Homily for June 28, 2020
Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Death to Self
People often ask me, “Why do priests wear black?” If I’m feeling sarcastic I usually respond with something like, “It makes us look thinner” or “It helps hide the pasta stains”! But the truth is, we wear black to show that we are dead to this world. In other words, the pleasures and joys of this world should no longer interest us – we are living for Christ alone.
But this is not just for priests. Both St. Paul and Jesus make it clear in today’s readings that all Christians are called to put to death their sinful nature. What is he talking about, and how do we do this?
Human beings are made of two parts – body and soul. Our body comprises our physical desires, and also our emotions and feelings. Our soul, however, includes our intellect and our free will. Our lower nature (bodily desires and emotions) should be under control of our higher nature (our soul). But because of original sin, we find that there is a rebellion within us – our body wants to be the master of our soul! We call this concupiscence – the weakness of our will that makes our soul a slave to the body.
We’ve all had the experience of concupiscence. We know it would be gluttonous to have that fourth donut, but we do it anyway. We know that two beers is our limit, but we are tempted to go for a third. Our intellect can perceive that possessions don’t make us happy, but that big-screen TV is on sale and hey, it’s time to upgrade the old one anyway. So the struggle rages between our lower nature and our higher nature, between the body and its desires and the soul and what is truly good for it.
So we must put to death the lower nature. Putting something to death means doing violence to it – death involves suffering and struggle. So if we wish to be alive in Christ, we must embrace the sacrifices necessary to subdue our lower nature.
Practically, I want to mention two important ways to do this.
First, fasting. When I was a seminarian, my spiritual director said to me, “You will not begin to have a spiritual life until you stop snacking between meals.” At the time, I thought, “That’s crazy – what do my eating habits have to do with my love for God?” But the older I get, I realize – he is absolutely right! St. Alphonsus Liguori said, “Control of the palate (our food) is the ABC’s of holiness.”
Why? Because we as Christians must learn to deny ourselves! I firmly believe that most people struggle with sins and addictions because we have never, ever denied ourselves anything. If we are hot, we turn on the A/C. If we are hungry, we eat – regardless of what time it is. If we are tired, we take a nap or a Five Hour Energy. Most people live lives that are so self-indulgent that when a temptation comes, they have never learned how to deny themselves anything – so they fall into the temptation.
Fasting is a powerful method of serious self-discipline that strengthens our soul to have greater mastery over our body. As St. Augustine wrote, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of temptation, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity.” I can tell you that in my own life, fasting has been a game-changer. It has led to greater interior freedom, more closeness to Christ, more self-control. If you struggle with stubborn sins, particularly sins of lust, then fasting is the best way to overcome them. After all, Jesus said in another Gospel that “some demons are only cast out through prayer and fasting.”
Fasting and penance should be a regular part of every Christian’s life even outside of Lent. So what is the best way to fast? Start by going without dessert and drinking only water for a few weeks. Deny yourself a second helping. Get up without hitting the snooze button. Take a cold shower. The goal isn’t to be “macho” or just to grit your teeth and “tough it out” – the goal is to put to death your lower nature, so that your soul can flourish.
In addition to fasting, every Christian should practice generosity that costs something. What do I mean? Most of us, when we give money to a charity, give out of our surplus – “Oh, I got a good bonus this year, so I can spare an extra hundred in the collection plate.” That’s all well and good, but when is the last time you have given something that hurts? For example, perhaps a person has gotten into the habit of stopping by Starbucks every morning on the way to work. It would be entirely possible to skip those Starbucks runs and give that money to the poor. Would it be a sacrifice? Yes, especially if you look forward to that little consolation every morning! But that is precisely what it means to take up your cross. Maybe don’t go out and buy the most expensive pair of shoes, but buy a less expensive one instead and give that money you saved to the poor.
In addition to our bodily desires, our lower nature also wants worldly things – the glitter of the nicest car, the best clothes, the finest vacations, the ability to buy anything at anytime. So to put to death that part of our lower nature, we must overcome our desire to have the latest and greatest, and instead feel the pinch, the discomfort, the sacrifice of making due with simple and inexpensive things. We must not hunger for the passing pleasures of wealth – rather, put that worldly desire to death so that our only hunger may be for God.
Please don’t misunderstand – physical pleasure and nice things aren’t bad in themselves. But using the things of this world are only a short step from clinging desperately to the things of this world! Only when we have put to death our lower desires – when they have no more power over us – will we experience the true freedom Christ has won for us, and only then will we grow in holiness.