“Turn and Return to the Lord”, by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus of the Church, who ended his papal or petrine ministry on February 28, has been called the Pope of the basics.

During his papacy, Pope Benedict invited and challenged the faithful to return to the fundamentals of our Christian faith. This challenge has been expressed, for example, in his writing of papal encyclicals and letters on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and in the completion of his three-volume work on Jesus of Nazareth.

St. Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians, tells us that three things will last forever — faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.

Shortly after his assumption of the papal ministry after the death of Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI issued in 2005 the papal encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”). That God is love is the most fundamental and basic reality that we must all truly embrace. God is love and this God loves us in an unconditional and boundless way. This God of love also challenges us to live lives of love.

In 2007, the Holy Father wrote another encyclical on the theological virtue of hope. The title of the document on hope is Spe Salve, which means “Saved in Hope.” In it he asserted that our hope, given to us by God, is key to our Christianity. In fact, for Pope Benedict, the great hope we all long for can only be God, “who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.”
On October 11, 2011, to commence the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict issued the Apostolic Letter entitled Porta Fidei or “The Door of Faith” to challenge us to embark on “the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” (#2, #3).

But I think, the most important manifestation of this challenge to return to the basics is the Pope Benedict’s emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ in our Christian faith and lives. Indeed, Jesus Christ is the center of our Christian faith. There is no Christianity, no Christian faith and there are no Christians without Christ.

The call to turn and return to Christ has reverberated in his writings, admonitions, speeches and addresses. The Pope’s magnificent three books on Jesus of Nazareth can only be understood in this light.

One of my favorite messages of Pope Benedict XVI on Jesus was addressed to young people gathered at the 22nd World Youth Day on Palm Sunday, 1 April 2007. But this message, I believe, does not only apply to young people; it applies to everyone of us. The Holy Father said: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”

In the document Porta Fidei the Holy Father wrote, “The Year of Faith is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord. In the mystery of his death and resurrection, God has revealed in its fullness the Love that saves and calls us to conversion of life through the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 5:31). (#6)

During this Year of faith, Pope Benedict XVI is asking us “to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2): in him, all the anguish and all the longing of the human heart finds fulfillment… The Holy Father has also prayed that this Year of Faith may make our relationship with Christ the Lord increasingly firm.”

The summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord is also what we hear in the Gospel reading today and in a special way during this Season of Lent. Turn and return to the Lord and you will live. Turn and return to the Lord and He will heal us and bind up our wounds. Turn and return to the Lord and He will renew us, our lives, our relationships, our families, our communities, our Church and our world.

In the Gospel passage on this Third Sunday of Lent, Jesus underscores the urgency and importance of conversion and repentance for all.

Two tragic incidents are mentioned in the gospel: the murder of Galileans by Pilate and the killing of 18 people due to the fall of the tower of Siloam. The first incident was due to Pilate’s willful action; the second was entirely by accident. What connects the two different tragedies is the common notion of punishment for sins. The Israelites believe that disaster comes as punishment for sin, a notion found especially in the blessings and warnings of Deuteronomy 28-30 and that appears in John 9:2.

Jesus does not dispute or affirm the connection between sin and disaster. In life, sometimes tragedies happen because of the personal faults of those who suffer or the faults of other people. But this is not always the case. We know that there are so many people who are innocent but who suffer.

What Jesus declares is that those who died were not more sinful than other Galileans or other Jerusalemites. Then he issues the warning, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Aside from the fact that the two tragic events are interpreted by the people as punishment for sins, they are also incidents that happened quite suddenly with total devastation. Without warning, the Galileans were overcome by the power of Pilate. Without warning, the tower collapsed on the 18 people. These two groups of people never had a chance to repent. They were caught by surprise by the suddenness of the tragedies.

In this light, we find not only the importance of repentance or conversion but also its urgency. Repentance cannot be delayed or postponed as death may come at any time. Death, as we know from other passages, is described as a thief in the night that comes when you least expect it.

Thus, repentance must be embraced as an ongoing attitude and practice towards one’s life. Repentance can never just be an occasional or a seasonal act. Scott Hahn says that Jesus calls us today to “repentance” – not a one-time change of heart, but an ongoing, daily transformation of our lives.

It is in this light that we must say that Lent is more than just a season. Lent which promotes repentance, conversion and return to the Lord must be embraced as a way of life. We are given the special season of Lent so that we can more and more imbibe the penitential spirit that must characterize ever minute of our lives.

There is a story about a king who had to put down the rebellion of some of his subjects. After the battle died down, the king put up a candle in the doorway of the castle where he had his temporary headquarters. He lit the candle and announced to all who had rebelled against him that those who surrendered and took the oath of loyalty while the candle was burning would be spared. The king offered mercy and forgiveness only for the life of the candle.

God does the same; the candle is our life span.

This story of the king and the candle is like the parable of the fig tree in the gospel today. In life, we are given many chances to repent and to start anew, but these chances are not limitless as everyone’s life has an end. God’s love is limitless but it is we who are limited. Indeed, the call to repentance is Now! Not tomorrow or the day after for it may never happen if we do not take the opportunity.

About Fr. Robert and his reflections