Catholic Homily/Reflection
1st Sunday of Lent - Year A
Feb. 10, 2008

Lent has once again come by us. It opened with an age-old, Biblically based ritual of the imposition of ashes last Wednesday, a rite as meaningful as it is colorful, a symbol that stands for layers of meaning that only people deeply immersed in the whole Judeo-Christian culture and history can fully fathom.

Whilst it is true that, traditionally, Lent has been proposed by Christian tradition as a time for penance, for repentance, and a time to stand back and take stock of our spiritual resources for the journey of life up ahead, it is important for us to understand that the Biblical readings all focus, not on human sinfulness, but on the gracious, generous, forgiving, and immense love of God.

I thought I should clarify this right at the outset. Lent is not a time primarily for sado-masochistic, self-inflicted suffering per se, not a time primarily for self-denial, and self-focused introspection. It is also that, but it is all that because of what the Biblical readings all through the season tell us about God. And what Scriptures tell us about God is the ultimate rationale, the reason behind all that we do during the Lenten season, including acts of sacrifice and acts of self-denial. Lent is ultimately not about us, but about God and His solicitous love for us His people.

Our opening prayer today (the so-called Collect) puts us in the heart of this reality about God. “Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection, and teach us to reflect it in our lives.”

Meaning … this is what the liturgy of today – with the aid of God’s grace – helps us to understand. What, you might ask, constitutes this world of meaning? Let’s get it right from the evidence of Scripture. The first reading introduces us to this proverbial goodness of God. God’s goodness is shown by his creating man and woman, and by giving them a place stuffed with all sorts of good things meant for their use. In poetic and symbolic terms, the account of Genesis introduces us to what later, the Christian testament would confirm as fulfilled. What was foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of Adam and his fall to sin and the promise of deliverance became a reality in Jesus Christ. A parallelism between the old Adam and a new Adam would then complete the Biblical picture, a picture that once again, has to do with a loving, forgiving God who does not keep a record of wrongs and who does not give up on sinful humanity.

This is St. Paul’s passionate argument in the 2nd reading. What old Adam did, the new Adam, Jesus Christ, undid. “Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”

There is no mistaking the meaning that unfolds in Paul’s argument – the incomparable forgiving mercy and love of God for sinful man.

The Gospel reading, for its part, introduces us to a picture of Jesus’ extraordinary nature, as extraordinary as the love of God that sent him to a sinful, wayward world. Such a story of Jesus being tempted thrice in the desert can only be appreciated if we see it against the backdrop of the story of hard-headed wanderers out in the wilderness, for whom and on account of whom, Moses their prophet and leader, repeatedly shed copious tears of disappointment and sorrow. Where the Jews of old complained for lack of food, despite the gift of manna, Jesus responds to the test that addressed his hunger directly: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Where impatient desert wanderers rebelled and disobeyed their leader, Jesus answered his tormentors who told him to throw all self-responsibility to the winds: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” And where proud people set up their own gods in place of the true one, Jesus declares his conviction: “The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”

This is the extraordinary nature of the world’s “most tremendous lover,” the story of God’s unbounded love made manifest in the person of Christ, the new Adam, the one who has come to restore the lost balance between God’s graciousness and human sinfulness.

This is the world of meaning that has been lost on us. This is the significant reality that has been replaced by other lesser and short-lived, partial truths that have taken center stage in the theater of postmodernity that we all are immersed in. This is the universe of salvific truth that we all need to re-appropriate, replaced as it has been by purely human wisdom, by pride that has all but smothered faith and a loving attachment to a living God who has shown Himself faithful to His beloved people.

