Archive for Lent

Thirsting for Lent

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Front image_drinking-waterThis column originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Thirsting for Lent.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—this Lenten trinity of practices has long been the foundation of our penitential season as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Many people will adopt new methods of prayer, engage in the spiritual practice of fasting and offer time and resources in the form of almsgiving. Each of these helps us to focus our attention on what we might otherwise overlook and challenges us to, as one option for the distribution of ashes puts it, “repent and believe in the Gospel” in increasingly attentive ways.

Even with Lent now underway, some people might still be looking for a way to connect better to their faith beyond the usual tradition of “giving something up.” I suggest that this year we might benefit from focusing our attention on something totally different, something often taken for granted: water.

With the short phrase “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) counted among the traditional seven last words of Jesus from the cross and proclaimed in the Passion account on Good Friday, it seems that we already have a reason to reconsider water as part of our Lenten practice of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Too often this phrase has become “overly spiritualized.” It is perhaps too easy, too quick and neat to read this line symbolically as a reference to the waters of eternal life. There is a temptation here for us to ignore the real and powerful human suffering that comes with someone dying of dehydration and experiencing real, life-ending thirst. To over-spiritualize the Gospel and overlook the real suffering of human beings is a problem because the waters of eternal life may mean little for those who die waiting for the waters of basic earthly life.

In his book Seven Last Words, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominican Order, makes the keen observation that “because our bodies are 98 percent water,” we might better view “dehydration [as] the seeping away of our very being, our substance. We feel that we ourselves are evaporating.” To die from lack of water is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing ways for a life to end. And yet, millions of people face this threat every day.

Often people in the United States are shielded from the harsh truth that most of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. This same insulated population, especially those in city and suburban locations, regularly uses clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, clean sidewalks and water lawns. That said, the recent droughts in California, as well as the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia that left more than 300,000 residents without drinkable water, have made more people in this country aware of how precarious life can be without the guarantee of clean water.

Beyond our borders the situation is much worse. While we regularly accept the commodification of water in the form of plastic bottles purchased at grocery stores or the use of filtration systems to enhance the taste of our already potable supply, the business of water has become a justice issue for those who cannot afford to satiate the whetted appetites businesspeople have for profit. It raises the question: Is clean water a basic human right or a product for sale?

Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University, treats this question in her new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Treated as an overlooked subject for Christian ethics and social justice, water, Peppard notes, is really a right-to-life issue, because “fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more.” When we take clean water for granted, both humanity and the rest of creation suffer.

Jesus’ cry “I thirst” continues to echo in the lives of those hanging on the crosses of poverty and oppression. This Lent perhaps we can commit ourselves to rethinking the role of water in our lives, paying special attention to how we use and abuse it. In turn, we might reconsider our practices and discover ways we can become better sisters and brothers to one another and the planet.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: Stock

Pope Francis’s 2014 Lenten Message

Posted in Lent, Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 4, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM


As Lent draws near, I would like to offer some helpful thoughts on our path of conversion as individuals and as a community. These insights are inspired by the words of Saint Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The Apostle was writing to the Christians of Corinth to encourage them to be generous in helping the faithful in Jerusalem who were in need. What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today? What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?

1. Christ’s grace

First of all, it shows us how God works. He does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty: “though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor …”. Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he came amongst us and drew near to each of us; he set aside his glory and emptied himself so that he could be like us in all things (cf. Phil 2:7; Heb 4:15). God’s becoming man is a great mystery! But the reason for all this is his love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us. Indeed, Jesus “worked with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, he truly became one of us, like us in all things except sin.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).

By making himself poor, Jesus did not seek poverty for its own sake but, as Saint Paul says “that by his poverty you might become rich”. This is no mere play on words or a catch phrase. Rather, it sums up God’s logic, the logic of love, the logic of the incarnation and the cross. God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance out of a sense of altruism and piety. Christ’s love is different! When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist, he did so not because he was in need of repentance, or conversion; he did it to be among people who need forgiveness, among us sinners, and to take upon himself the burden of our sins. In this way he chose to comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery. It is striking that the Apostle states that we were set free, not by Christ’s riches but by his poverty. Yet Saint Paul is well aware of the “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8), that he is “heir of all things” (Heb 1:2).

So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbour, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbour to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk 10:25ff ). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is his taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him. Jesus is rich in the same way as a child who feels loved and who loves its parents, without doubting their love and tenderness for an instant. Jesus’ wealth lies in his being the Son; his unique relationship with the Father is the sovereign prerogative of this Messiah who is poor. When Jesus asks us to take up his “yoke which is easy”, he asks us to be enriched by his “poverty which is rich” and his “richness which is poor”, to share his filial and fraternal Spirit, to become sons and daughters in the Son, brothers and sisters in the firstborn brother (cf. Rom 8:29).

