From the Heart

Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

“But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him.
From within the man, from his heart,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”

—Mark 7:14–15, 20–23

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues His rebuke against the Pharisees after they had criticized Him for eating with unwashed hands, thus breaking with the tradition of the elders. He calls our attention to the fact that while the Pharisees are concerned with the outward appearances of keeping tradition down to the smallest detail, their inner souls are utterly neglected, and they allow evil thoughts to fester within themselves. Jesus calls us to look at the state of our hearts, for everything else we do flows forth from there. If our hearts are corrupted, then it doesn’t matter how well we attempt to follow the letter of the law; the spirit of the law will be absent.

As we approach Lent, this is a good reminder for us that whatever we give up or take on during this penitential season, the most important thing is the intentions of our hearts. Wherever we create spaces in our lives by giving something up, we are called to make room for God in our lives instead of immediately filling them up with other distractions. And when we take on new habits of prayer and service, we must always orient them within our relationship with God, so that we don’t get caught up in a mindset of constant busyness and self-improvement but rather rely on God to form our hearts into the people He created us to be. We must understand that holiness is not something we can achieve on our own by following a list of instructions; rather, it can only occur through relationship with God, by His grace and in His timing.

Whatever we do, let it be rooted in a sincere love for God from the heart. This Lent, instead of simply making our own plans, let us pause to ask God what He wants us to do for Lent. Maybe He will surprise us; maybe He will confirm and bless the plans we are already making; but most importantly, He will delight to see us coming to Him first and foremost, looking for His guidance instead of relying on our own capacities.


1. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ shooting arrows into the believer’s heart / CC BY 4.0
2. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ clearing demons out of the believer’s heart with a broom / CC BY 4.0
3. Engraving by A. Wierix, Christ enthroned in the believer’s heart, venerated by angels / CC BY 4.0
These files come from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive).

A Heart Contrite and Humbled

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
—Psalm 51:19

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”
—Matthew 9:14–15

During this Lenten season, we talk a lot about we’re doing or giving up for these forty days. But let us not forget that the whole point of all these external activities and devotions is to form the interior disposition of our hearts. What God wants more than anything is to be close to us. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus identifies Himself as the Bridegroom. Jesus desires union with us, to know us intimately, to cultivate relationship with us.

All our Lenten fervor should not be about mere self-improvement or testing our own strength. Rather, it should facilitate our union with Christ, perhaps making us even more aware of our weakness as we learn to depend upon Him. As we fast while waiting upon our Bridegroom, we leave space for the feast that is to come and open up room in our hearts for Jesus to enter.

If we go beyond the surface level of our Lenten devotions and allow them to truly form our hearts, it will affect how we act toward one another. When we create space in our daily routines and welcome the emptiness that Lent brings, we can begin to hear Jesus’s voice more clearly in the silence. And if we listen, we will hear His overwhelming love for us ringing out even in the desert. When we know we are loved beyond measure, our own capacity to love will deepen.

This type of fasting, which brings us closer to the Heart of God, is what will lead us to the promises described in the first reading from Isaiah:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed.
—Isaiah 58:8

He is the Light in the darkness of Lent; He is the One who heals all our wounds. And He invites us to use these forty days to draw close to His Sacred Heart.

Rooted in Love

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
He is One and there is no other than he.
And to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding, 
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself

is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

—Mark 12:32–34

If we truly love God with all our heart, all our understanding, and all our strength, then our natural response will be to keep His commandments—not out of a sense of guilt or mere obligation, not out of a desire to prove our worth to Him, but joyfully in love. When a person is in love, it affects their every thought and every action; when our hearts are infused with the love of God, that love will overflow into every aspect of our lives, and we will naturally desire to keep His commandments.

God commands us to love Him. By that very command, He makes it possible. He gives us the grace to love Him with a sacrificial love that echoes Jesus’s love for us on the Cross. He awakens us to recognize Him in every soul we meet. It is nearly impossible to love your neighbor as yourself if you are not already receiving God’s love, but when we have that awareness of the beauty of each soul, we can deeply and sincerely love people even when they are difficult to love.

The spiritual life is rooted in relationship; everything else flows from that. And a healthy relationship with God produces the fruit of trust in Him, from which flows obedience to His law. We must never fall into the mindset of viewing our relationship with God as transactional, consisting of a series of offerings we must make to atone for our wrongdoings or requests that we ask God to grant. God is not interested in a transactional relationship with us; He desires something much more meaningful—a close, loving, intimate relationship that wholly captivates our hearts.

Thus says the LORD:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;
you have collapsed through your guilt.
Take with you words,
and return to the LORD;
Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity,
and receive what is good, that we may render
as offerings the bullocks from our stalls.
Assyria will not save us,
nor shall we have horses to mount;
We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.

—Hosea 14:2–5

A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number