On this solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven, let’s reflect on the virtue of zeal, which is love in action, and we can understand it better by briefly meditating on its opposite, the sin of laziness. Now, let’s remember, whenever we talk about a sin, we choose not to give in to discouragement.
Why is laziness a sin? Because it goes against love. God is love, the human person is made in the image of God, but laziness says, ‘I won’t love. I’m supposed to help my family, but I won’t. I could do a better job at work, but I can’t be bothered. I could try harder to take better care of my health, but whatever.’ So, laziness is usually a venial sin.
And what is sloth? It’s laziness with regard to God, basically spiritual laziness. ‘Do you want to pray?’ ‘I’m good.’ ‘How are you doing spiritually?’ ‘I’m good.’ ‘Do you want to grow in any way this year, help out with this evangelization project, serve the poor?’ ‘I’m good.’
But God is full of zeal. St. Paul prays in the Second Reading that the Ephesians be more appreciative of the mystery of Who God is and His calling for us: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ… may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that… you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17-19).
When we come to know God, we understand what we say in philosophy, that He is pure act: He’s never static, but always actualized. Think about Jesus’ life: 30 years as a carpenter doing manual labour, then three years of intense forming of His disciples, travelling by foot, healing people, casting out demons, and then His last days of prayer, teaching, and suffering were perfect self-giving.
In the famous Vatican II document Gaudium et spes, it says, “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word [the incarnate Word refers to Jesus’ taking on human flesh] does the mystery of man take on light…. Christ… fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (22). When we look at Jesus, we see who we are and who we’re called to be.
I told you this before: In Grade 11, I skipped so many days whenever I wanted to or so that I could hand in things late, that I missed a month’s worth of school! After I started reflecting on being a follower of Christ, I didn’t like who I was, standing in the lineup at the principal’s office with all the students who couldn’t get their act together. I wanted to be a better person. The person of Jesus attracted me: laser-focused on God the Father, spending whole nights in prayer, a man of simplicity because of His mission! Basically, God’s grace cured me profoundly of the spirit of laziness so that I made a decision never to skip class again.
Every person is made to be like Christ, so when we see His qualities in others, we admire that! This is why we admire zealous people; why, in general, women are attracted to men who are hardworking, and why we want players on our sports teams who are hungry.
The secular word for zeal is hunger. In his leadership book The Ideal Team Player, the Catholic author, Patrick Lencioni, says that there are three traits of people with whom we want to work: humble, hungry, and smart. Now, when someone is humble and smart but not hungry, he calls them the lovable slacker. They’re wonderful to be with, but we probably don’t respect them.
St. Paul wants us to appreciate ‘what is the hope to which he has called you.’ We’re celebrating Jesus’ Ascension, when not just His soul goes to heaven, but also His human body, and we’re meant to follow Him. As we’ve talked about before, because of Jesus’ grace living in us, we can merit a greater happiness in heaven. Everyone in heaven is perfectly happy, but some are happier than others because of their capacity to love, and therefore they can receive more. When we’re more zealous on earth, we expand our capacity to receive joy.
So, to be zealous, the first thing to do is appreciate Jesus, the second is to imitate Him. After His Resurrection, Jesus says to the apostles in the Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18-19). These words are referred to in theology as the Great Commission. Jesus doesn’t just say, ‘Try to help here and there,’ but His dream is to win the world back to the Father because He loves all people.
There’s a beautiful story about St. Mother Teresa: “Mother one day brought a map of Europe and spread it before me… Mother just went with her finger from country to country, like: ‘France, we are here. Germany, we are here. Austria, we are here. Hungary, not yet. Bulgaria, not yet…’ Then she started to count the countries where we were ‘not yet’ on her fingers…. she was in dead earnest that ‘a tabernacle’ (meaning a house) should be opened in each country of the world. Mother had a big vision of what she wanted to give her Lord and God” (Brian Kolodiejchuk. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 304).
Being a saint means being small, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, but it also means having desires to win the whole world. Mother Teresa explained that “there was a burning zeal in my soul for souls from childhood” (334).
In September, our RCIA coordinator, Mark Ruelle, died. Even at 76, he was full of zeal: He led RCIA and all the candidates, was leading our Journey Through Scripture, was part of Hospitality, was starting his Masters in Theology, and was always looking to bring people to Jesus. Those who came to his funeral and Holy Thursday have heard the following: After he died, his wife, Grace, found a card with the following schedule:
5:30 am: Rise;
6 am: Mental Prayer;
7 am: Breakfast;
8 am: RCIA Development;
10 am: Light Reading/Viewing;
11 am: RCIA Development;
11:02 am: Conversion of Souls;
12 pm: Angelus & Lunch;
1 pm: Walk and Rosary;
2 pm: RCIA Development;
4 pm: Spiritual Reading;
5:30 pm: Supper Prep & Wrap;
7 pm: Light Reading/Viewing;
9 pm: Sleep.
This is great, and it leads to the first tip: What do we desire for those we love? Do we have spiritual dreams for our families, for our parish, neighbours, even the world? When we love someone, we want more for them.
Second, be careful of excuses. When someone asks us to help with something, zealous people say, ‘I’d love to help! It’s just that I’ve got to take care of the children at that time. I wonder if I can change things to make it work,’ or, ‘I want to help so badly, but it’s not wise.’ But, when we’re lazy, we say, ‘I’ll think about it. I’ve got to take care of the children at that time. Sorry.’ ‘I’ll think about it’ is often a stalling tactic. Say instead, ‘I want to do anything to further God’s kingdom. Tell me more, please, because I only want what Jesus wants, even if it’s hard.’ Zealous people always look for a way; lazy people look for a way out.
Third, follow through. Many of us have good desires and want to do great things for God, so focus on follow-through. If you have a dream for God, then don’t just tell me, show me!
Fourth, what interrupts our zeal? Is it lack of love, lack of prayer, selfishness? For me, it’s fatigue. St. Paul wants us to know ‘what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.’ It’s impossible for us alone to overcome our laziness. We can only do it by the Holy Spirit’s power.
Three weeks ago, when I was in London, England for the Alpha Leadership Conference, one speaker, Gram Seed, said something that touched and motivated me: He said that, since coming to love Jesus, he’s never let a day go by without preaching the Gospel. Gram’s grown children have made Jesus the center of their lives, and the police officer who arrested him years ago also came to Jesus because, when Gram got out of prison, he talked to this officer about Jesus, and now this officer talks to other people about Jesus!
His zeal touched me so much that, the day after, when I took a taxi to the Brompton Oratory to celebrate Mass, I talked to the cab driver about Jesus. Later that day, in another taxi ride, the man told me about what bothered him and about his family, and I gently and respectfully brought up Jesus, and asked if we could pray together at the end. The following day, no conversation started but I told the taxi driver, ‘God bless you,’ and, finally, the day after that, after a wonderful conversation, the taxi driver told me he believed in God, but because there’s more, I asked, ‘Do you believe in Jesus? Because He loves you, died, and rose for you.’
It’s a simple but beautiful change in me, because of someone who takes the Great Commission to heart. God is zealous for us, and so we should be zealous for Him and all people.