Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections
1st Sunday of Lent (C)
February 21, 2010

We are back in the season of Lent, that time in the liturgical year when traditionally, we are expected to cut back on a whole lot of things, to make a “retreat,” as it were, so as to foster the threefold attitude and practice of “prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” All three are not supposed to be engaged in for their own sakes, but for God’s. They are not, on that score, “negative” acts, but on the contrary “affirmative” ones that ought to lead us closer to God. In the long tradition of the Church, such “ascetic practices,” at bottom, really answer our deep need for God (prayer), for a healthy and balanced love of self (fasting), and our duty as Christians to love others (almsgiving).

Nowadays, the idea of giving up certain things is not a very hard concept to understand. Owing to the ongoing diet craze that go by various appellations (Atkins, South Beach, Diamonds, etc.), the idea of having to give up one’s cravings either for carbs or carved meat oozing with fat is not such a strange prospect at all. In an entertainment and information glutted world of 24/7 news and fashion channels, thrash and reality TV, and violent cartoon and animé characters, the idea of giving up one channel in favor of another is a daily dilemma for the boob tube addict.

Giving up certain things is a lot more a reality in our lives than we ever thought! For a great many of us, it is not the giving up of little things that counts as difficult. That which really poses as a big obstacle for many of us is the bigger issue of having to give up a lifestyle that precisely fuels that never-ending process of having to give up an infinite variety of little things in our cluttered daily lives. People give up stuff everyday. What they have no more place for in their bulging closets, they give away to charity. What they have grown tired of, they toss to the clothes collection bins all over the place. What they feel is no longer fashionable, they give up. In the same vein, people give up pasta and bread (the sale of bread in America has drastically dropped by 40% since the revival of the Atkins revolution!) as easily as they gave up red meat a decade ago. The bigger question, though, remains unanswered, or simply glossed over … For what? For whom? Why so?

Let us take a close look at today’s Scriptural data in the hope of finding some meaning to help us understand the whys and the wherefores of having to do “prayer, penance and almsgiving.” If you look at the three closely, they all have to do with giving up. Prayer asks us to give up some time from our daily rounds and routines. Penance asks us either to “do with less,” or to “do more” – give up stuff, or do more positive good to others. And almsgiving definitely has to do with having to part with something usable, something valuable, something that causes some pain or hurt to say good-bye to.

What for? This is what all three readings today speak about. All three readings really speak about fidelity. In the first reading, being reminded of God’s faithfulness to His people, Deuteronomy describes the people’s acknowledgement of that faithfulness by the offering of the first fruits of the harvest. The second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans confirms the same idea of a faithful God who deserves a confession of faith on our part, convinced as we are that “no one who believes in him will be put to shame,” and that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The Gospel glowingly presents the fidelity of Jesus who was tempted thrice over in the wilderness.

Fidelity on three counts… This, along with the other two readings, is what leads us to the bigger picture that makes giving up anything worth all the effort; that gives meaning to the call for “prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” This fidelity, both on the part of God, and on the part of God’s people, stands behind meaningful renunciation. Without this, all forms of giving up are nothing but vanity. “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.” Without this context of fidelity, giving up carbs or carved game just does not measure up. Without this framework of faithfulness, giving from one’s superfluities just does not make for heroism and philanthropy. Without basing itself on Christian asceticism, fasting is just dieting plain and simple.

Fidelity is the language of relationships. Faithfulness is the life-giving atmosphere of love and mutual commitment – the very same love and commitment that Jesus showed in his threefold temptation to turn stone into gold (bread or material goods); to turn simplicity and ordinariness to power and prestige (by worshiping the devil); and to force God’s hand to do what He basically had the power to do by himself – that is to throw self-responsibility to the winds (by throwing self from the parapet of the temple)!

Fidelity on three counts! This is what Jesus showed us. This is what renunciation is all about … fidelity to His Father; fidelity to His people; fidelity to a relationship; fidelity for a purpose, and therefore, fidelity with a meaning.

Fidelity on three counts is what we all are called to ourselves. And our fidelity is sorely tested, too, in lesser, though not any less real, ways. The whole world is driven by the obsessive search for more … more money, bigger and bigger homes “far from the madding crowd” … We are tempted everyday to turn everything, including stones, into bread. The whole problem of corruption in and out of government is based on this … turn every single transaction into a means for making easy money. Everybody does it anyway, so there’s no harm joining in. The whole corporate world beckons us to do everything we can to rise to the top of the ladder, to wield authority and power, to be known and admired, to be in control. No one wants to remain forever an “average Joe,” and everyone aims at becoming the next “American idol” (or “star in a million” as the case may be). In the Philippines, presidential wannabes, who have been drooling for the much coveted office for decades, who now realize they can never be president in the context of an entertainment crazed, MTV (and MTB and Eat-Bulaga and Wowowwee) culture, resort to producing puppets of a president whom they can manipulate from behind the scenes, with assurances of lucrative rewards and an infinite number of concessions. Similarly, we give up and surrender to the rampaging culture of death, the culture of violence, the culture of indifference as we get co-opted by the prevailing trends to do as the rest of the world does, not to rock the boat, and “see and hear no evil.” Evangelization gets reduced to an invitation to a mushy “Chicken Soup for the Soul” type of “feel-good” spirituality that accommodates to what is chic, current, and popular.

Fidelity on three counts… This is what we are called to reflect on today. Perhaps we are not to expect ourselves to be at par with the faithfulness of Christ whose commitment to His Father was more powerful than anything the devil and the world had to offer Him. Our version of this threefold fidelity may be a lot more modest, but no less genuine. In a world and cultural climate that increasingly beckon us to conform, to “live like the Joneses,” to outdo one another in some way, to be as the rest of the world is trying so hard to become, today’s liturgy is a gentle prodding for us to “go deeper,” (“Man does not live on bread alone”); to “do better” (“You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve”); and to “draw closer” to the God of Jesus Christ (“You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”)