“For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” Words from our Second Reading today from the 5th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
There is a story of prayer that goes like so: I asked God to take away my pride, and God said “NO.” He said it was not for Him to take away, but for me to give up. I asked God to make my child’s disabilities, and God said “NO.” He said her spirit is whole, her body is only temporary. I asked God to grant me patience, and God said “NO.” He said that patience is a by-product of tribulation, it isn't granted, it is learned. I asked God to give me happiness, and God said “NO.” He said He gives many blessings but the choice to be happy is mine to make. I asked God to spare me pain, and God said “NO.” He said suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to me. I asked God to make my spirit grow, and He said “NO.” He said I must grow on my own, but He will prune me to make me fruitful. I asked God to help me love others as much as He loves me, And God said “Ah, finally you have the idea”! Sometimes, we get the wrong idea of what is truly needed for a good life. There is need of only one thing, to know that we are loved by God that we may love as God does in turn. Everything else is an extension of this truth.
In this first Sunday of Lent, we always listen to an account of Jesus’ experience of temptation in the desert for 40 days and nights. Mind you, just before Jesus enters into the desert, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and we all heard a voice come down from the heavens and declare of Jesus, “This is my beloved son.” And immediately after his baptism and hearing this affirmation from his heavenly Father, Jesus goes out into the desert on retreat. So, the test that Jesus faces in the desert is the corresponding attempts by Satan to instill doubt regarding this statement of divine son-ship: ‘If’ you are the son of God, you can make bread from these stones… ‘If’ you are son of God, prove it: throw yourself down from this temple… ‘If’ only you relinquish your son-ship and worship me instead, all of this could be yours… But back at the Jordan River, God never put a condition on their relationship, saying simply, “You are my beloved Son,” no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Period. Jesus never forgot this in the midst of his desert trials. He knew God was nourishing him, so why did he need bread? He was already being ministered to by angels, why should he need to throw himself down? As God’s son, the whole world was already delivered into his power. No temptation could offer anything more fulfilling, so he could readily accept his identity. He knew he was unconditionally loved as God’s own son, and as such could resist temptation and did not have to give into those insidious voices telling him otherwise. He already had everything he wanted because he knew that he was loved.
As we make our way through life, how many times do we hear those voices that make us doubt ourselves and our self-worth and the loving relationships we are a part of? We see that other people are the ones who have it all: health, beauty, a nice house, success in their career, influence, an honorable reputation, great friends, a good family and marriage... What about me? Am I not loved or cared for? ‘If’ I was truly God’s child, shouldn’t I have such things too? We begin putting our own selves down, saying within our hearts, I’ll be ok when I have this; I’ll be okay when I look like that; I’ll be okay when I achieve what they have. Subtly and unconsciously, we’ve been putting a condition on our own self-worth, telling ourselves that we aren’t any good because this desert we’re in is barren and the grass seems to be so much greener on the other side. This attitude is more prevalent than ever especially in an age of social media and mass communications, when we can readily see the supposedly magnificent lifestyles of others, all the while being bombarded with advertisements that tell us that we are missing out on life because we don’t have such and such a product or relationship. Temptation makes it difficult to listen to the voice of love and thus instills doubt about our relationships. Are you really loved? Are you satisfied in your relationships? Do you really belong to one another? Did God really say not to eat from that tree, not to do those things? The devil instills doubt and says, “You’re no good. You’re no good.” And when we fail to hear the underlying voice of love, it is at that point that we give into disobedience and painfully endure the consequences for doing so, all because we forgot the most precious thing about us: we are already God’s own beloved children. Everything we truly need as God’s own is already ours.
St. Paul compares and contrasts the disobedience of all of humanity represented by Adam and Eve with that of the obedience of Jesus, who is God made man. Whereas human beings often fail to hear the voice of God, Jesus always heard God’s voice calling humanity his beloved. The parallel stories of Genesis and the desert experience of our Gospel become a paradigm for our lives. While the reality of sin has indeed pervaded all of humanity, the grace of being God’s creation, the grace of being God’s own has never been withdrawn. How can we say that we fell from grace when throughout salvation history, God has never abandoned his people and continued to be gracious towards us? In the days of old, God led his people through the desert, and made covenants with them, and sent prophets among his people. In the fullness of time, he sent his Son to reveal to us such unconditional love even amid the burdens of sin and temptation. This carries on today through the mission and ministry of the Church. Nothing has ever changed nor could ever change the unconditional love that God has always shown towards us. Thus St. Paul declares, where sin abounded, love abounded all the more. We need to hear God’s voice speaking to us underneath all these competing voices to know this and we need the silence and barrenness and stillness of the desert to hear the voice of Love. As the Israelites and as Jesus learned obedience in their desert wanderings, the barren desert of our Lenten journey helps us to realize that we are loved and so we don’t have to choose empty and painful things to fill the void in our hearts. Knowing that we are loved gives us the wisdom to pray to God to help me love others as much as He loves me, and God said “Ah, finally you have the idea”!