lent, we are invited to “take a chance” on living what we profess to believe. The whole point of the penitential practices is to free us from the things that often cloud out that experience, the preoccupation with wealth, control and self-indulgence in their many forms that, to be honest, are often the things that disturb us when we feel we are losing our grip on life. The invitation of Lent is to “let God and let go.”

Everyone who has made spiritual progress has, sooner or later, come to the realization that we are not the masters of our lives, the controllers of our own destiny. Ironically, however, those who have surrendered to God, to this “higher power,” invariably find their lives more, not less secure. Accepting that there is a God, there is a providence and there is an abiding presence, a love that accompanies them throughout their life’s journey, results in a tremendous peace and a joy in being a part of something infinitely larger than themselves. 

As I mentioned to those with whom I was blessed to celebrate the start of Lent at our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Historic Saint Mary’s, the rare coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day invites us to take advantage of learning from what they have in common. On both days — when they are not simultaneous — we use signs and symbols to express what is happening. On Valentine’s Day, we typically give gifts like flowers or chocolates to our loved ones. On Ash Wednesday, we receive a reminder of our mortality on our foreheads so that we can turn to the loved one who wants to gift us with eternal life. None of these symbols, however, can substitute for the relationship itself.

If the relationship is to continue, it has to involve a personal presence to the person we love — and that person to us. I reminded my good people that Jesus is especially present to us at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and that we can be present to him — and one another — every time we attend Mass, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, where we can really receive him intimately into the depths of our being. If we take our “Valentine” seriously, we will not be content just to send a card or a bouquet or a box of candy, but to be with them personally. So also, if we take our Lord seriously, we want not only to be dusted with ashes, which fade away in a day, but to be bathed in the glow of his presence, which the sacraments offer us.

Take a chance on Lent! Trust the opportunities of this season of grace. Many of our parishes will be hosting days of prayer, exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament, celebrations of the Stations of the Cross, and other spiritual exercises to help us find time and space to “chill out” with the Lord who so desires to enter our lives. This has nothing to do with how “holy” we may feel we are, or fear we are not. St. Thérèse de Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, came to the realization that God loved her so passionately not because she was worthy but simply because he desired her. Think of that. Whether or not we particularly love ourselves or are happy with where our lives are at this point, is not the point. What matters is that God wants us! Each and every one of us. God wants to lift us up, to elevate us into the heights of heaven, the peace and joy that saints enjoy, and to embrace us with the healing balm of his mercy. 

During Lent, may our daily prayer be, “Lord Jesus, I trust in you!” The One who invites us to an eternity of bliss himself loves to be invited by each of us to come into our hearts. As the book of Revelation invites, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him and he with me” (Rev 3:20). The door is the door to our hearts. The invitation is to open it and to let the Lord in. The gift is God’s abiding presence. The promise that we will never be alone. 

 Follow Bishop Ed @AlbanyDiocese.


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