LENT - FIRST SUNDAY
We began a few days ago, my brethren, the holy Lenten season, that has been set apart as a time of penance and as a time preparation; first, for the festival of the triumphant resurrection of our Blessed Lord; and secondly, of preparation for that personal share in His victory over sin and hell, which we all, with God’s blessing, hope to have when time is ended, and the world has fleeted away, and when all our deeds done in the flesh shall be summed up before the tribunal of God’s Judgment. Not, if the Church can help it, shall men forget the solemn mysteries connected with their eternal destiny. Not, if she can help it, shall the distractions of the world, or the weakness of the flesh, and the temptations of the devil beguile them from the narrow path that leads them to their Father’s feet in the glory of heaven. It may unhappily be, that even of those who are members of the Church, some may, in spite of sacrament and sacrifice, in spite of warning and threat, work out their damnation; but never shall they do so till first there has been given to them, as there is given to you to-day, a time that is “an acceptable time,” a day that is “a day of salvation.” No; the world may have, as it always has, its thousand interests; it may press each one of them, in turn, as it so well knows how to press them, upon our attention – the weakness of human nature may, from time to time, threaten to gear down the fainting soul and weary heart – temptation in its most alluring form, may seek, and will seek, to win us from the allegiance which, both by the order of nature and the order of grace, we owe to the God Who has not only made us, but made us for Himself; but in the busiest, and the stormiest, and the most dangerous hour, help is close at hand. In this spring season of the year, that may well remind us that this little span of existence which we call life, is the seedtime in which our hands may cast into the furrows of the world around us, the seed of good works which, with God’s blessing, shall ripen into and eternal harvest; in this spring season of the year, the Church lays her hand upon us, plucks us aside for a moment from the world we so keenly serve, places us before her altar, and then she takes ashes and sprinkles them upon our foreheads, as a token and a reminder that the brain within, and the busy heart, and the hands that toil, shall one one day be dust.
She places us beneath the shadow of death, and in those solemn words, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return,” she suggests the thoughts that such a shadow is calculated to awaken. And this is of itself an inestimable service, for, surrounded though we are by many things that might naturally remind us the inevitableness of death, yet are we prone to put aside such teaching as interfering unduly, with the enjoyment of the present. Men have many aims I life, and men love to succeed in the things to which they put their hands; they march on eagerly, and though, as they press on eagerly in that troubled march, many a gap is left beside them in the ranks, many a friend, and many a neighbor sinks into that inevitable grave that shall hide the faces of the fondest from each other, till they shall meet with a new strange light thrown on them from the judgment seat of God; though all this happens, and is happening every moment between sunrise and sunset, yet few strive to realize that the lot of death shall one day fall upon themselves, that the cold hand that has stilled the beating of other hearts, shall be laid upon their own.
But the Church does more than this. When the ashes have been placed upon our foreheads, and the thought of death implanted in our minds, our hearts grow troubled, and we feel a shrinking back from that eternity, upon the threshold of which we shall be placed by death. Ah! Well does the Church know this feeling, and well does she divine its cause. Death frightens us; but why should we be afraid of death, were it not that inside the gate of death stands the throne of God’s Judgment, before which the parted soul must stand, from which God’s only-begotten Son shall search our souls, and shall pronounce our doom? Why should death have any terrors for us, if death were not followed by Judgment; and why need we fear Judgment were it not for mortal sin?
Let it be revealed to one amongst you that in an hour he dies. What shall start up from the grave of the past to terrify his soul? What, but the mortal sin that has lain like a curse upon his memory, like shadows on his life, like a burden on his heart?
Yes, my brethren, the Church knows well that where she succeeds in implanting the thought of death she will also have raised terror and dismay in the human heart; and in the mercy that makes her like her Divine Founder, although she could find in the inspired records many a frightful warning, many a terrible threat, to-day she passes by them all, and she fastens on those consoling words of the apostle: “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.”
In mercy, then, this holy season has been given to you. It is one more of the countless graces that God has been showering upon you, many of which it may unhappily be that you have trampled upon and abused. Whoever of you has ever committed a mortal sin, let him ask himself to-day where should be his place? And the faith that is in him, the faith that still makes reparation possible, will answer at once: “You have committed mortal sin. Well, your place is not here among the faithful; your place is in the hell of the damned, where never more a prayer might rise to your burning lips; where never a hope might visit your tortured heart, nor any release every come through all the ages of eternity to your lost soul. And if instead of being in hell, you are beginning another Lent; if you are still among the living, still within the hearing of the words of hope, still within the reach of sacrament and sacrifice, of saintly intercession, of the untiring solicitude of Mary your Mother, it is because out of His pure =mercy God has done for you what He has not done for others, who, perhaps, deserved His anger less, and has let one other acceptable time come round, has let one other day of salvation dawn upon the guilty soul, that by mortal sin has forfeited its claim to heaven.”
During this holy season, the Church will daily out pour forth her prayers for the conversion of sinners; she will strive by the fasts and the mortifications she prescribes, to unloose the bonds that bind you to the world. But there is one place of all others in which the Church shall keep the lent; she shall be found, in the person of her priests, sitting in the confessional, with the very power of God to forgive sin, and with a mercy like the mercy of God, to make reconciliation easy to the sinful soul. All may have been wrong between the sinner and his God; sin may have been added to sin till only the angel who has written them down can keep the count; the sinner may have sinned beyond the measure of men’s forgiveness; but still the Church is not a liar when she proclaims that this is an acceptable time, a day of salvation. She will meet the sinner with a smile such as may have been upon the lips of Jesus when He spoke to Magdalene; she will meet him with a mercy that finds its model in the mercy that stirred the dying heart of Jesus, when the mists of death were lifted for a moment from His eyes, that He might look on one who had been lost, when the voice came back to the lips that death had almost touched, that He might canonize the penitent who had been a thief and a murderer. Remember these things, my brethren; call to mind the thousand proofs that Jesus gave of His compassion for sinners, of His love for human souls. It could never be out of place, standing where I stand, discharging the sacred duty which I discharge, to preach the unbounded mercy of Our Savior and or God, but to-day of all days, it is right that I should declare that you should fasten it in your minds, that God is a God who will have mercy and not sacrifice; that Jesus is still the same, has still the same compassionate heart as when, in olden time, He turned away from the Pharisee and sought the haunts of sinners; sill the same as when the story of the prodigal came from His sacred lips; still the same as when He forgave Magdalene many sins, and crowned by His acceptance the acceptance the contrition of the dying thief. True it always is – but true especially in his holy season – that no matter how grievously the sinner may have sinned, no matter with what crimes the guilty soul may be weighed down – though the number of the sinner’s offences have surpassed the moments of his existence – though they were black in their enormity as the crime of Judas – yet if the sinner come to Jesus in the confessional, he shall find that the love that was stronger than death in His Sacred Heart has never died out – that His mercy has never known any diminution, and that He is ready, in this acceptable time, this day of salvation, to pronounce, by the mouth of his minister, those words that implant in the penitent’s heart a forecast of the blessed joy of heaven: “Go in peace, thy sins are forgiven.”