“The Gift of Our Spiritual Weapons of Self-Restraint”

March 2, 2022
Ash Wednesday
Mass readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, 6:1-2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Homily delivered at
the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption
San Francisco, CA

Wednesdays and Fridays as Days of Fasting

            There is an ancient Christian writing that was composed right after the last parts of the New Testament were being written. So, it is a witness, likewise, to the faith of those first Christians, hearkening back to the apostolic age. Indeed, this ancient document is called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or the Didache (“Teaching” in Greek) for short. In this ancient document testifying to the faith life of those early Christians, it explains that Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. These have been the traditional days of penance in the Christian life.

            We have kind of lost a sense of Wednesdays as fast days. In some parts of the Church, it is still observed – for example, in some Orthodox churches and some special communities. Friday certainly continues to be a day of penance, not just during Lent. Let us remember – all throughout the year – the Church still calls us to fast and do penance on Fridays all throughout the year, in observance, of course, of the fact that Friday is the day that Our Lord died for us. So, Friday is for us a day of penance, of dying to our sins.

            Wednesday is the day that Judas agreed to betray Our Lord. So, on the day He was betrayed, it has also been traditionally a day of penance. We preserve that now in the Universal Church on this day, on Ash Wednesday. Lent always begins on a Wednesday, and rightfully so, because of this being a day of penance.

Making Reparation for Our Betrayal of Our Lord by Gratitude to Him

            And, especially when we think about the spiritual meaning of this day, when Our Lord was betrayed. Because, who really betrayed our Lord? Or, what betrayed our Lord? We read the gospel story, the account of His passion, and it was Judas, but Our Lord died for all of us. He died because of our sins. It is our sins that betray Him, which means we are the ones who betray Him, when we sin. Every time we sin, we betray Him. And so, we have the need to do penance to make up for those sins.

            Now, it is true by ourselves we cannot make up for those sins. That is why Our Lord came. Only He could pay the price of our debt of sin, of loss of friendship with God and life in His Kingdom. Only He could do that. However, we can repay the debt of gratitude that we owe to Him for doing this. This is part of our human experience. When you owe a great debt of gratitude to someone, you want to go out of your way to show that gratitude. When you offend someone, you want to go out of your way to make reparation for the offense you have caused. And so, we do this to Our Lord with our observances during Lent, the three classical observances we hear about in St. Matthew’s gospel today, as we hear every year on our Ash Wednesday

The Spiritual Weapon of Prayer

            The opening prayer (the collect) for our Mass today refers to these 40 days of Lent as a “campaign,” a campaign in which we make use of, it says, “spiritual weapons” in order to battle evil. These are the weapons Our Lord teaches us in this passage from Saint Matthew’s gospel: of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

            Prayer. Lent is a time, especially, to redouble our efforts of prayer, which should, again, mark our Christian life all throughout the year. But there are especially particular devotions appropriate to this season, such as the Stations of the Cross, reflecting on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and, most especially, availing ourselves of the Sacrament of Penance, seeking God’s forgiveness, the grace of His forgiveness, in that sacrament.

The Spiritual Weapon of Fasting

            Fasting is a very important and necessary spiritual weapon. Let us not fool ourselves. We are in a spiritual battle. We see demonic forces all around us. We are all in horror at what is happening in Ukraine right now, and we will come together as an archdiocese to pray the Rosary for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and for peace in that land. I will lead that Rosary virtually from my residence at 1:15. I invite you to remain in the Cathedral to pray that Rosary.

            And we see destruction in all kinds of other ways around the globe: destruction of human life, especially where it is most vulnerable; destruction of the family; hostility, vengeance, so much violence. These are all signs of demonic activity, so we need to engage spiritual weapons, and fasting must be a part of that. We need to reclaim that spirit of fasting in a serious way. For the mature disciple, it is not enough simply to give up something one enjoys eating. Rather, fasting means we are supposed to feel hungry, and that hunger we feel will enkindle within our soul a hunger for the Lord’s mercy and love.

The Spiritual Weapon of Almsgiving

            And, of course, we have almsgiving. Almsgiving is our faith put into action. Again, we need literal almsgiving such that, just like fasting, we feel the difference when we give from our treasure. And we need almsgiving of our time, as well, in acts of charity that should so especially mark the season of Lent. In these ways, we make progress in our life in the Lord, and we battle the evil one, present and active in this world, through what these spiritual weapons lead to, as our opening prayer also mentioned: that we make use of self-restraint.

The Gift of Self-Restraint

            By self-restraint, we open our hearts to God’s grace, and thus we can become messengers of His peace. Let us pray that during this 40-day campaign we may be attentive to the Lord’s helps and engage in this spiritual contest, making use of these weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in a serious way, so that, when the time comes for us to celebrate His victory over death at Easter, we may do so with hearts renewed and with fullness of joy.