8th Sunday Ordinary Time
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003

First Reading - Hosea 2:16b, 17b, 21-22
Psalm - 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
Second Reading - 2 Corinthians 3:1b-6
Gospel - Mark 2:18-22

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast.  People came to him and objected, "Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"  Jesus answered them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them than cannot fast.  But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.  If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse.  Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.  Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined.  Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins."

How appropriate that the issue of fasting comes up in today's Gospel, seeing that we are just three days away from the beginning of Lent.  Jesus is questioned about why his disciples do not fast since the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees do practice fasting.

In His reply, our Lord uses nuptial imagery to explain the practice of His disciples.  The use of nuptial or marriage imagery was very familiar to the Jews.  Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is often likened to the bride of God, who continually calls the Jews to greater fidelity.  When the Jews sinned, the prophets, like Hosea, in our first reading this morning, often likened Israel to an unfaithful wife.  Later, in the Book of Revelation, St. John describes heaven as the great wedding feast of the Lamb of God. 

In the time of Jesus, it was common for a newly-married Jewish couple to defer their honeymoon for a week.  Rather, they would stay at home for a week of feasting.  Only the bride and groom's closest friends and family were invited - it was a week when all of the guests were exempt from the traditional Jewish fasting that took place on Monday's and Thursday's.  So, when Jesus likens Himself to the Jewish groom and his disciples to the wedding guests, then Christ is explaining why His disciples don't fast.  Thus, the characteristic attitude of the Christian should be the joy they have in discovering our Lord.  Jesus challenges the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees to look beyond fasting for fasting's sake but rather - to rejoice in having found the true bridegroom, who is Jesus Himself.  Like a new wineskin, Jesus ushers in a new dawn in salvation history - Christianity is NOT Judiasm-deluxe, but rather an entirely new order with the God-man, Jesus the Lord, at its very center.  The fact that God would take on human nature means that an entirely new dispensation has occurred.  Never again would the relationship between God and man be the same because of the person of Jesus Christ.

With Ash Wednesday coming up this week, once again, the Church presents us with the penitential season of Lent to rededicate ourselves to our baptismal commitments to share in God's very life and to embrace His call to holiness - to be saints in the world.  Lent is always a longer season than Advent and we don't have the outside pressures of things like Christmas shopping or Christmas parties to worry about, like we would during Advent.  So, this is really a golden opportunity to rediscover and renew ourselves, by God's grace, by participating in the three traditional disciplines or works of Lent: prayer, fasting (or Penance) and almsgiving (or deeds of mercy).  The bishop asked that the priests of the diocese read a letter written by him to you in preparation for Lent.  Rather than read the letter, I have incorporated it's key points into my homily.

IN TERMS OF PRAYER, Bishop Loverde suggests several ways in which we can make this Lent more fruitful:
1.  Attending daily Mass - Simply put, Mass attendance outside of Sunday is the single best way to be nourished by the Eucharist and to be imbued with the Holy Spirit, which should animate our daily lives.  Of course, attending Sunday Mass is obligatory and if you have missed Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation, then that mortal sin should be confessed to a priest.
2.  Attending Stations of the Cross - this ancient prayer will be available to us each Friday of Lent, at 7:30 PM, starting this Friday.  Some people may choose to pray the Stations at home each night.
3.  Praying the Rosary - in this year of the Rosary, learning the five new Luminous Mysteries, typically prayed on Thursdays is another way to draw closer to our Lady and ultimately, to our Lord.
4.  Daily Reading of the Scriptures - this can mean reading certain books or passages of the Bible or meditating on the Mass readings of the day.  Our parish also offers a program called Small Communities of Faith and representatives will have a table in the narthex both this weekend and next weekend to invite you to consider joining them.  Small Communities of Faith are groups of fellow parishioners who meet to read and reflect upon the Scriptures and include a faith-sharing and prayer component as well as a social and community building aspect, which distinguishes these groups from a typical Bible Study group. 
5.  Celebrating the Sacrament of Penance - Lent is a good time to make a thorough examination of conscience and to approach the Sacrament of Penance to be absolved of these sins.

IN REGARDS TO PENANCE OR FASTING, the bishop reminds us that fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstaining from meat is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent.  There is an ancient and revered tradition in the Church, which was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council, of performing acts of penance every Friday - not just on Fridays during Lent.  For many, it may mean making every Friday meatless, but there are other penances that could be substituted or good works or extra prayers that could be done.  Of course, Fridays in Lent have a different character - these are Fridays when meat is not to be eaten.  If your health does not permit this, then I would also invite you to consider other kinds of fasting - perhaps a favorite television show you enjoy or certain types of recreation, may be just as effective.  This kind of self-denial strengthens us to overcome the temptation towards selfishness which always lurks in the human heart. 

IN REGARDS TO ALMSGIVING OR DEEDS OF MERCY, when freed from selfishness, we can more readily reach out to our sisters or brothers in need through deeds of mercy or almsgiving.  All of the money that may be saved by not going to the Blockbuster or not eating out could be given to the poor as a sacrificial offering.  The Holy Father writes that Lent offers us the practical and effective weapons of fasting and almsgiving as a means of combating an excessive attachment to money and possessions.  Giving not only from our abundance, but sacrificing something more in order to give to the needy, fosters that self-denial which is essential to authentic Christian living.

Fasting is only really effective if we are giving up something good.  Giving up something bad is not really fasting.  If someone says, "Oh, I'm giving up humility or giving up a food you aren't supposed to eat" then we're missing the point.  I must confess that before entering the seminary, a friend of mine and I used to go out for a fancy seafood dinner on Fridays in Lent and then we'd go to Stations of the Cross - mea culpa.  After awhile, we began to see that while this was following the letter of the law that St. Paul talks about in our second reading (we weren't eating meat after all), this wasn't really the spirit of Lenten abstinence from meat. 

Once I was in seminary we used to joke that during Lent, we were giving up studying or fraternal charity.  The professors just loved that.  Remember that the Christians fasts, which is not the same as dieting.  The Christian is hopeful, not merely optimistic.  By our baptism, we are called to live in supernatural virtue, not merely in natural virtue or the virtues purported by a merely secularist worldview.

So, as this holy season of Lent rapidly approaches, let us take time to make concrete and realistic resolutions - practices that will really help us root out of our lives those things which keep Jesus at a distance and prevent Him from really penetrating our lives.  Let us be honest with ourselves and with the Lord - asking Him to name the darkness in our lives so that after these 40 days of Lent, we will rise anew with Him, in the glory of the Resurrection.

Praised Be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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