We are now beginning the days of abstinence and of fast, called Lent, which the holy Church enjoins. Now, my good young people, were I preaching to older persons, who are bound to observe the fast, I would have to preach on the unwillingness of many
to inconvenience themselves by doing anything contrary to the demands of their appetites. They have no reason for not obeying the law, and still they find many excuses for evading it. But, speaking to you, my dear young people, who are not yet obliged to fast, I must insist that these are days of public penance and that you also are obliged to do something, however little, something of mortification and penance, in order to prepare for the great feast of Easter. When in the time of the Jews the prophets announced a fast, not only were those of mature age included in it but the young, even the infants and the domestic animals. But, you will ask. What penances are we to do? Are we to fast, to take the discipline,and put on sackcloth? It might be advisable to counsel these rigors to many a youth whose conscience is marked by the ravages of sin. St. Paul tells us, "As you have yielded your members to serve uncleanness and iniquity unto iniquity, so now yield your members to serve justice unto sanctification.''
St. Ambrose wrote to a poor girl that had fallen into sin, "There is no other remedy for you except penance; inflict punishment on your body, tame it by fasting, cover it with ashes and groan under the hair shirt."
My good young people, I cannot be hard on you. I would rather be indulgent, because I think you have not stained your souls with great crimes; I do not enjoin a strict fast on you, only I pray you do not lose sight in these days of Lent, of the fact that you owe to the call of the Church some little mortification. Would it not be an easy and at the same time a most grateful sacrifice if you ate only at your meals? Could you not at breakfast take merely a piece of bread and a cup of coffee or milk? Could you not sometimes refuse a drink that you like very much? It is certain that the mortification of the palate is a most powerful means to enable us to restrain our passions. A horse that is not obedient to the bridle has to be subdued by other means, sometimes much more severe; so it is with the soul and body. If the body will not obey the law of God, and will even drag the soul down after unlawful pleasures, severe means must be used to bring it under submission. All the saints have performed works of penance, and the practice of mortification was one of the most profitable used in subjugating the body. Then these little abstinences gives us health and prolong our lives.
It stands to reason that we must not give the body all that it craves. Even in olden times the Romans knew this, and pagan moralists have shown us that to be healthy a simple and rigorous diet is the very best. The appetites of the body are curious, and make very extravagant demands on us. See the drunkard, how his thirst cannot be satisfied except by
copious draughts of spirituous liquors. The drunkard's life affords us sufficient proof of the unhappiness of unbridled appetites. Unless you mortify the flesh, it will become unmanageable, will lead you into terrible sin, and then to eternal damnation. When St. Francis of Assisi lay on his death-bed, seeing his body nothing but bones, he said,
"My body, do you see now that I loved you well, and did well in treating you harshly? Now our penances are over; there are no more fasts, and you will see in a short time what a reward it has brought you."
Having now spoken to you of fasting, let me speak of those who eat meat without being restrained in any way by the law of the Church. Such Catholics, though they retain the name, might better leave the ranks of the children of the Church; they would then, at least, not give scandal to others. Be faithful to the laws of the Church; the very care you take not to eat meat on forbidden days is in itself a fast. You will say there is not much in eating a piece of meat, but let us take an example related in the book of Machabees.
Eleazar was an old man, who practised the Jewish law; by an edict of the king he was to eat pork, which was forbidden by the law of Moses. He was to suffer death unless he complied with it, but the grand old man was firm, and would rather undergo any torture than yield to the demand. Some of his friends who stood about advised him to make believe he had eaten, which would have satisfied the cruel king, but the old man absolutely refused; he would rather suffer the penalty than give such an example to the young. Having declared his unchangeable intention, he was at last dragged to death.
But to return to the Gospel. The devil saw that Our Lord was weak from His long fast, and assuming a visible human form he presented himself before Jesus, and said:
"If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. You can certainly do this, for God will hear you and you will then have enough for all your necessities." Listen to the answer of Our Lord,
"It is written, not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." He wished us to understand that it is not so much the food of the body that we should be solicitous about, but rather the spiritual help we find in the word of God. How many are there who think daily and hourly of the food of the body, while the word of God is never considered. Think of the smartness of the devil; how he puts on the outward appearance of fairness and fitness. He does not advise that the bread should be stolen, or even earned by honest labor, but counsels that the bread should be got by a miracle and by prayer. Does not the devil often appear to us under the same garb? He does not advise a young lad to become a great thief at once, for he might be frightened at
that, but he might take a few pennies or dimes that can be abstracted without discovery. This is such a small matterthat it would be unbearable scrupulosity to mind it. He begins with little things, until you are hardened to these petty thefts, and he ends by giving you courage to commit a robbery.
