The Love That Should Mark Our Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday (EF), February 11, 2018

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Quinquagesima Sunday, Extraordinary Form
February 11, 2018
1 Cor 13:1-13, Lk 18:31-43


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided today’s homily: 

  • Today on Quinquagesima Sunday, three days before Ash Wednesday, the Church helps us to get our proper orientation for the holy season and Lent. We need to hear the Word of God with that in mind.
  • Lent for catechumens preparing for Baptism — and for the rest of us preparing to renew and live better the promises of our Baptism — is meant to be a period of illumination, going from relative darkness into the ever greater light of faith, as we turn to the Lord for the healing of our blind spots so that we may see all things in his light. That’s what today’s Gospel of the healing of the blind man by the side of the road is meant to teach us.
  • Like rabbis were accustomed to do on the triennial pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the major feasts, Jesus was teaching the crowds along the journey. The blind man, whom St. Mark in his Gospel identifies as Bartimaeus, was sitting by the roadside begging. He was in Jericho, literally the lowest place on earth. He heard the commotion of the crowd and asked what was happening. Upon hearing that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he immediately began to cry out. He didn’t cry out for alms, which would have been small. He didn’t cry out at that point for a miracle. He cried out simply for mercy. “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” He had doubtless heard of Jesus’ reputation for working miracles to the north in Galilee and was responding in faith. The fact that he called him “Son of David” was a sign he believed Jesus was the Messiah. The word St. Luke uses means basically an animal cry, something coming deep from his woundedness. Hhis crying out for Jesus, however, was annoying those who were trying to hear Jesus’ teaching. So the first people in the group rebuked him and told him to shut his trap. But that only led him to cry out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me!”
  • Jesus stopped and ordered that Bartimaeus be brought to him. For Jesus, caring for this man was more important even than what he was teaching at that moment, because frankly it was an illustration of the why-behind-the-what he was communicating. He had been telling them that they were ascending from Jericho to Jerusalem and there everything written in the prophets about the Suffering Servant, about the Just Man being beset by evil doers, about Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice, about Abel being slain by Cain, would be fulfilled as he would be betrayed to the Romans, mocked, insulted, spat upon, scourged and killed, but on the third day rise. As important as those words were, however, he was doing all of it to lift us up from our own Jerichos, to heal our spiritual blindness, to respond to our cries for the Messiah to give us God’s mercy.
  • Jesus, however, was going to involve Bartimaeus, just like he wants to involve us, in his healing. After the blind man had cried out, it would have been very easy for Jesus to come to meet him exactly where he was begging. Instead he got close, but then he had Bartimaeus get up to come to him, to engage Bartimaeus’ freedom more, to stoke his desire, to exercise his faith, to give him greater participation in the miracle Jesus himself was about to accomplish. It takes courage to get up and leave our comfort zone to respond to the Lord. Bartimaeus had that courage and did. St. Mark tells us, “He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” The cloak was his outer garment that kept him warm at night. It was in a sense his security blanket. It was quite valuable to him and part of his life. But he was intentionally embracing a new life and establishing a new security. He left it behind, which is not just a fact but an important symbol of how he was thinking more about clinging to Jesus and the new life for which he was hoping than clinging to the past. He also “sprang up.” Even though he was blind, he got up immediately. He raced to respond to his being called by the Lord. Unlike the excuse makers in other sections of the Gospel who said that they would follow Jesus after they had buried their father (who might die three decades later), inspected their oxen, enjoyed their honeymoon, etc., Bartimaeus responded with alacrity. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?,” and Bartimaeus said, “Lord, please let me see!” The word used by St. Luke — anablepo— means in Greek to “see again.” He had lost the sight he once had. He wanted to be able to see anew. In Lent we recognize that all of us have similarly fallen and lost our innocence or purity of vision. Jesus in this season asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?,” and we’re called to allow him to help us to see again fully. Jesus replied to Bartimaeus, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” The Lord not only gave him his wish to see but heard his initial cry to have mercy on him. Jesus’ generosity far outdid Bartimaeus’ imagination to ask. Faith in response to God leads to salvation, and even though Bartimaeus didn’t dare ask for that, God gave it. Bartimaeus used his sight and his freedom, St. Mark tells us, to follow Jesus. He left the depth of Jericho behind and followed Jesus up to Jerusalem. St. Luke’s comment, “He immediately received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God, and when they saw this, all the people gave praise to God” (Lk 18:43), suggests he spent the rest of his life glorifying God in such a way that others joined him in that divine praise. So Lent is the time in which, in whatever pits we’re in, however deep or dark, we cry out to the Lord for mercy. Christ comes by, calls us to arise and come to him, where he seeks to restore our vision and strengthen us to live by the faith that saves us, so that we might follow Jesus fully and spend our lives glorifying God.
  • What should be our attitude toward Lent? Many times we approach it in a minimalistic way, as a duty we have to fulfill, as a penance we reluctantly assume. If we do so, then we’ll receive very little. We need to live Lent, rather, with great love. That’s why the Church gives us today’s epistle to frame our attitudes. St. Paul describes for us that if we speak the word of God in tongues, if we have the gift of prophecy and understanding every mystery, if we have faith more than a mustard seed to move mountain ranges, if we give away everything we have as alms and even hand our body over as martyrs, but don’t do so with love, then we gain nothing. In Lenten terms, if we rigorously fast all 40 days and six Sundays, if we give over 99 percent of what we have in alms, if we pray from dawn to dusk but don’t do so with love for God and love for others, then we will gain nothing. Loving God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and our neighbor as God as God has loved us is that essential.