At times, it is not pride, but mere unresolved human resentment that stands in the way of this healthy attachment to God, and His church. Having been a priest, and a counselor and guide for more than two decades, I have realized from experience, both in my own personal journey towards wholeness (I am not yet out of the woods, but I would like to think I am getting there), and that of others, that many times, one’s early disappointments with authority figures, such as one’s parents, one’s first impressions about clergy, one’s early experiences with the “institutional church” all have a lot to do with one’s consequent relationship with God and with one’s choice of faith community to join, if ever one decides to join at all. I have once alluded to Merle Jordan’s basic questions that ought to be answered more than any other: “Who do I belong to?” “Who are the idols that rule my life?” “Who really are the false gods to whom I pledge my allegiance?” and “What sort of self-atoning acts do we resort to over and over again in the desire to rewrite old life scripts that keep on haunting us?”

It would be mighty hard for one who did not feel loved by a parental figure as a child to believe he or she is loved by God at all. It would be difficult for one who sees in the institutional Church a projected image of an uncaring father or mother, or a mean, cruel, and abusive priest (or parent) during one’s early years, to ever bring himself/herself to a deep sense of belongingness and warmth in the context of a powerful organized institution that the Church could be mistakenly identified with.

God’s love, for some of us, could very well have been eclipsed by the “reality” of uncaring, distant – and even abusive – parents, clerics and early authority figures. What replaces this lack of warmth, this wonderful feeling of being loved, is a deep sense of mistrust, suspicion, and a whole lot of defensiveness against what they perceive are really “wolves in sheeps’ clothing.”

Lent, among other things, is a time to pause and reflect on the overwhelming evidence Scripture presents to us today about God’s magnanimity for each and every one of us. Owing to the various types of darkness that we all experience, not excluding the ones referred to above, the darkness of breached trusts and broken promises, the darkness of sinfulness enveloping even the very ones who ought to have been the primary examples and models for the young and the weak, the darkness of a crisis of credibility spawned by some rotten apples from among pastors now seen as wolves in sheeps’ clothing, whether rightly or wrongly (wrongly, for the vast majority of upright priests who are doing their jobs silently and well), the darkness of terrorism and the mystery of suffering for victims and survivors of natural calamities all over the world, it has become very difficult to find truth in what the Bible claims, in what we proclaim in our liturgical assemblies: “His love is everlasting!”

A contemporary analogy I am reminded of by the difficult times we find ourselves in, is that of the story of “Finding Neverland.” Johnny Depp’s character named James played a big role in restoring meaning to the lives of four young boys left behind first by their father and then later their mother both of whom died early deaths. By leading them to the imaginary world populated by flying Peter Pans and kings and queens in imaginary kingdoms, James was able gradually to conjure up a world of meaning for hapless little orphaned boys who were confused twice over by their parents’ early deaths.

The Bible and today’s readings in particular, of course, do not offer us an imaginary world named Neverland. But they do lead us to a world of meaning. That meaning system is based on what juts out so clearly in today’s liturgy – God’s graciousness and love for His beloved people. By our Lenten “retreat,” by our “standing back” and “taking stock” of what God has done for us since He created the world and our first parents, we do get what we have prayed for today and pray for everyday … an understanding of Jesus’ death; a grasp of what his resurrection really means for us now.

In Johnny Depp’s (James) imaginary world, the teary-eyed little Peter got a very touching message from his would-be surrogate father: BELIEVE! BELIEVE IN YOUR HEART.

The grieving Peter, along with his siblings, did not find a solution to their grief, neither to their deep sense of loss. But their “faith” gave them a sense of perspective and restored their trust in a world that remains to be what it always has been – imperfect, and, at times, even cruel.

Today, we do not ask God for the impossible. We do not ask Him to banish death and suffering from our midst. Being the effects of sin, death and human suffering will continue to be part and parcel of our basic human predicament. We beg Him, though, for something that we can help Him with, something we can help ourselves to, with the aid of His grace. And so we ask, as we do in today’s alternative opening prayer:

“In this time of repentance we call you for your mercy. Bring us back to you and to the life your Son won for us by his death on the cross, for he lives forever and ever. Amen.” It is His death and resurrection that now stand at the basis of our world of meaning as Christian believers.