05 Feb Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deacon Blaine Barclay
I was preparing for RCIA last week, reading the section of the Catechism on the Commandment, ’You shall not commit adultery’. The following quote jumped out at me. ’’Whoever wants to remain faithful to their baptismal promises and resist temptations will want to adopt the means for doing so: self-knowledge, practice of an ‘Ascesis’ adapted to the situations that confront them’’. As you can see, the Catechism can be quite dense, in the good sense of that word. You may have also noticed an unusual, specialized term in this quote. It is a Greek word, found throughout the New Testament, the word is ‘Ascesis’, it can be translated variously as, ‘spiritual exercises’, ‘asceticism’, ‘disciplined practice’, ‘training’, ‘athletics of the soul’. As a word it points to those various things that we can do, individually and as a community, to intentionally cultivate the Christian life, the tasks, disciplines, and practices of apprenticeship as a disciple of Jesus.
You may be asking what this quote and this strange Greek word, ‘Ascesis’, has to do with our scripture readings today? In the gospel we find a very busy Jesus. Healing, performing exorcisms, proclaiming the good news, always available, always giving, teaching the hungry sheep, a man of action. But that is not all that we see in today’s gospel. In the middle of all of this activity of a demanding, busy life, we find Jesus practicing a very important ‘spiritual exercise’. ’’In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’’.
Throughout his life, and particularly during his very busy and demanding public ministry, Jesus practiced various forms of ‘spiritual exercises’, the disciplines of being in right relationship with his Father, whose mission he himself was.
For example, he regularly attended the synagogue, where he would have studied scripture and participated in its liturgy. Jesus would have regularly prayed and sang the Psalms, both on his own and with his disciples. We know that he went on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. He kept the Sabbath Day holy. He fasted and prayed in the wilderness for an extended period of time. In today’s Gospel he gets up early in the morning, before the break of day, and goes off to find an isolated, lonely place to pray. Even Jesus needed to recharge his batteries. Even Jesus needed to practice ‘Ascesis’, ‘spiritual exercises’.
We all take it for granted that the body needs regular exercise in order to keep fit and stay healthy. Why would we think it is any different in the area of spiritual fitness and health? The season of Lent is just around the corner, now is the time to plan out our Spiritual Exercise regime, so that Easter will find us right ready for the Risen Jesus. Spiritually fit, healthy enough to dance the dance of the Resurrection, and to run in the race of the bold proclamation of the Gospel.
What St. Paul says today about himself, applies to each one of us, ’Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel’. How can we contain the excitement of this Good News that invites us into transformation, new life, new creation, being made over in the image of Christ? We can’t.
So how does the first reading from the book of Job fit into this idea of ‘Ascesis’ or ‘spiritual exercises’? At first glance it is very dark and depressing. Job compares the human condition to a life of hard labor, like the field slave who longs for the shade, months of emptiness, long nights of misery, tossing until dawn. This passage from Job is in fact a slow burn meditation on the reality of death. ’My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope. Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good’.
We don’t expect to read words of such dark despair in the pages of scripture, and yet, there it is, not just in Job, but woven throughout the scriptures, from the psalms, to the wisdom books, to Jesus’, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’’? Meditation on our mortality, and on the darker side of our human experience, is a well-known and frequently practiced ‘spiritual exercise’. It is meant to motivate us to conversion, to wakefulness, to the intentional disciplines of discipleship. ’’Remember that you will die, and then you will never sin’’, says Proverbs. So, let us plan out before hand, the particular Spiritual Exercises that we will build into our practice of the Christian life during Lent this year. Like Job, it may involve meditating on our own death, a hard core ‘spiritual exercise’, to be sure. Or it may be something like, practicing patience with my family members, reading scripture, praying the psalms, not eating meat, or donuts, week day mass on occasion, visiting Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, stations of the cross, the rosary, or, finding a lonely place to pray. Spiritual exercise, Ascesis, keeping fit, staying healthy, getting ready for the in-breaking of the Risen Jesus.