HOMILY for the feast of St John Ogilvie
Isa 50:5-9; Ps 76; 2 Cor 1:3-7; Jn 12:24-26
"What are you giving up for Lent?" That’s the question that many people ask themselves and one another at this time. And perhaps we decide to give up things like chocolate, or drink, or some sleep. And although we’ve just begun Lent, we may find ourselves flagging already. But those are just the things we think we can afford to give up. However, I have heard people say, for example, "I can give up coffee but I couldn’t live without sugar". So, there are some things too vital for us to let go of.
But what about St John Ogilvie? What did this martyr give up in Lent? His life.
For so many of us, material things like coffee, chocolate, wine and so on are the consolations of life. We like our comforts and luxuries, and we can become so attached to material goods that we even say that we can’t live without them! But the example of today’s saint, and indeed of all the holy martyrs, reminds us of how superficial we can be. For they not only gave up luxuries and comforts, but even that which is most precious: their life. Because the one thing they could not live without wasn’t sugar but the sweetness of the Catholic Faith. They detached themselves from all created goods – and even life when it was demanded of them – so that they could attach themselves to Christ who is the Truth. And the consolation they sought in this life was not material comforts but God himself who is our Life.
The example of St John Ogilvie thus gives a sharp focus, I think, to our Lenten exercises. We ask “what are you giving up”, but we should ask “Why am I giving things up?” Our Lenten renunciations are more properly called mortifications. We detach ourselves from material things in order to die a little – to die to our wants, our worldly attachments, our creature comforts, but more importantly, to our old habits and selfish attitudes. True penance, then, is not based on a calculation of what we can afford to give up, what luxury we can cut down on. Rather, it means giving up even what we need, what we once thought was vital! Thus Pope Francis said in his Message for Lent: “No self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt”.
I don’t think this means that we should hurt ourselves physically. But it does mean that we could stretch our hearts to love better: to be kinder to those we find difficult; to look out for ways to help others; to serve the common good. We could die to our pride and learn humility: we restrain our craving for attention; stifle our petty irritations and prejudices; hold our tongues and guard our opinions. All these kinds of spiritual mortifications form our internal character so that a renewed, more loving and Christ-like Me emerges from Lent into the new life of Easter. So, external acts like giving up food and drink are meant to lead to this: a transformation of our heart so that we love better God and our neighbour. Otherwise, they’re futile.
Our mortifications and penances, then, whether during Lent or every day of our Christian lives, train and prepare us for that great mortification of Love, of self-sacrificial giving, of following Christ, that we’re each called to, and of which martyrs like St John Ogilvie are the supreme example. May he pray for us that we too will give up what is necessary in order to be one with Jesus Christ.