The Hole Truth

I’ve always associated glazed donuts with Lent and Springtime. Not frosted donuts, which are a kids’ thing I continue to enjoy any season of the year. No, I mean just your standard donut, with the hole in the middle and plain icing slathered on top.

Now this may be because I grew up in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where glazed donuts known as “fasnachts” remain a tradition for Fat Tuesday. Or it may because Mom used to buy boxes of pretzel-shaped glazed Entenmann’s donuts for us when we were kids. Or it may because I remember eating a glazed donut at church for breakfast, before my First Communion, being sick in the bathroom before Mass, and not wanting to tell anyone for fear I wouldn’t be allowed to receive.

This is the final week of Lent before Holy Week begins this coming Palm Sunday. Being home in PA to visit, recuperate from recent illness, and of course eat donuts, has given me a much-needed change of scenery to reflect on how this Lent has gone. On the whole, it’s been successful in some areas; less so in others. Fortunately, there is still a bit of time left to try to get things sorted out.

One of the most important things to do, of course, is to make sure to get to confession before Easter Sunday. Truthfully, I could probably stand to go to confession every day, unfortunately for me. I am very cognisant of my being a work in progress, and often a total zero when it comes to following Christ. Circumstances being what they are, and possessing neither private chaplain nor private chapel (more’s the pity), I must schedule a time to go just like everyone else.

In her precepts the Church actually mandates, in case you had forgotten, that Catholics receive Holy Communion once a year, preferably during the Easter season. She also mandates that Catholics go to confession at least once a year. It’s only logical, then, that since you should be receiving Communion during Easter, you should be confessed of and absolved from your sins before doing so. Otherwise, presenting yourself in your Easter best for Communion on Easter Sunday when you haven’t first gone to confession is a bit like being a glazed donut: all shiny and sweet, with no center.

So go check your parish or diocesan website, and look for the confession schedule. My parish of St. Stephen’s here in DC for example, offers confession every day except Sundays, and is participating in “The Light Is On For You” campaign, offering Wednesday evening confessions during Lent. Your parish may be participating as well, for this season of penitence and reconciliation.

Once Holy Week begins, it’s very easy to get caught up in preparations for Easter Sunday, whether you have little ones expecting a visit from a giant rodent, or you have to travel to Grandma’s out of state for the weekend, or you have ten cousins coming over for Easter dinner. Take the time then, to block off an hour to get to confession, and make that a priority this week, rather than leaving it to the last second. Donuts may be great treats, but nutritionally empty of value: you don’t want to leave a hole where your heart ought to be, when Easter Sunday arrives.

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Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.

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