Thursday, March 1, 2012

There is No Spiritual Glass Ceiling

Homily from the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

During this last Sunday of ordinary time before Lent, we find ourselves in preparation mode.  We will be instructed, as ashes are placed on our foreheads on Wednesday, to turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.  And so during these last few days, it is a time to figure out what we’re going to be doing, the areas of the spiritual life we may have let languish and need to take on this year, the areas that we want to try to add new practices that will allow us to deepen our faith.  And just to kind of gear up – to prepare ourselves for a time of intensified spiritual and religious activity.

Lent should be a challenging time.  Not challenging because we do more stuff, but because we enter into a season that is spiritually charged, a time that calls for conversion. 
One of the greatest challenges, I think, can be summed up in a paradox of the spiritual life: that when we are really working hard to make spiritual headway, we also become increasingly aware of our limitations. And so as we ramp up our efforts to live our faith, we can quickly find ourselves very aware of hitting the same obstacles we seem to trip over continuously, of our frailty and weakness in seeking true conversion.

We ate the cookie.  We missed the prayer time.  We have not been able to carry out the duties, the actions that we needed to, that we promised we would.  We’ve lost our temper and just yelled, said stupid things that we know inflicted harm on another.  We fell back into an old habit that we really were hoping to break.

It doesn’t take long, when mud season is in full force here in Maine, to find oneself frustrated.   And we ask things like: “Why do I fall into the same sins, am I even  making any headway?”  
It can seem that we are beneath a spiritual glass ceiling: that we are fated to be constantly plagued by one sin or weakness or another. 

And in those moments when our efforts to make progress in responding to God’s grace hit a wall, we tend to get really frustrated with ourselves.  Or at least I do.  You want to bang your head against the wall.  Maybe you talk to yourself: you idiot, you idiot.  Was the cookie really that good?
Now that’s really not a particularly helpful response – but it is understandable.  It is frustrating not to be able to do what God asks of us, what we want to do.  And it is easy to just get frustrated with our lives in general and with God. 
We might ask: “You know me, you know what I need – why’d you make me like this, why’d you let end up in this situation when you knew I would fail?!  Why do you ask me to do something that I can’t do!?  Why yes and no?

If we look to our first reading, and really, to the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, it is this experience of yes and no that torments God’s people.  They enter into a covenant, but they cannot be faithful to it.  They are called to be God’s people, but again and again show themselves incapable of following his commands.  Their frustration becomes poignant in the prophets, in Isaiah, who begins to show them that their only hope lies in a Messiah, a new outpouring of God’s grace and favor that will give them the grace to say yes faithfully, to leave behind the miserable and meandering path of yes and no.
That’s what St. Paul is talking about in our 2nd reading today. 
In Christ, he says, we have that Messiah, we need no longer be afflicted by the torment of yes and no.  Instead, we who carry the Spirit of Christ within us carry a Word that speaks only yes, yes to the Fathers’ will.  Through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that yes of the Son who is faithful to the end lives in us, giving us the promise of salvation.

And so there is no spiritual glass ceiling – because of the grace that Jesus gives us, the frailty of our nature, of our will, of our past experience, of our original sin, need not keep us from faithfully saying yes to a life united to God in Christ.  In him we are not only all called to be saints, but we are given the grace to be saints.  No longer yes and no, but yes and yes, called and capable in Christ.
One of the greatest threats to making spiritual progress is the loss of the conviction that when we strive for holiness God gives us the grace to attain it.  But that is precisely what Jesus promises those who follow him.  We have been sealed with his Holy Spirit.  He dwells within us and makes our efforts fruitful, allowing us to find real conversion and newness of life. 
And so it is true that if we enter deeply into the spiritual discipline of Lent we will experience with greater poignancy our weakness and sinfulness.  But such awareness need not lead to frustration.  Instead, inspired by the scriptures and nourished by the sacraments, a deeper awareness of our sinfulness can force us to deepen our trust in Christ.  Trust that all things can and will be overcome by his grace alive in us and that our efforts united to him will result in the victory of God’s grace over our sinfulness and weakness.   That Christ is faithful. 
As we prepare for the discipline of Lent, let us ask for a share in the perseverance demonstrated by the four men who assisted the paralytic to reach Christ in today’s gospel.  They worked hard to carry the man from his home to Jesus.  The crowd was too large, so they climbed the roof.  They could find no opening, so they broke through it, even though they risked angering the owners.  They lowered the man down to Jesus, while the scribes looked on with disapproval.  How many frustrations?  How many limits and roadblocks?  How many times did they fail? 

What was the source of their perseverance?  They knew that when they came to Jesus he would say Yes.  They knew that Jesus always says Yes.  The perseverance that is required for you and I to make genuine progress in holiness is rooted in this same steadfast trust in the faithfulness of Christ, that he will always say yes when we ask him for healing.

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