Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen. 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15

Years ago I was teaching in a St. Meinrad School of Theology classroom when the students and I got into a discussion about the passage from the book of Genesis that we just heard this morning. I think we were originally discussing whether or not the human race could totally annihilate itself from the face of the earth. One group of students was adamant that it was not only possible, but very near. I asked them about how they would deal with this passage from Genesis about God not allowing the earth to ever be destroyed again. As often happens, this took the discussion into a whole different direction. Most of the students were not familiar with the scripture passage at all. When we did read it, they didn’t understand it. They didn’t know what the "bow" in the heavens was. When I finally coaxed it out of them that it was a "rainbow," they were astounded. I told them that the rainbow became the biblical sign of a promised future blessing, a future blessing by God. Then I heard this big sigh from one of the students and he said out loud, "Wow! And I always thought that was a great idea that Hallmark Cards had come up with."

Seminary students (and lots of adult Catholics) are often amazed to find out how much wisdom was known centuries and centuries before our times. It is even more astounding for them to come to realize that they can actually learn something from ancient times and practices. One such area where they had a lot to learn was the practice of fasting. Our modern American culture has no awareness of fasting at all. We do know about dieting, that effort to restrict and limit our intake of nourishment. But dieting and fasting are two entirely different entities. Dieting aims to lose physical poundage; it’s all about the body. Fasting aims to sharpen mental attentiveness; it seeks to broaden and deepen the ability to listen. Fasting and listening go hand in hand. Fasting wants to limit sensory input in order to free up our center of awareness to be more attuned to ourselves, to the people around us, and so help us perceive what is in this present moment. In this way fasting has a much different cast than just dieting. In the ancient world fasting was practiced by athletes, by scholars, by soldiers, by anyone who needed a heightened sense of awareness when approaching a challenging task.

The range of fasting extends far beyond the purview of food. For example, fasting may seek to limit the sensory input of sight. That’s why the desert—with its stark and bleak landscape—became a place of fasting in itself. Again, in our own day the sense of hearing may be the most necessary place in need of fasting. The explosion of digital, electronic devices in the past ten years alone have created the capacity to flood a person’s hearing from the time they wake up until the time they fall asleep. People can be texting, talking, listening to music, watching a ball game literally twenty-four hours a day. And they do! There are times when it’s good and even necessary to fast from this ubiquitous sensory hearing and visual overload. Otherwise in all this jumble of sense information where is there any capacity of evaluation? Where do we try to discern the worth of what we hear and see? That’s what fasting strives to do. It wants to bring us back to a center of conscious awareness to accomplish that, to make good evaluations and good decisions.

The season of Lent is a time of fasting, of listening. We should revel in a sharpened awareness and judgment which are the true hallmarks of this liturgical season. And it would do each of us well to discern where we need the practice of fasting in our lives.

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