A couple of weeks ago I visited the people who are on our weekly communion list. These are people who are unable to attend Sunday Mass. A dedicated group of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion brings Eucharist to them on a weekly basis. We decided that, as it is Lent, it would be a good time for me to visit all of them, and give them the Sacrament of the Sick.
I was very amused by a couple of them. These are people in their 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. They spoke about their children and grandchildren, and a few of them mentioned that they talked regularly to their grandchildren “on the computer.” To those of you in your 70’s or 80’s or 90’s the idea of talking “on the computer” sounds like a perfectly valid statement in Standard English. To a younger generation it sounds like finger nails on a chalk board.
Computers on not like the handset on a telephone. No one talks “on the computer,” unless they happen to be standing on one at the time. Electronic communication can take the form of email or text or IM or tweet or a Facebook post. To many of you these distinctions might sound meaningless, but to younger generations these distinctions are both valid and necessary. One can talk to grandchildren on Skype, or send tweets or texts, or send emails or post messages on a Facebook wall, but computers aren’t social media.
This is a reflection of a generational divide; it’s the result of different life experiences. Those who have grown up with electronic communication technology are comfortable with an English grammar and syntax that might not make sense to others. Those who didn’t grow up with this technology appear a little old-fashioned to the Technorati. I mention this only because the idea of “old-fashioned” is itself a useful distinction. Technology that was once necessary is now considered old-fashioned; a good example of this is the pay phone. When was the last time you saw, or used, a public pay phone? Not everything old-fashioned is a bad idea, however, and not all old ideas should be left in the past. (Saying things like “talking on the computer,” however, is a bad idea, and should be abandoned!)
The director that I go to when I do my annual retreat is an older priest who is old-fashioned in the best possible sense. When I begin a retreat with him he tells me that he will be doing mortification for me during my retreat. He does mortification for all of his directees. He never tells me exactly what sort of mortification he does, but I’m sure it’s some extra prayer or minor penance. The degree of mortification is less important than the intention. He does mortification in order to be a good retreat director, and for the benefit of his directees.
Mortification is an old-fashioned idea. It’s gone almost completely out of style, and I think that’s unfortunate. Mortification is terminology that comes from the Pauline and deutero-Pauline writings in the Christian Scriptures. (cf Colossians 3:5, Galatians 5:24) In Catholicism, it refers to any ascetical practice that is intended to help a person develop habits of virtue and holiness. Mortification can be as simple as the Lenten penance that each of us has chosen, or it can be as serious as choosing to live a life of solitary prayer in a contemplative monastery. Mortification is penance, but it is penance done for the purpose of achieving a positive result, growth in personal holiness.
Today’s second reading says that Jesus chose mortification for us; “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:7) Jesus’ passion and death were penitential practices that Jesus chose freely for the purpose of offering us God’s own salvation. It is probably not common to think of God doing mortification, but that is precisely the message conveyed by Matthew’s Passion narrative. The Gospel says, “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’.” (Matthew 26:27-28) Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was his free act done for our eternal benefit.
In the death of Jesus, God did mortification for the salvation of the world. Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice of reconciliation. His sacrifice makes it possible for us to live holy and virtuous lives. Because Jesus freely chose to express God’s self-emptying love on the Cross, Jesus’ disciples are obliged to imitate the Savior’s example. Each of us has the obligation to do mortification. We do this primarily for ourselves rather than for the world around us; we (ought to), do mortification as a help toward a holier and more virtuous life.
This might sound like an old-fashioned idea, but it’s one worth maintaining in present circumstances. Neither holiness nor virtue happen by random chance. They can only be the result of a conscious, intentional effort to imitate Jesus who “humbled himself” for our sakes. (Philippians 2:8) One of the wonderful things about doing mortification is that there are so many ready-made opportunities for mortification in our lives.
Has anything made you angry recently? Has anyone made you jealous or vengeful? Are there people that you might be tempted to hate? Are there groups of people whom you dislike or distrust or disdain? If you live an angry, resentful, hateful life, or even if you are merely tempted to do so, think about the kind of person you might become. If you are constantly, or even occasionally, bothered by people and events around you, think about the burden you might become on the people who know and care about you.
On the other hand, if you live an angry, resentful, hateful life, or even if you are merely tempted to do so, think of how fortunate you are! You have so many good opportunities to do mortification! Mortification is as easy as not giving in to those temptations that can make you angry, hateful and difficult to be near. It’s an old-fashioned idea. It’s no longer very popular, and that is unfortunate. To choose mortification is as simple and straightforward as accepting the normal difficulties of your life as the means to carry your cross along side Jesus on the way to Calvary.
This week, Holy Week, we have the opportunity on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday to celebrate in prayer the self-emptying love of God made manifest in the death of Jesus. Participation in the liturgies of Holy Week allows us to be present in our imaginations, and in our intentions, to those events that happened so long ago to bring us salvation. I invite all of you to participate in the Triduum liturgies, to walk with Jesus in his passion, death and resurrection. Furthermore, I invite you to imitate Jesus’ own love by picking up your cross. Reject those tendencies to give in to temptation and, instead, make your burdens opportunities for mortification, opportunities to grow in holiness and virtue.