“Lent and the Lesson of True Equal Human Dignity”

Sermon for First Passion Sunday
March 17, 2024; Epiphany Parish, Tampa, FL


A bishop I once worked with many years ago was well-known for his pithy little expressions.  One of them he would use regularly was “2% low-fat.”  He would describe a situation, a conversation, or someone’s attitude, and say “2% low-fat.”  I finally asked him what he meant by that.  It was his way of referring to a false egalitarianism: all of that milk from different cows goes into the machine raw, and then it all comes out the same, 2% low-fat.  This is the thinking of people who claim that everyone is equal – by which they actually mean that everyone is the same – but, in reality, what they want is to be in charge, that is, they want to be the bishop.  (Mind you, that was many years ago!)  But since they’re not, they push the idea that the bishop is just one equal voice among many.  But the bishop who coined this phrase did once mention to me that there is one point at which it truly is 2% low-fat: in confession.


I say this because liturgically we are now entering into what historically in the Church has been what one could call a “2% low-fat time of the year.”  We are entering into the most sacred days of the years for us, with special liturgical observances to draw us into the mystery of our Lord’s saving Passion, death and Resurrection.  The Church in her wisdom has us pass through a series of concentric circles surrounding the key moments of our salvation: beginning first with Septuagesima; then with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the 40 day fast of Lent; with Passion Sunday today, with which we enter into Passiontide; next week will mark Holy Week, which will end with the Paschal Triduum and then the very heart of the Church’s liturgical cycle, the Paschal Vigil.

They are concentric circles, so we likewise emerge in phases: after Easter Sunday itself the Church first observes the Easter Octave, then the entire Easter season, followed by Pentecost and its Octave.  And even after we emerge from the Easter season and Octave of Pentecost, the Church provides us with special feast days that connect us back to the Easter Mystery beyond Eastertide, most notably, the feasts of the Most Holy Trinity, Corpus Christi, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The mystery of our salvation is so deep and rich in meaning and wisdom that we need many different feast days to help us understand it in all of its complexities, and appropriate them into our spiritual lives.

In his Passion and death our Lord is stripped of his glory, his divinity is hidden from us, and he associates himself with the dregs and most outcast of society, being treated as, and looking no different than, any criminal who is a threat to the nation and a blasphemer.  He makes himself our equal, and indeed, even below, the equal of the lowliest among us.

Equality Among God’s People

In the history of the Church, this liturgical time of the year was a time when those well off and with authority over others would divest themselves in order to associate with those under their authority.  They took their lead from our Lord himself, who lowered himself to be equal to us.  In particular, it was a time when prisoners were set free by princes.  Bearing in mind the time and place where the great Abbot of Solesmes Dom Prosper Guéranger lived (in France, just decades after the revolution), he explains it this way in his classic work, The Liturgical Year:

The favorite theory of the last half-century or more, has been that all men are equal.  The people of the ages of faith had something far more convincing than theory, of the sacredness of their rights.  At the approach of those solemn anniversaries which so forcibly remind us of the justice and mercy of God, they beheld princes abdicating, as it were, their scepter, leaving in God’s hands the punishment of the guilty, and assisting at the holy Table of Paschal Communion side by side with those very men, whom, a few days before, they had been keeping chained in prison for the good of society.  There was one thought, which, during these days, was strongly brought before all nations: it was the thought of God, in whose eyes all men are sinners; of God, from whom alone proceed justice and pardon.[1]

While it took many centuries for the Church to finally eradicate slavery from Europe, where it did continue to exist slaves were also treated with particular clemency at this time of the year.  It was forbidden to require slaves to work during these holy days, and the settling of all legal affairs was suspended except that of emancipation of slaves.

At the same time, those subject to the authority of the rulers did not exploit the leniency granted them to undermine that legitimate authority.  As Dom Guéranger goes on to explain:

When these days of holy and Christian equality were over, did subjects refute submission to their sovereigns?  Did they abuse the humility of their princes, and take occasion for drawing of what modern times call the rights of man?  No: that same thought which had inspired human justice to humble itself before the cross of Jesus, taught the people their duty of obeying the powers established by God. The exercise of power, and submission to that power, both had God for their motive.  They who wielded the scepter might be of various dynasties: the respect for authority was ever the same.[2]

This is a society with God at the center, one that organizes itself around the higher truths of the human person He has revealed to us both in the natural created order and through Scripture and the Church’s Tradition.  We all are alarmed at the growing, not just absence of but hostility toward, the manifestation of religious belief and religious values in the public square.  The cultural influencers are pushing God completely out of view, leaving religious believers more and more having to be quiet in expressing their beliefs and putting their values into practice in their public life – or else, risk being “cancelled.”  Affirming “equality” while rejecting God is a farce, and accomplishes just the opposite: more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer people.  And we see the detrimental results all around us: an alarming rise in depression, anxiety, loneliness and despair, especially among the young.

The Purpose of Lent

Enter the season of Lent, and the holiest of days soon upon us during this Passiontide.  Contrary to a human-constructed project to assert the equality of all human beings absent God, Christians recognize the true equality of all human creatures: we are all sinners, and all equally in need of God’s forgiveness and of making reparation for our sins.  Prayer, fasting and almsgiving applies to everyone: rich, poor and middle-class; white-collar professionals and blue-collar working class; governing authorities and those subject to their authority; clergy, religious and laity alike.

Our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other works of charity are a recurring reorientation for us, so that we will always keep God at the center of our lives and organize our living around the higher truths He has revealed to us – above, the truth of our human nature: that without Him, we are doomed to failure and misery.

These final days of Lent, when the Church intensifies our focus on our Lord’s suffering for us, is – far from a time to grow weary from penitential discipline and begin to relax these practices – a time instead to intensify them.  We are all equal in our need to enter into these acts of reparation, so that we may equally live well and faithfully our God-given vocation and state in life.  No society can exist without some having authority over others.  True equality results not from everyone being the same, but from all fulfilling the task God has given them to do in this life equally well, with virtue, humility and generosity, always and in every way affirming the human dignity of the other.


Let us, then, appropriate these Lenten practices, that we may excel in the works of mercy, and to witness to the sovereignty of God over all mankind.  Let us be instruments of a rightly-ordered society, casting the light of Christ into the darkness of godlessness, that all might know his love, receive the grace of his healing and forgiveness, and so come to be saved.  May God grant us this grace.  Amen.

[1] Abbot Prosper Guéranger. O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, v. 6: Passiontide & Holy Week, 4th ed. Rev. Dom Laurence Shepherd (trans.) (Great Falls, Montana: St. Bonaventure Publications, 2000) pp. 7-8.

[2] ibid., p. 8