The readings today are centered on giving things up to God. Sirach tells us how to keep the law by doing works of justice, works of charity, and the giving of alms. These works truly please God; these are the true sacrifices that enrich the altar more than gifts laid upon it. As much as any incense, they send up a sweet odor to the Most High. Sirach ends his litany with the exhortation: “Give to the Most High as He has given to you, generously, according to your means.”
This verse catches my eye – causes me to pause and to think. “. . . as He has given to you.” Can I ever enumerate all the ways that God has given to me? If I start with today and begin to work backwards, day by day, will I ever get to the end? As I start to move through my memories, I get lost in pauses and reveries of wonder. Through it all, Jesus stands out – over it all and central to it all is Jesus.
A poem-prayer attributed to St. Francis Xavier in an English translation begins:
“My God, I love Thee not that I
may gain a greater place in heaven thereby.
Nor yet because all those who love not Thee
will burn in hell eternally.
No, Thou, my Jesus, whilst on the tree,
didst in Thine arms encompass me.
The nails, the lance, Thou didst endure,
. . . . . . . . .”
Francis Xavier knew that Jesus loved him personally, and that He gave Himself up upon the cross for love of him: – “. . . didst in Thine arms encompass me.” Francis simply had to love back.
Many of us are old enough to remember retreats and missions, and maybe even religion class lessons, where we were prompted to prepare for the sacrament of penance by gazing at the crucifix and thinking, “My sins did this to you, Jesus. I crucified you, Jesus. I caused you this pain and horrible death.” By such pondering we were to arouse true sorrow and repentance for our sins.
Nowadays we have recovered a much better response. With Francis Xavier, with our own Paul of the Cross, with Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux – in fact with all the great mystics and teachers – we can gaze at Jesus crucified and ponder how in His great love, and because of His great love, Jesus did this for us. In our prayer we can hear Him saying to us, “I did this for you – I do this for you.”
This is the much better way, I believe, to prepare for the sacrament: To keep our eye on Jesus and His great love, not on ourselves and our sins. As we gaze upon the Lord and His love, we don’t have to worry about our sins, nor fret about the quality of our sorrow. Jesus will take care of our sins. He will make our sins known to us in His own way; and we shall find ourselves more easily dealing with our sinfulness and the root of our sin as He wants us to in His own time.
“Give to the Most High as He has given to you.” “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son . . . ”
Gazing upon the generosity of God’s love in Jesus crucified will lead us, I think, to be truly generous ourselves.
Peter Fitzpatrick, CFX, is a Xaverian Brother living at Ryken House, Louisville, across Bear Grass Creek from the Passionist Community Sacred Heart Monastery.