It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

2. Our witness

We might think that this “way” of poverty was Jesus’ way, whereas we who come after him can save the world with the right kind of human resources. This is not the case. In every time and place God continues to save mankind and the world through the poverty of Christ, who makes himself poor in the sacraments, in his word and in his Church, which is a people of the poor. God’s wealth passes not through our wealth, but invariably and exclusively through our personal and communal poverty, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ.

In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope. There are three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual. Material destitution is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ. Our efforts are also directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution. When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth. Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.

No less a concern is moral destitution, which consists in slavery to vice and sin. How much pain is caused in families because one of their members – often a young person – is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope! And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide. This type of destitution, which also causes financial ruin, is invariably linked to the spiritual destitution which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love. If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall. God alone can truly save and free us.

The Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution: wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness. It means following and imitating Jesus, who sought out the poor and sinners as a shepherd lovingly seeks his lost sheep. In union with Jesus, we can courageously open up new paths of evangelization and human promotion.

Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.

May the Holy Spirit, through whom we are “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10), sustain us in our resolutions and increase our concern and responsibility for human destitution, so that we can become merciful and act with mercy. In expressing this hope, I likewise pray that each individual member of the faithful and every Church community will undertake a fruitful Lenten journey. I ask all of you to pray for me. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady keep you safe.

From the Vatican, 26 December 2013
Feast of Saint Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr

Photo: Wire

Monday of Holy Week: Which Way to the Cross?

Posted in Lent, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 25, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

compass3Amid the difficult times and the strife that awaits those who follow in the footprints of Christ, do we forget who we are and what it is that we are called to do?

The day after Palm Sunday is a time that could otherwise be filled with the distractions of those focused on the Triduum in just a few days. There is a lot to prepare (like the disciples sent ahead by Jesus in yesterday’s Gospel) and a lot to keep in mind while juggling the demands of a modern family, work, and personal life during one of the most important times of the liturgical year. For these and other reasons, it is good that our First Reading today calls us back to our roots and reminds us of what our mission statement is as Christians.

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
Upon whom I have put my Spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
Not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
Until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spreads out the earth with its crops,
Who gives breath to its people
and spirit to those who walk on it:
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
(Isaiah 42:1-7)

What the prophet proclaims here is what Jesus’s whole life and ministry are about: bringing forth justice to the nations, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing prisoners, bringing people out of darkness, proclaiming the word of God through means not of coercion but of gentleness, love, and peace.

Because it is so easy to get distracted by our own personal devotional sense of awe, wonder, sorrow, and joy — not that these things are bad as we move from the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday through Good Friday to Easter — we can forget what this celebration of the Passion of the Lord is really means.

It is the via crucis, the “way of the cross,” and a “way” is a path to be followed. This is not to suggest that the path is all about crucifixion (pace Mel Gibson), but the way is about the Truth that will set us free, the life that we live after the model of Jesus Christ.

The truth that sets us free and the path or way of life we are called to follow is about more than suffering, just as Holy Week is about more than death. It is about the love that offers itself freely for the sake of the other and the life that conquers death and forbids mortality from having the last word.

Are we ready to walk the via crucis, the way of Christ that leads to the Lord’s Supper and to Golgatha and to the empty tomb? Are we willing to exercise the mission statement Isaiah reminds us of and that Jesus modeled on the very path to the cross? Or are we only focused on what “we can get out” of”Holy Week and Easter?

The journey has begun again.

Photo: Stock

Thomas Merton on Christian Self-Denial

Posted in Lent, Thomas Merton, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

article-new-ehow-images-a04-is-ba-write-personal-faith-statement-800x800“No one can really embrace the Christian asceticism mapped out in the New Testament unless he [or she] has some idea of the positive, constructive function of self-denial. The Holy Spirit never asks us to renounce anything without offering us something much higher and much more perfect in return … The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life. The Christian dies, not merely in order to die but in order to live. And when he [or she] takes up his cross to follow Christ, the Christian realizes, or at least believes, that he is not going to die to anything but death. The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The Cross is the sign of life. It is the trellis upon which grows the Mystical Vine whose life is infinite joy and whose branches we are. If we want to share the life of that Vine, we must grow on the same trellis and must suffer the same pruning.” — Thomas Merton

Merton’s call for us to follow the asceticism of Christian evangelical life is not simply an arbitrary practice that is an end in itself, but must always be seen in the broader context of Gospel living. As Merton points out, the penitential practices of lent are not to be self-serving, but should be oriented toward freeing us up to be more focused on the important things in life. “The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life.”

