Friday, February 19, 2010

St. Conrad of Piacenza (1290-1350)

Born of a noble family in northern Italy, Conrad as a young man married Euphrosyne, daughter of a nobleman. One day while hunting he ordered attendants to set fire to some brush in order to flush out the game. The fire spread to nearby fields and to a large forest. Conrad fled. An innocent peasant was imprisoned, tortured to confess and condemned to death. Conrad confessed his guilt, saved the man’s life and paid for the damaged property. Soon after this event, Conrad and his wife agreed to separate: she to a Poor Clare monastery and he to a group of hermits following the Third Order Rule. His reputation for holiness, however, spread quickly. Since his many visitors destroyed his solitude, Conrad went to a more remote spot in Sicily where he lived 36 years as a hermit, praying for himself and for the rest of the world. Prayer and penance were his answer to the temptations that beset him. Conrad died kneeling before a crucifix. He was canonized in 1625.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (9.14-15)

Then John's disciples came and asked Him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast."

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

It is interesting that for all the praise accorded by our Lord to John the Baptist, and for all the profound and unequivocal deference shown to our Lord by John, hardly any conversation between them is recorded in the Gospels. The one notable conversation that is recorded is brief and unambiguous: John is in confusion at the sudden prospect of baptizing Jesus. He himself is the sinner, he says to Jesus, and it is he who ought be baptized — with Jesus doing the baptizing. But Jesus insists that it go ahead. What a magnificent disciple John would have made — but it was not the plan of God. The paradigm was more that of the prophetic mantle passing from Elijah to Elisha. Jesus the Messiah receives the prophetic mantle from John, the Elijah who was to come. A further thing is to be noted. Later in the Gospel, John appears confused and uncertain about the ministry of Jesus as it begins to unfold. From prison he sends his disciples to Jesus with a formal enquiry: was he, after all, the one who was to come? In our Gospel passage today (Matthew 9: 14-15), it is the disciples of John who are puzzled, and it concerns the lack of vigour in fasting they see among our Lord’s disciples. They could not understand this glaring omission, and they presented their perplexity to our Lord himself. In his response, our Lord makes two points. Firstly, while he, the Bridegroom, is with his disciples how could they do anything but live and rejoice in his friendship? Secondly, when he is gone, they certainly will fast. The first thing, then, is that he himself, being the Bridegroom, is the all-important feature of religion among his disciples. Expressing it differently, the heart, soul and centre of Christianity is the very person of Jesus, for he is the Bridegroom. In fact, these are the very terms in which the religion of the Old Testament is described by the prophets: God is the Husband and Bridegroom of his people, and therefore their failures in religion are failures in nuptial fidelity. Our Lord himself occupies this place in the new dispensation, for he is the Bridegroom of the new covenant that is coming.

Christ is telling the disciples of John that the all-important thing for his disciples at this point is to attain a profound realization of his own person and an understanding that eternal life consists in knowing him. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. As he would say in his prayer during the Last Supper, “This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17: 3). But the time would soon come when he would be taken away from them. Then they will indeed be expected to “fast,” which is to say to live lives of genuine self-denial. While gone from them visibly, he would then be with them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Then they would have the God-given grace and capacity to follow him generously and in all the elements of a fervent religion. "Then they will fast." Our Lord never disputed with the disciples of John nor with the Pharisees that they should fast. He unmasked the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in their fasting: they fasted, but did so in order to win the acclaim of men. But he assumed that all would pray, that all would fast, and that all would give alms. When you fast, he said, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do. They have had their reward. In fact, we see our Lord teaching his disciples repeatedly that he himself must follow the path of suffering unto death. It was absolutely essential to his mission precisely as the Bridegroom that he lay down his life for all. To be a disciple of the Bridegroom entails renouncing oneself, taking up one's cross daily, and following in his footsteps. By our baptism and confirmation and we have been given the Holy Spirit to enable us to pursue this redemptive path generously and daily. Thus it is that throughout Christian history the heroes of Christian life have been profoundly penitential. In their various ways and in accord with their varied vocations, they have suffered and died in union with their crucified Master. The icon of the Christian is the crucifix, with the figure of Jesus hanging battered and dead thereon. He has gone from us visibly, and now we must follow in his footsteps. That is to say, we must “fast.”

Do I recognise in myself a constant unwillingness to embark on any form of self-denial? Well, let me start in little ways. I shall start by bearing patiently the difficulties and circumstances inherent in my daily work and life, and offer it all to God in union with Jesus. I shall start with a determined effort to do something about the fault that is particularly persistent in my life. I shall also start with a few voluntary mortifications, such as doing without some luxury. The virtue of self-denial will then grow, and Lent, the time of grace, will bring the blessing of an advance in holiness. Jesus is the centre of religion, and he has shown me the way: it is the way to Calvary.

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