Here we are in the month of February. Although it is cold out on this second Monday of February and the breeze is chilly, I am struck by the abundant sunshine that feels warm on my back and is actually melting the snow and ice a bit. Daylight is lengthening as well and is a harbinger of the spring to come, no matter what the groundhog prognosticates!
Particularly significant for us as a local Church will be three observances that will occur in rapid succession during the next week. The first is the World Day of Prayer for the Sick on February 11, the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes. The second is World Marriage Day on February 14, the Memorial of St. Valentine. And the third is none other than Ash Wednesday on February 17 and the beginning of the holy season of Lent.
All three occasions speak of the new life that comes from our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It reminds me of the scene in this past Sunday’s Gospel when Mark, the Evangelist, wrote about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law lying ill with a fever (a serious matter then, as it is today). One reads: “They immediately told him [Jesus] about her. He approached, grasped her by the hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them” (Mk 1:30-31).
What life lessons can you and I learn from the week ahead? In his letter for the 29th World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis observes: “The experience of sickness makes us realize our own vulnerability and our innate need of others. It makes us feel all the more clearly that we are creatures dependent on God. When we are ill, fear and even bewilderment can grip our minds and hearts; we find ourselves powerless, since our health does not depend on our abilities or life’s incessant worries (cf. Mt 6:27). Sickness raises the question of life’s meaning, which we bring before God in faith” (#2).
“We walk by faith!” Could that not be our theme song for the last 12 months of pandemic?! Yet, has it not also brought us to a new understanding of the need for faith in our lives? Not just a profession of faith with our lips, but even more with our lives — as we have seen in so many health care professionals and other frontline workers who put their lives on the line each day to be the helping hand of those gripped by the coronavirus and the fear it generates. It is said “We come from God! We go to God,” and to this I would add “We bring humanity to God and God to humanity!” What a lesson for us to contemplate as we move forward in our living with COVID-19 in the world community.
In “Les Miserables” we hear, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Not only is this line illustrated in one’s care for the sick and needy, but even more voluntarily in the love of husband and wife in the Sacrament of Marriage. One of the greatest witnesses my parents have given me in their nearly 62 years of marriage is the maturation of love expressed in the laying down of their lives for each other and their family.
I can actually attest that I have seen my parents’ marriage bond grow over the years to the point that they have become the personification for me of what it means to be “Sacrament” to each other. Here I am not speaking of romantic love so much as a love that is to be found in their nurturing of family life and in being true partners and helpmates to one another, especially in the golden years that aren’t always so golden!
This Sunday, February 14, as a diocesan Church, we celebrate World Marriage Day, and we honor in a particular way the lifelong commitment of husband and wife. Every marriage is meant to be a little icon (a true representation) of the love of Christ and his bride, the Church. The love shared between man and woman in holy matrimony points us to the self-emptying, self-sacrificing love God has for each one of us as seen in his Son, Jesus. This coming weekend, our local Church seeks to provide an occasion for visible support that couples need to continue in these times to make the daily decision to love one another like Jesus loves: with no limits.
As we contemplate the love of husband and wife, we are all too aware of the sad experience and the pain of broken marriages and families. Nonetheless, ultimately through baptism, all of us are part of the perfect family — God’s family — as beloved sons and daughters of God the Father. This reality leads us to our final observance: the beginning of our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday, February 17.
Each year this 40-day period of prayer, penance, and charitable works is all about you and me reconnecting with our baptismal calling to walk as a child of God. Yet, we know also that many of us are well beyond our childhood days! However, can that be said of our faith lives — our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ? This year our Lenten theme is, “Renewing Faith, Hope, and Love” — renewing our search for the face and hand of God in our everyday lives.
Last year, our Lenten and Easter seasons were unique in the way we had to live them out. It is my hope and prayer that this year we can return to a more in-person Lenten observance in our diocese. Therefore, once again, I wish to invite Christ’s faithful back to their parish churches for Sunday and Daily Mass, for Eucharistic Adoration, for the Sacrament of Penance (Confession), for the Stations of the Cross, and especially for the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter).
It is true that social gatherings and other group activities are not yet possible due to restrictions on group events, but that is where experience can help us, with live-streamed Bible studies, youth events, discussion groups, etc. Of course, for those whose health conditions or life situations do not permit them to return to our churches at this time, the Diocese of Syracuse and its parishes will continue to provide livestreamed Masses and other liturgical events. Again this year we will have a Diocesan Lenten Retreat, available both in-person and via livestream, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception March 15, 16, and 17 at 6:30 p.m. each evening.
Lent is always an extraordinary time in my book. This year it will be even more significant as we engage in a 33-day period of prayer preparing our diocese for consecration to St. Joseph, Husband of Mary and Patron of the Universal Church on March 19. As I stated in my letter about this special moment in the life of our diocesan family, “We invoke the intercession of St. Joseph… that you and I, like St. Joseph, may be living witnesses of the Gospel — the Good News of Jesus Christ — where we dwell and in our labors. More than ever, our witness to the Living Word is needed to counter the sin and dark terrors that seek to hide the light of Christ in our world today.”
For the shortest month, there is a lot going on! May we be reminded that at its end, we are even closer to spring and the renewal it brings! A blessed February to all of you!