Bishop Thomas delivered the following homily during last week’s Ash Wednesday service at the Cathedral of St. Helena.
For 13 years, I served as chaplain for an 1,800 bed jail in Seattle, Washington. During the course of those years I met thousands of men and women charged with crimes ranging from petty thievery to capital murder.
One individual I met did not fit the typical profile of a King County Jail inmate. He hailed from an educated and affluent family. He was bright and engaging, personable and convincing. He was also highly addicted to cocaine. In order to support his ever-increasing drug habit, he began not only using cocaine, but distributing it and selling it for profit. In a short time his habit and lifestyle landed him in a federal courtroom.
Letters from this young man’s family, friends and advocates poured into the federal prosecutor’s office and the courthouse. Following a guilty verdict, the inmate’s family and friends prayed for mercy and begged the judge for leniency. During the sentencing phase, the young man stood before the bench, promising his life away. His sorrow and remorse moved even the seasoned federal judge, who granted this young man a second chance and a new lease on life, but his involvement in the legal system did not end there.
Within six months the same young man was arrested at SeaTac International Airport. The charge – possession and interstate transportation of cocaine, which security officers found strapped to his leg with duct tape. For a second time this young man was arraigned and remanded to the jurisdiction of the same federal judge. I will never forget the words the judge addressed to that young man: “ I have been fooled before and will be fooled again. But the next time, I assure you, it won’t be by you.” The judge sentenced him to the fullest extent of the law, giving him years to contemplate the high price of a double life and the personal cost of self-deceit.
The opening reading of the Lenten season is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus uses a harsh and strident word directed to the religious leaders of the day. The word is hypocrite, a word which in Greek means to playact or pretend. Webster defines the word “hypocricy” as “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not believe.” The English synonyms of the Greek word hypocrite are mimic or fake, phony or fraud. Hypocrisy is accompanied by an attitude that is holier than thou and a lifestyle that says do as I say, not as I do.
Matthew directs his words to the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. However, the Gospel writer Luke is more inclusive. Hypocrisy is a spiritual disease that lies in wait for anyone who practices the spiritual life. Its symptoms are self-deceit, a desire to save face, a disordering of spiritual priorities that place external practice above internal conversion. Spiritual hypocrisy is rooted in sin and creates a gulf between what we proclaim with our lips and the way we live our daily lives. Hypocrisy is an equal opportunity spiritual malady.
In the nineteenth century, poet Joaquin Miller wrote an insightful poem about the perils of the spiritual life, and the power of God’s grace:
In men whom men condemn as ill
I find so much goodness still
In men whom men pronounce divine
I find so much of sin and blot
I do not dare to draw a line
Between the two
Where God has not.
The Lenten season is a grace-filled opportunity to respond to the plea of the prophet, Joel. “Come back to me with your whole heart,” writes the prophet Joel. Where sin divides, grace unites. Where sin deludes, grace brings truth. Where sin deadens the spirit, grace brings life. Where sin distances us from the body of Jesus Christ, grace restores.
The word Lent comes from the Middle English word meaning “lengthen” – the lengthening of days. Lent symbolizes the passage from the cold and dark of winter to the light and warmth of spring. Lent is the opportunity to heal the wounds of sin and division through the light and love of Christ. His light shines into the cold and darkness of sin and reveals the stark reality of our lives. The grace of the season – a season of fasting, prayer and almsgiving – allows us to confront the hypocrisy and self-deceit that are consequences of our sin.
Shakespeare captures poetically one of the major challenges of the season: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou can’st not then be false to any man.” (Hamlet)
Christ is calling each of us by name to come back to him with our whole hearts. May each of us make the words of the prophet, Joel, our own – leave the past in ashes and turn to God with all our hearts. (Joel 2:13)
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 21, No. 2, February 18, 2005.