First Sunday of Lent
Gospel Reading: Mk 1: 12-15
THE Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Other Readings: Genesis 9:8-15 | Psalm 25 | 1 Peter 3:18-22
REFELCTION | HOMILY
A DEACON in the US has posted a question on a deacons’ web forum on how to respond to parishioners asking for guidance regarding the debate around vaccination, which is a hot topic these days in that country. Doctors and other medical practitioners are urging parents to vaccinate their children because diseases—especially German measles—are on the rise. Their call to vaccinate aims to protect not only the young children but also the general population.
On the other end of the debate are those who object to vaccination in general and vaccination against German measles in particular because the vaccines generally used against measles were derived from the cells of aborted fetuses almost four decades ago. The objection comes from the view that if we get our children or ourselves vaccinated, we are condoning the practice of an act—that is, procured abortion—that the Church describes as “the deliberate and direct killing of innocent human life” and therefore inherently morally wrong.
Now you may be asking: Well, what’s that got to do with the gospel message today or with the Lenten Season? At the root of the issue, IS identity. The question to be resolved is whether the action to vaccinate or not to vaccinate affirms or contradicts that identity. And the Bible, especially the early chapters of Genesis gives us two competing views about the human identity. On the one hand, we alone of earth creatures are in the image and likeness of God and therefore should be the most life-giving creatures on earth. On the other hand, the story of the flood warns us that we can become the most dangerous and the most destructive creatures in creation—not at all in the image and likeness of God. So the call for us is to decide which of the two images of humanity we are to choose. To make a proper response, one has to really search him or herself as to what kind of person he or she is; to truly know oneself.
Now in our Gospel, we heard that after his baptism, Jesus was driven to the desert to be tested. In the Bible, the desert holds special significance to the Jewish people. The Old Testament tells us that it was in the desert where they formed their identity as a people. To the ancient Jews, the desert was a place to find oneself before God and others. The desert was not a place of escape, but a place of discovery. Those who went into the desert found themselves facing “their own demons.”
The gospel tells us that in the desert, Jesus too needed to discover himself—his proper relationship with God, before he was able to begin his public ministry. Jesus in the desert revealed the new Adam. Unlike the Adam in Genesis, he did not give in to the temptations of selfish ambition. Instead, he remained faithful to God, the Father. Jesus found or rather affirmed his proper place before God. And because of this fidelity, he was able to claim victory over Satan.
The gospel portrays a Jesus, who “because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he was able to help those who are being tested” (Heb 2: 18). For us, his followers, his NO to Satan becomes our rejection of Evil and his YES to God becomes our battle cry of hope for the Father. Just like Jesus, we too, are being invited this Lenten season to find ourselves and return to our proper identity and proper place before God. Let us admit it is not an easy task. The deacon and other well-intentioned Catholics in the US who confront the issue of vaccination are probably struggling with the question of how to remain faithful to Church teachings; to their Christian identity without compromising the health of their children and the general public or vice versa.
But this is precisely what the desert experience offers to each and every one of us: The chance to discover ourselves, to confront our own demons, to be able to listen to what God is whispering to us so as to learn and grow both in wisdom and holiness. And indeed, in this desert experience, God is always with us. One of the lessons we get from the gospel of Mark is that our God is the God who constantly accompanying us in our journey; the one who constantly asks each one of us: WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM? WHO AM I TO YOU?
As we enter into this new season in our liturgical year, let us not consider Lent just as a penitential commemoration of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Rather, let us view it from the perspective of our identity and our relationship with God. The Church teaches that Lent has a dual character. It is both baptismal and penitential. During Lent we are reminded of our baptismal identity and at the same time give us the chance to heal ourselves, to put things back in order. And as mentioned earlier, to do this effectively, we may need to spend some time in our own deserts, in a place where we will be free from excessive comforts and social distractions. We need to examine our conscience with honesty and new insight.
So let us ask ourselves what plans we have for this Lent and how we can turn away from sin? More importantly, we need to ask how we can turn more towards God during this time. As we examine our conscience and our lives this Lent in order to re-discover ourselves and renew our relationship with God and with others, let us pray to the Father that He sends us his angels, to assist us and comfort us, just as He sent them to Jesus to comfort him while he was being tested in the desert. ###