  • That’s one of the reasons why I’m pleased that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, because it gives all of us a chance to emphasize the dimension of love in our Lent and in our faith. The coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is rare and so the Church doesn’t have this opportunity often. Since 1900, Ash Wednesday has fallen on Valentine’s Day only three times, in 1923, 1934 and 1945. Looking ahead it will fall on Valentine’s Day again in 2024 and 2029 and then not again for the rest of the century. So in 200 years, it will happen six times. The reason it happens so infrequently is because of the way the date of Easter is established. Easter always falls the first Sunday after the first moon after the Spring Equinox. This year the Spring Equinox is March 20, the Full Moon on Saturday, March 31, and Easter the following day. Ash Wednesday is always 46 days before Easter.
  • Very often Lent is marked by a minimalism unworthy of someone who passionately loves God with all his mind, heart, soul and strength and passionately loves one’s neighbor in need. People often give up something, like chocolate and sweets, or alcohol, or chewing gum, for their fasting; frequently put some loose change in a Rice Bowl box for almsgiving; or commit themselves to praying the Stations of the Cross on Fridays for prayer. There’s nothing wrong with any of these practices, which are all steps in the right direction, but to be honest, they’re very small steps. They’re a little like a husband’s picking up a generic card for his wife on Valentine’s Day, or getting some aging carnations at the florist because he thought roses were too expensive for his wife or because he didn’t think about getting roses until the last minute and they were sold out. We can contrast such an approach with that of husbands or boyfriends who really seek to show, on Valentine’s Day and beyond, just how much they love the woman in their life, not in exclusively material ways like jewelry, but in the thoughtfulness and time they put into demonstrating why, how and how much they cherish her. Real love, after all, is shown in a capacity to sacrifice for the one loved, even to the point of laying down one’s life. Valentine’s Day is an occasion to show that type of sacrificial love. Stinginess, whether in terms of monetary cheapness or a general lack of effort, is often a sign of a weak love.
  • As Christians, we should love God more than any man has ever loved any woman. We should be willing to sacrifice for him more. We should be willing to make more time for him than those in love make for each other. We should be more passionate about pleasing him than any boyfriend seeks to make happy the woman to whom he wishes to propose. Just as people who love each other want to spend time talking to each other, so we should long for time to converse with God in prayer. Just as those in love eat together we should eat not as epicureans or pagans do, but with the fasting Lord. Just as a husband and a wife sacrifice for each other and their children, we should sacrifice for the Lord and for others.
  • Lent is a time when we can focus above all on whether God’s love for us and our love for him are as they ought to be. As Pope Benedict, who resigned the papacy five years ago today and for whom we pray, used to stress, Lent is not about making minor course corrections in our lives, but about experiencing a radical and total conversion. It’s meant to be a moral exodus in which we give up the easy superficiality in which we live and resolve to adopt faithfully, step by step, Christ’s own path of total self-giving. It’s meant to be a Passover from mediocrity to sanctity, from being a part-time disciple to inserting ourselves fully into Christ’s paschal mystery, dying to ourselves so that Christ can truly live within us.
  • The confluence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day can be an occasion for us to focus precisely on this total conversion to a life of real love by and for God. This is the type of love that’s patient, kind, not arrogant, rude, boastful or self-seeking, as St. Paul describes, with adjectives that all apply to the way Christ loves us and ought to be predicated of the way we love him and others. God asks us, not “Do you want to be my Valentine?,” but rather, “Do you want me to be the love of your life?” The ashes we will bear, testifying to our desire for conversion, can be like roses presented before him. Our fasting can show our hunger. Our prayer can reveal how much we wish to share time with him, even in silence. Our almsgiving can be a means by which we share not only in his lavish goodness to us but also in his deep concern for our needy neighbor. And just as in a relationship where the love expressed on Valentine’s Day should be echoed far beyond February 14, so the love for God we show on Ash Wednesday is supposed to effuse Lent and beyond.
  • Lent is ultimately meant to be a season in which we ponder the incredible, spousal love of Jesus Christ for his Church shown in his dying so that his Bride might live. There’s no greater love story in history that that of the true, indeed extreme, love of Christ for us. There’s no greater choice we’ll ever make than to respond to God’s eschatological marriage proposal and align our lives with his nuptial passion. Lent is a pilgrimage toward Holy Thursday when the marriage between Christ and his Bride is consummated as his Bride takes within his body and blood and becomes one flesh with him, when the New Eve is formed from the pierced side of the New Adam on what St. Edith Stein called the bed of the Cross on Calvary, and then culminates in the joy of the Easter Vigil, when the prophecy of Isaiah, proclaimed as the fourth Old Testament reading in the novus ordo, is fulfilled when he says, “The One who has become your husband is your Maker. … The Lord calls you back like a wife!” Lent is fundamentally about God’s passionate love for us and the help he gives us to love him back, by his own self-giving standard.
  • Today Jesus asks us as he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Let us each ask him, for ourselves, for each other, and for all Catholics, especially those in most need of God’s mercy, to help us to live Lent with the passionate, all-consuming love God desires and deserves!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

A reading from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Luke
Jesus took the Twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon; and after they have scourged him they will kill him, but on the third day he will rise.” But they understood nothing of this; the word remained hidden from them and they failed to comprehend what he said. Now as he approached Jericho a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging, and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” The people walking in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent, but he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me!” Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him; and when he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He replied, “Lord, please let me see.” Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” He immediately received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God. When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.