Behold, he has succeeded in making you a full-fledged thief! The devil will not tempt you to say bad words, nor to enter into bad conversation, but he will put into your mouth words of double meaning; he will introduce you to companions who are not exactly bad, for in that case you might be shocked and keep away from them, but to one who is on the way of being spoiled; he and you join your inclinations, and soon end in doing mischief; you may begin by disliking your confessor, so that you go to confession less frequently; the devil will furnish you with many excuses for omitting your prayers or for saying them hurriedly until he at last brings you to the point when you do not pray at all. Such are the artifices of Satan, and you know from experience in your own case and observation of others how often he succeeds.
The devil, though struck with the answer he received from Our Lord, did not desist. He took Him up to the roof of the Temple and placing Him on the pinnacle said,
"If Thou be the Son of God cast Thyself down, for it is written: that He hath given His angels charge over Thee and in their hands shall they bear Thee up, lest perhaps Thou dash Thy foot against a stone." Our Lord answered,
"It is written thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." Not only did Jesus wish to reprimand the devil in this answer, but He had us also in His mind when He said these words. We should not expose ourselves to the danger of falling into sin, expecting that God would draw us out unhurt. We must therefore avoid the occasions of sin, for in the book of Ecclesiasticus we read,
"He that loveth danger shall perish in it." It will not be an excuse to say, "I will be on my guard, I will be careful and watchful not to fall into sin." Eemember that if you place yourself in danger, you may say that you have already fallen. St. Bernard very strongly says,
"It is a greater miracle when in voluntary occasion of sin not to fall than to raise the dead to life." God has not promised us the help of angels under all circumstances. He has not promised us help when we place ourselves on the edge of a precipice. It is true the angels will go with us until we come to the very occasion of sin, but then they veil their faces with their wings, and are sorry for the folly which is going to lead us into ruin. The devil must have been ashamed of the failure of his second effort, but even then he did not stop; again he took Our Lord and placed Him on a very high mountain, where all the expanse of this glorious world could be seen, where the beautiful palaces shone forth from the wooded hills, where the kingdoms of this world could be observed. Showing Him these, the Evil One said:
"All these will I give Thee, if falling down Thou wilt adore me." The devil has reached the very depth of degradation; he did not propose this act of idolatry at once, but came to it by degrees, never running away, never abashed or frightened till he reached this point. Christ then rose in His anger and drove the devil from Him, repeating the divine precept,
"The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve." Driven off by the divine power the devil left Our Saviour, and angels came and ministered unto Him. Often has the devil made to you the same proposition,
"All these things will I give you, if you will fall down and adore me." What beautiful things does not Satan suggest, if you will surrender yourself to his service; honors, pleasures, riches, liberty, and happiness, he brings before your mind, and he promises them to you just for that little act of adoration. But are these his to give? He lies, for he is the father of lies. We are sometimes deceived by these promises, and the world looks as if it really belonged to the devil. The rich who are not good enjoy this world; the poor who are God's poor have to suffer want, sickness, and privation. The world which is far from God appears to be happy, for it seems to have all the good, things; while the children of God have only the fear of God and many temptations, and they have to avoid sinful pleasures.
No wonder the youth is deceived and dragged away into the slavery of Satan with the hope of obtaining these glorious promises. Remember the story of the prodigal son; he, too, thought the devil would give him worldly pleasures of every kind, but he was soon undeceived; he found himself in misfortune, and begging for the husks intended for the swine; not even this was given him. Believe not the devil or any of his promises. I have resolved to serve another master, my good God, my Creator, Him only will I adore; and He can and will make me really happy if not in this world, which is after all of short duration, at least for all eternity with His angels in paradise.
Source: Sermons for Children's Masses, Imprimatur 1900