Monday, March 21, 2011

I’m Obliged

“Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” Matthew 16: 17-19

Perhaps at times during Lent we can start to wonder why the Church obligates us to fast, or to abstain from meat on Fridays or to give alms. We may even wonder why during the rest of the year the Church obligates us to attend Mass on Sundays or other certain holy days.

First and foremost, we need to understand that Jesus gave the Church this authority. And with it the Church can release us from our sins in the sacrament of confession, and it can also obligate us to acts of penance, prayer and good works. But many people might wonder how effective this is as a Christian practice. People might question how an act done out of obligation can be spiritually effective in our lives. I have often heard people say that if it isn’t done “from the heart”, then the prayer, act, etc is meaningless. I have heard people say that they will only do something if they feel like it because if they don’t feel like it then they are being hypocritical. And perhaps you and I can think this way sometimes too.

But is that the purpose of obligations? Don’t we have obligations in life for many things? And doesn’t this sense of obligation actually show more importance rather than less? For instance, young people are obligated to attend school. Most adults are obligated to be on work for certain days and times of the week in order to earn a wage. Drivers are obligated to obey the traffic laws or they could lose their license. And most importantly, don’t we have obligations in our relationships with one another? Husbands are obligated to love their wives and not cheat on them. Wives are obligated to respect their husbands and to listen to them. Children are obligated to obey their parents and parents are obligated to be patient with their children and to teach them and correct them as needed. And do we always FEEL like doing these things? Do we always do these things from the heart? No. Sometimes we do them simply because we are obligated to; because LOVE has demands. In fact, sometimes we wouldn’t be motivated to do the right thing without being obligated to.

The idea is that an action initially done out of obligation will hopefully turn one’s heart—one’s feelings—to wanting to do the right thing. Perhaps I don’t WANT to get up in the middle of the night with a sick child. I’d rather sleep. But my obligation to love them and my wife FORCES me to command my body to get up and to care for this little one so my wife can sleep. Initially I may feel frustrated, but by acting on my obligation rather than my emotion, I make a conscious choice to love, and within minutes, as my head clears and the act of compassion continues, it changes my heart in the process. I think the same can be true of things the Church obligates us to do.

How many people would rather not get up and go to Mass on Sunday? How many people would find it easier to not rearrange their schedules to attend Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation? How many people would rather just eat meat on Fridays in Lent because, really, what’s the big deal? And seriously, how can fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday help me grow spiritually if my heart isn’t into it? But perhaps without the obligation we would never attend Mass on Sunday or holy days? Perhaps without the obligation, Fridays in Lent would be like every other Friday? Perhaps without a couple days of mandatory fasting we would never learn any sense of self-mastery?

Maybe, just maybe, if we started going to Mass each week out of obligation our hearts would begin to open. Maybe if we abstained from meat on the Fridays in Lent, we would begin to treat every Friday of the year as a day of penance. Maybe if we fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we would begin to need less in our lives and learn to control our appetites, not only for food, but for lust, power and greed as well. Maybe without any obligations on our lives, temporal or spiritual, we would never really begin to grow into what we can truly be.

Dear Jesus, thank you for the Church and the demands of love it places in my life. Help me to always strive for greater understanding of You in my heart and use these obligations as opportunities to expand my capacity to love You and others. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. This is just great! Thank you. I've always had a hard time explaining to others the beauty of these small obligations the church asks of us, especially to those who have left the Catholic church and blame it on all the "empty" rules and regulations.

    In reality, it's that they not only never understood the faith, but I suspect it's also used as an excuse to just do what they FEEL like. If "it feels good, do it" and if it doesn't, look for a convenient scapegoat. The enemy and the culture will happily provide it for you.