“Turning and Returning to God and Our Identity in God”, by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

On February 6, 2013, Life Teen released an article entitled “What to give up for Lent: 25 Creative Ideas.” The said article contains responses of mostly young people to the question, “What did you give up for Lent before and what are you willing to give up for Lent this year?” Let me read three of the responses:

A respondent by the name of Amanda said, “I am addicted to caffeine so I gave up all drinks but water for Lent two years ago.”

Josephina promised: “Last year I didn’t give up anything for Lent, just added more prayer life. This year I am going to add more prayer life and give up Facebook.”

Carrie, a Life Teen Missionary, testified: “I have an issue with vanity, especially when I get ready in the morning. So I decided a couple years ago to just wear the first outfit I put on every morning. What I learned from that was how to get a source of self esteem beyond my outfits.”

If we ask more mature persons, what do you think some of their responses will get?

What about us? What are we planning to give up for the Lord and for others during this Season of Lent? Are we planning to skip a meal every Friday during these 40 days of Lent? Are we intending to give up a sinful habit that has been enslaving us or destroying our family? Is there something in us that we need to let go so that we can be better persons and Christians? Are we giving up something so that we can share it with the poor?

While the intention to give up or sacrifice something, which may not necessarily be bad or evil, for a more noble reason or cause must be done, there is a more important question to ask during this Season of Lent. The question is: What does God want to give to us during this Season of Lent?

I think to reframe our fundamental Lenten question this way is to affirm it is God Who always takes the first initiative and we only respond to His divine initiative. The Season of Lent is a grace-filled gift from God given through the Church. If ever we need to let go of something, we are able to do so because we let God. And the more we let God, the more we are able to let go of what is not of God. One of the two prayer formulas for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday captures this very well: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Indeed, we do not only turn away from sin, we turn or return to the Lord.

During these 40 days of Lent God is inviting us in a very special way to receive His gifts of conversion, renewal, transformation and rebirth. Lent is about God’s loving desire and efforts to make us new. And when we truly decide by the grace of God to embrace the new, then we are able to let go of the old.

Lent is a season of being invited and led by God in a deeply personal way to return to Him. “Come back to me, with all your heart,” the prophet Joel tells us. From the first day of Lent, the Ash Wednesday readings make God’s call and gift to us clear: “Return to me with all your heart

Lent then is a homecoming to God; it is a return to God and to His unconditional love with the totality of our being. God is always running after us although we are always running away from God. Lent is to return to Him so that we can truly be formed and transformed by Him and His love. It is to return to Him so that He can heal us and bind up our wounds.

God is not saying that we come back to Him with already pure, clean and transformed hearts. No, we come back to Him as we are – with the fragility, sinfulness, brokenness and greatness of our hearts. We come back to him with the prayer that He will create a clean heart in us and put a new and right spirit within us.

Even if we think that our lives right now are already okay, there is always a room for healing, renewal, conversion and transformation. There is always something that God can do for us or give to us. Indeed, whatever we do during this Season of Lent is only a response to what God is doing or wants to do to and with us.

On this First Sunday of Lent, we are given the victorious example of Jesus in the face of temptations.

In the Bible the primary sin is the sin of idolatry. Idolary is to have other gods other than the true and only God of Jesus. It is to replace God with other idols, whether in the form of things, obsessions or persons. Idolatry is to make gods out of some people, of money, prestige, pleasure, power, sex, ambitions, pride and others. Thus, conversion, in this sense, means a return to the real and true God and to our real identity before this true God and to denounce these false gods that smear or destroy our real identity in God.

A temptation is an enticement to sin. Temptation is not a sin, but it may lead us to sin if we succumb to it. Billy Sunday says, “Temptation is the Devil whistling at the keyhole; sinning is opening the door and letting him in.”

It must be always made very clear that temptations do not come from God for God can never tempt us. Temptations come from the Evil One, from the world, from ourselves and from others. Although God may allow temptations, they never come from God for God can never lead us to evil.

Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus is actually faced with only one main or root temptation, which is the Devil’s attack on his identity as the Son of God. Jesus’ main temptation is to doubt, forsake, prove and not to be true to his identity as the Son of God.

The Gospel according to St. Luke tells us that the Devil, before mentioning his temptations, challenges Jesus twice: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread…” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…”

We remember that at his baptism at the river Jordan, Jesus heard the voice of the Father: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The said voice of the Father confirmed the divine identity of His Son whom he had sent to bring salvation to the world.

In the temptation incident, which follows the baptism of Jesus, it is precisely this identity of Jesus that is being attacked by Satan. Satan entices Jesus to prove his identity as the Son of God, which has already been assured in the event of His baptism. In effect, the Evil One does not only want Jesus to doubt himself and betray his identity; he wants him to put his faith in other gods and not in his Father, who has given him this identity of divine sonship.

Come to think of it. This is what happens to us whenever we are confronted with temptations and sinfulness. Temptations entice us not to be true to our identity as beloved children of God, which we have received at baptism. To sin is to betray this identity that has been given to us by our loving God the Father at baptism. When I sin, when I wallow in sin, I betray my being a son or a daughter of God and I show that I put myself and my trust in other idols and gods other than God my Father.

Thus, it is very important to note that the journey of 40 days of Lent leads to the celebration of Easter. And what do we do at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday? One of the very important things that we do is to renew our baptismal vows, which proclaim that we believe in God, that we are children of God, followers Jesus and members of the Church and that we denounce Satan and all his evil works and lies. The journey of 40 days of Lent then is a return to our baptismal identity as beloved children of God and not as followers of Satan and his cunning ways.

Finally, the gospel also tells us that Jesus is able to resist the Devil’s temptations because He is filled with the Holy Spirit, because He is grounded in the Father and in His words, and because of His prayer and fasting. The victorious example of Jesus over temptations reminds us that sinfulness and temptations can never be overcome by one’s strength. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit, by our being deeply formed by the Word of God, by intense prayer, fasting, almsgiving and recourse to other spiritual means that we are able to defeat sin and temptations. Not by our own strengths and efforts but by the power and grace of God working in, through and despite of us and our sinfulness and unworthiness.

The other readings for this First Sunday of Lent give us inspirations in time of temptations. Like the Psalmist, we need to cry, “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.” The First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy promises that when we cry to the Lord, He hears our cry and sees “our affliction, our toil and oppression.” And St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, promises: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The Desert Fathers have a very wise advice about temptations. It is very simple but very true. Their advice in the face of temptations is: “Pray and flee.”

The booklet Our Daily Bread gives the same advice: “To avoid being tempted by forbidden fruit, stay away from the Devil’s orchard.”

Roy B. Zuck tells of Bishop Hamline who advised someone in the following words: “When in trouble, kneel down and ask for God’s help; but never climb over the fence into the Devil’s ground, and then kneel down and ask for help. Pray from God’s side of the fence.”

About Fr. Robert and his reflections