Sunday, February 25, 2007

What Defines You?

(1st Sunday of Lent-Year C; This homily was given on 25 February, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Deuteronomy 26:4-10 and Luke 4:1-13)

How do you define yourself? What is it that defines you as a person? Is it your work, what you do for a living? Is it how you relate to the people in your family as a husband or wife, mother or father, a son or daughter?

And do you ever let the past define who you are? Sometimes we allow the events of the past, mistakes, what we could have or should have done, and the sins we’ve committed, to define who we are in the present. Many people struggle with that. “My life today would be so different, if only…”

A friend of mine has a beautiful expression that addresses that very concern. He says, “We are infinitely greater—as persons created in the image of God—than the worse sin we have ever committed.”

Think about that for a moment. What are the things you are most sorry for in your life? We are infinitely greater than those things, since we are persons in the image and likeness of God. That needs to be the starting point for the way we define ourselves, the way we understand who we are. We are not defined by what we do, or the people we relate to, or the mistakes and sins of the past. It is how we respond to God in the midst of all those things that defines us. It is how we relate to God in all the circumstances of our lives.

We see that reality this weekend in our first reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy. That beautiful passage is one of the earliest “definitions” of the people of Israel. It is, in many ways, their “Confession of Faith.” Just as we stand up every Sunday, and recite our Creed, the statement of belief that tells us who we are:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty….We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… the Holy Spirit… one holy, catholic and apostolic Church . . .

Even so, this passage from Deuteronomy is an announcement of how the people of Israel come to understand who they are. Moses charges them to proclaim together, before the Lord their God:

My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien.
—Deuteronomy 26:5

God found the people of Israel when they were still nomads, wandering through the desert. That was their beginning. That “Confession of Faith” goes on to describe how they became a nation “great, strong and numerous” in Egypt, but they were maltreated and oppressed in that place. They cried out to God, and He heard them; He saw their affliction. They proclaim:

He brought us out of Egypt with His strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
—Deuteronomy 26:8-9

God brought them through the desert and into the Promised Land. That is how they defined themselves as a people. Notice that they did not say, “We are the nation that worshipped the Golden Calf” or “We are the ones who struggled with God and tested Him in the desert for forty years.” Those things were true, but they ultimately came to understand who they were by the way they responded to God through all of those experiences, and by the way He responded to them, even when they failed.

We are just beginning our own journey through the desert, as we enter into these forty days of Lent. This is always a time when God seeks to revive our faith, and draw us ever more deeply into the spiritual life through repentance and a renewal of our baptism. We respond to this call to holiness through the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. God brings us back to the basics of the spiritual life, so that we can discover anew, as the people of Israel did, who we are in Him.

But one thing is certain: if we seek to deepen our spiritual lives this Lent, and desire to discover more completely who we are in God, we can expect resistance. The last thing the devil wants is for us as individuals and as a Church to be spiritually renewed. He will do anything possible to prevent that from happening.

In the gospel this morning, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. He goes there in order to prepare Himself for the public ministry that He is about to undertake. We are told that He fasted and prayed in that place for forty days. Jesus went back to the basics in order to take on the mission that the Father had prepared for Him. And what he receives for His efforts is a full frontal attack from the evil one.

The devil comes to Him in His weakest moment, after he had been fasting for forty days, and the first thing He goes for is Jesus’ identity. He says to Him: “If you are the Son of God…” If? The strange part of that encounter lies in the fact that Jesus simply is the Son of God. He is not applying for the position! And because He knows who He is, Christ is able to submit to and surrender to God and not the devil. He is able to reject those temptations and continue the saving mission for which He was sent.

As we begin this season of Lent, the Holy Spirit leads us into the desert with Christ, and we, too, will experience trials, temptations and challenges in our spiritual lives. We can expect to encounter resistance when we pray and seek to grow in our relationship with God. We can expect to encounter resistance when we fast and make sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We can expect to encounter resistance when we make every effort to reach out to others in charity, desiring to give more of ourselves in order to meet the needs of others. We can expect resistance. Jesus Christ experienced resistance.

But as we reflect on the people of Israel in light of that first reading, we can see that it was through just such resistance that they came to understand most completely who they were. As we continue to journey with Christ through the desert, what will define us throughout this penitential season? May we discover, once again this Lent, through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and through all of the circumstances of life, who we truly are in Christ.