Sunday, March 09, 2014

Transformation of Place Through Renovation of Heart

1st Sunday in Lent (A)

Picture: cc US Army Africa

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever witnessed a place being transformed? For better or for worse? We all know, for example, how a house can be made to look nicer, simply by renovating it. By rearranging the things in it. By repainting the walls. By replacing the furniture. On the other hand, we also know how dirty a room can become if we stop cleaning it. Or if we allow a bunch of rowdy kids to run riot in it. To mess it up.

But places can be transformed not just in how they look. Not just by changing the things found in them. Places can also be transformed in the way they feel. In their atmosphere. And this can happen not so much by the changing of things, as much as by the choices of people. Imagine, for example, a large extended family, gathered for a party in an expensive restaurant. Maybe it’s someone’s birthday. It’s a joyous feast. In a fancy place. Everybody is dressed up. Everyone’s having a great time. And yet, we know how easily the mood can change. All it takes is for two people to choose to pick a fight with each other. To dig up an old grudge. To recall a past hurt. And then the whole place begins to feel different. The atmosphere changes. Joy turns to anger. Harmony to conflict. The party into a battlefield.

In contrast, haven’t we also experienced how even certain harsh and cruel places, certain painful and difficult situations, can sometimes be transformed for the better? Consider, for example, a platoon of National Servicemen in the middle of a long and difficult route march. Carrying heavy loads under the searing heat of the scorching sun. The way is hard. The conditions are difficult. Everyone seems wrapped up in his own suffering. Struggling to bear his own burden. And yet, all it takes is for one soldier to share a story. Or to crack a joke. Or to start a song. And then, soon enough, the mood changes. Struggle turns to play. Separation to connection. The rough road into a happy trail.

Places can be transformed not just through the renovation of objects. But also through the choices that people make. Isn’t this also what we find in our Mass readings for today? Both in the first reading and in the gospel, we find places being transformed. One for the worse. And the other for the better.

In the first reading, the action begins in a beautiful garden. A wondrous place that God has filled with every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat. Different plants to satisfy the human hunger, not just for food, but also for beauty. It is in such a marvellous location that God places the first man and the first woman. Adam and Eve. It’s a place of freedom and fulfillment. Of closeness and companionship. Of harmony and peace. But something happens to this place. Such that, by the end of the reading, Adam and Eve no longer feel at ease in it. Even though they remain thrown together in the same spot, they want to hide from each other. To distance themselves from one another. They are ashamed of their nakedness. For them, the garden of ease is transformed into a prison of shame. How does this happen?

The reading describes the process quite clearly. The exterior transformation of place happens through a change in interior disposition. Through a movement of human desire. We’re told that, prompted by the serpent, the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. She sees something attractive and grabs it for herself. She makes a choice. She chooses to give priority to one desire over another. To the desire for power, over the desire to obey. To the desire to take, over the desire to receive. To the desire to satisfy her own appetites, to fill herself up, over the desire to empty herself, so that God can fill her. And, in that moment of choice, in that change of heart, in that shifting of loyalties, the place is transformed. From luxurious Eden to shameful exile.

The gospel, on the other hand, presents us with a change in the opposite direction. Here, we begin in the wilderness. A desolate, lonely, uninviting place. Characterized by the apparent absence of God and the presence of evil. And yet, by the end of the reading, this terrible place has undergone a radical transformation. At least for Jesus. We’re told that the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him. Loneliness and desolation are turned into comfort and consolation. How does this happen?

Again, as with the first reading, the transformation of place results from a movement of heart. From a choice between conflicting desires. Desires with which the devil tempts Jesus. Much like how advertisements tempt us. The desire to fill his stomach by changing stones to bread. The desire to inflate his ego by performing in public. The desire to stuff his pockets with material wealth and power by worshipping the devil. Fortunately for us, unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus resists the temptation. He chooses not to fill, but to empty himself. Isn’t this why he fasts? Jesus chooses to allow his desire for God to take priority above every other earthly appetite. And, by doing this, by remaining well disposed in his heart, Jesus effects a change in his surroundings. The lonely desert becomes an oasis of comfort.

All of which should help us to understand, sisters and brothers, what we trying to do in this great season of Lent. A time when we enter into the desert of self-denial and self-emptying. A time of prayer and fasting and almsgiving. We do all this not because we want to suffer. Much less because we want to take pride in our own spiritual achievements. To feel good about ourselves. No. In undertaking the discipline of Lent, we are making a choice. The same choice that St. Paul talks about in the second reading. A choice of obedience over disobedience. A choice of Jesus over Adam and Eve. A choice for grace instead of sin. By undertaking the discipline of Lent, we are allowing God to do for us, what the psalmist asks God to do for him: A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.

But that’s not all. We do all this not just so that our hearts will be changed. But also so that our world will be transformed. Our world, which continues to be so disfigured by the harmful effects of pollution. Of course, it is true that we are fortunate to be living in a place that is also known as the Garden City. Where our surroundings are relatively clean and green. Even if we may have to endure the haze from time to time.

And yet, isn’t it also true that, even in this Garden City of ours, many people continue to live lives of quiet desperation? Lives of loneliness and pain. Of meaninglessness and suffering. Lives marked by the effects of sickness and addiction. Of poverty and alienation. Through our discipline of Lent, as we allow our hearts to be changed, perhaps we need also to find some way to reach out and to change the lives of others. To help them seek and  find the joy that we ourselves are privileged to experience. The joy that we are gathered around this altar to celebrate. The joy of Christ. The joy of obedience. The joy that comes from allowing God to take priority over everything else in our lives.

Sisters and brothers, on this first Sunday of Lent, how can we begin to transform our world by first renovating our hearts today?


  1. O Lord,

    During this Lenten season, let my heart be BROKEN by Your Grace and Your Love, so that like an unpolished diamond, my heart will shine more brilliantly in Your hands as my Master Craftsman. Lord, may YOUR LIGHT penetrate through my deepest pains and darkness and transform them into YOUR WONDERFUL LIGHT.

    May all that is not of God in me, give way, little by little to YOU -

    Lord, may YOU INCREASE as I decrease.


    Sih Ying
    10 March 2014 11.40am

  2. Renovation of heart requires a lot of discipline and obedience - to listen to the Word of God, and to apply it into our daily lifestyle. It is also whether are we willing to let go of our past preoccupancy that were caused by our excessive human desires. St Paul wrote in his First Letter to Peter: "Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct...” We must be willing to empty ourselves, and to be decisive on what is our priority.

    "The love of worldly possessions is a sort of bird-lime, which entangles the soul, and prevents it flying to God." ---- St. Augustine

    Peace, Zita


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