There are a few things that I particularly find worth considering in Merton’s reflection here. One thing is the sense of death to self that Merton presents in association with Christian self-denial. It is the Pauline notion of “dying to one’s self” in order to be more focused on living as a member of the Body of Christ, as part of the Vine Merton describes here. St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), so too, Merton reminds us, are we called to live not for ourselves but as a member of Christ’s body.

The notion of being part of the Vine along the trellis poetically suggests that we don’t do this alone and in our own, arbitrary way. We have to look to God’s very self-revelation in Christ and in the historical manifestation of God’s disclosure in scripture. Here is the locus of our unity and communal support in living more fully the Christian life. Here is the trellis upon which the whole Body of Christ grows and supports one another as part of the Vine.

During this season of lent, we are challenged to pause and reflect on how we go about our everyday lives. Are we aware of our intimate connection to the rest of the Body of Christ? Do we try to life for ourselves alone, away from the Vine, apart from the branches, off the trellis of community where the Pilgrim People of God strive to flourish together? Perhaps we can follow the example of Merton and Paul, seeking in our daily lives — in big and little ways — to die to our own self-centeredness, our own priorities and concerns, and those things which constitute our own frivolous desires rather than the true and inherent aspiration we have deep within to be at home with one another and the rest of creation in Christ.

Photo: Stock

Remember, You Are Dust: Lent and Creation

Posted in Lent with tags , , , , , , , on February 13, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Hugging EarthI’ve always been a little turned off by one of the two traditional sayings used during the distribution of ashes: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” It has, at first glance, seemed like quite a “downer” and a depressing sort of reflection. On the one hand, it makes sense that an expression and reminder of penance on the first day of the Season of Lent might have a depressing, or at least somber, quality. Yet on the other hand, a second look at this expression does indeed cause us to remember a deeply significant truth about our existence and humanity. We are dust, as Genesis 2:7 explains, because God formed humanity from the “dust of the earth.” This has some radical implications for how we understand ourselves and our relationship to the rest of creation.

As the second creation account expresses clearly, we are ha-adamah (“from the earth”). We are not something apart from the rest of creation or above the rest of creation or, in some particularly physiological or biological sense, any different from the rest of creation. As human beings we share the same elements and minerals as the stars and seas and lions and birds; we are made up of the very dust of the earth as the rest all of God’s creation.

Perhaps this Lent, amid these times of heightened awareness of the ecological crises of our age, we might make a concerted effort to be more aware of our intrinsic relationship to the rest of the created order. It can begin today as we mark ourselves with a sign of penance and recall that we are part of God’s creation and will return to the earth someday after our earthly lives have ended.

Maybe we could even shape our penitential practices to reflect a particularly attentive stance to the concerns of the rest of creation. Perhaps what we “give up” or “take on,” if this our tradition, might be aimed at doing precisely what this saying during the distribution of ashes beckons us to recall: remembering that we are earth and that to the earth we will return. What will do and how will we think in the meantime?

Photo: Stock

Season of Easter: Moving Forward or Back?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Evening came and morning followed: Easter Sunday. Now that Easter Monday has dawned upon us, how do we approach the remaining days of this liturgical season? Unlike other important times in the Church Calendar, Easter is marked by a full season — not just a feast or solemnity or even octave — it gets weeks worth of emphasis! And with good reason. Here we celebrate the new life Christ has brought to us, the Salvation — the reuniting of all creation back to God — that comes in the Resurrection and made possible by God’s loving decision to enter the world as one like us.

But it seems to me that far too often the approach that some take to the Easter season is that of a “return to the way things were.”

What I mean by this is that Lent brings about significant changes for the daily life of the Christian community in noticeable ways. No saying or singing Alleluia, no praying the Gloria, no eating meat on Fridays, perhaps the giving up of something or taking on of some disciple as a penance throughout Lent — all of this amounts to a palpable experience of change and difference.

Yet, it is Easter that brings the real change and difference to the world. If there should be a moment marked by significant changes in the faith life of the faithful, shouldn’t it be beginning with the Easter Vigil and carried on through the days and weeks that follow, representing the changes Christ brought into Salvation History? What can be more life-changing than the extraordinary good news that death no longer has power over us? That death does not have the last word? That God so loved the world that, despite our best intentions to “do it our way” out of the hubris of original sin, we are brought back into the loving embrace of Trinity in baptism and life.

So as we continue to celebrate what began at Easter, how will you live? Will you “move back” to the way things were before Lent, thereby making Lent the main focus of your faith life? Or will you “move forward” into the new life God has given you in Baptism and continues to bestow on all of us in the Spirit?

Photo: Stock

Providing Good Ground for the Word

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on February 28, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

This reflection is now available in Daniel P. Horan, OFM’s book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays, Volume One (Koinonia Press, 2013).


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