Saturday, February 09, 2008

1st Sunday in Lent (A)
Before and After

Readings: Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Sisters and brothers, since coming here, I’ve noticed that the newspapers often carry a type of advertisement that we also have back home. I call them the before and after advertisements. You know the kind I mean. Usually they are advertisements for spas or weight-loss programs. And, typically, celebrities are employed to endorse the program and to encourage people to sign up.

Most of these advertisements show us two photographs. The first one shows the celebrity before joining the program. This picture is carefully taken to highlight all the bulges, in all the wrong places, on the celebrity’s body. Sometimes we’re also given the celebrity’s weight – maybe 180 lbs, for example. The next picture shows the celebrity after joining the program. It too is carefully taken. But, this time, it shows us all the curves, in all the right places. And the weight has dropped drastically too – from 180 to maybe 130 lbs.

Before and after advertisements: this is the image that comes to my mind when I listen to our Mass readings on this 1st Sunday of Lent. For what is Lent if not a kind of spiritual weight-loss program? During these Forty Days we pray and fast and give alms in order that we might be purified from our sinfulness, so that we can enter more fully into the joy of Easter. In the words of our opening prayer today, through our Lenten discipline, we’re asking God to help us to understand the meaning of the Son’s death and resurrection and to teach us to reflect it in our lives…

But, as with any weight-loss program, in order to experience the benefits of Lent, we need to be encouraged to put our heart into it. And our readings give us just the encouragement we need by providing us with a kind of before and after advertisement. The before picture is found in the first reading. The after picture is found in the gospel. And the second reading helps us to connect them.

Let us look closely at the pictures, one by one. In each one there are two main things to look at: the context and the characters. What is the context of the before picture? It shows us a beautiful garden, planted by God, in which God lovingly places the man and the woman he created. And in the center of the garden is the tree of life. Here we have the picture of a marvelous place, a place of contentment, a place where people are provided with everything they need to be happy.

But look also at the characters in this picture. Although God has provided them with everything, the man and the woman are not satisfied. Tempted by the serpent, they begin to suspect that God might be keeping something from them. Instead of humbly obeying God, instead of gratefully receiving everything they need from God’s hand, they decide to disobey God. They choose to follow the serpent’s suggestion and stretch out their hands to grab that which is forbidden. As a result they are no longer comfortable being naked in the presence of others. They experience shame and separation.

Grabbing hands in a beautiful garden, leading to shame and separation: in our Lenten advertisement, this is what the first picture, the before picture, looks like.

And we know, of course, that this is not just a picture of the first man and the first woman. It is also a picture of us, of our situation, before we accept Christ into our lives. As the second reading tells us, death came to all people inasmuch as all sinned. As we enter into the season of Lent, we are reminded that we are often very much like that man and woman. Discontented with what God provides for us, we often stretch out disobedient hands to grab what is forbidden. A child snatches his sister’s toy. A married person seduces the spouse of a friend. Rich businessmen grab the land that belongs to the poor. Crooked politicians pocket large sums of money meant for the welfare of the people. And the result of all this? Separation and shame in place of contentment.

But look now at the gospel. This is the after picture of our Lenten advertisement. Notice how the context has changed. No longer are we in a beautiful garden. Because of what happened in the first picture, we now find ourselves in a desolate desert. This is the wilderness that results from our sin and shame. And just as God lovingly placed the man and woman in the beautiful garden to make them happy, so now the Holy Spirit mercifully leads Jesus into the desert to rescue us, to undo the terrible result of our sin.

Notice also what Jesus, the main character in this picture, is doing. Before, the man and woman fell into temptation, and stretched out their disobedient hands to grab. Now, after, Jesus succeeds in resisting the devil. Instead of grabbing, he obediently opens his heart to humbly accept everything from his Father’s hands. And he will continue to do this even when his hands are finally nailed to the Cross on Mount Calvary. As a result, the angels come and minister to him. Because of Jesus’ obedience, God once again comes close to his people. We are once again reconciled to God.

An open heart in a desolate desert, leading to joyful reconciliation and fullness of life: this is what the second picture, the after picture, of our Lenten advertisement, looks like.

And this is also the picture of what we hope to experience after the discipline of these Forty Days. In the words of the second reading, we hope to receive the abundance of grace, the righteousness and reconciliation with God that results from the obedience of Christ our Lord. In the words that were spoken to us when we had ashes imposed on us on Wednesday, we hope to truly turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.

My sisters and brothers, we have seen the advertisement for Lent. We have carefully examined the pictures that show us the before and the after. What is there left for us to do, but to sign up for the program, to put our whole heart into it, so as to experience its benefits?

My sisters and brothers, as individuals and as a people, what kind of weight is the Lord inviting us to lose this Lent?

1 comment:

  1. Hee hee, such a mind-blowing analogy and parallel as only YOU can tease out of today's Scripture readings. I guess this is what keeps your faithful blog-watchers glued to your daily reflections.

    While the "before" and "after" images are telling, whether it is weight loss or a furrow-free face, the motivation is not so evident. Many undergo the discomfort for vanity sake but some do it on medical grounds. Whatever the reason, it is a sustained, single-minded pursuit of a desired end result. No pain, no gain as they say. What is our "desired end result" this Lent? How may we discipline ourselves to realise ur goals?

    I miss seeing you at the Delta Sports Complex, Fr Chris :)