March 9, 2014: The First Sunday In Lent
Genesis 2: 4b-9; 15-17; 25-3: 7/Psalm 51: 1 – 12/Romans 5: 12 – 2/Matthew 4: 1 - 11
Bishop Ariel Cornelio P. Santos
This is the First Sunday in Lent. As a Church direction, this year in Lent, we will voluntarily take a somber attitude and approach things meditatively. We will withhold our “Hallelujahs.” It is not a law, but a willingness on our part. It is like that when you observe the Sabbath, you don’t disobey the law to work. You obey the law to rest. When you work, you do not disobey the command to rest; you obey the command to work because there is a time for everything.
This Season, we would like us to meditate. It is a three-fold thrust that we would like us to observe: we fast; we pray; and we do works of charity. Understand that this is not a law. We are not legalistic about it. I tell you, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before the Mass ends, you shall have said ‘Hallelujah’ at least once.” It is not sin. It is a willingness on our part to withhold it not because it is forbidden, but we observe it and we meditate so that when Easter comes, our “hallelujahs” will be a lot fuller. Our desire is to know God more and to grow in Him. This is what God wills for us: to obey Him not out of compulsion but willingly.
This is what the New Covenant is all about. “New” doesn’t mean something to replace the old. “New” means something that has been there the whole time which was ignored and is being reiterated. It takes on a fuller meaning. It has to come from our hearts because this is what God wants. He did not make us robots. He gave us free will so that we would choose to obey Him. Have you ever wondered why God had to place the tree of knowledge of the good and evil in the Garden? If it wasn’t there, man would not have sinned. He put it there so that man could obey His command to not eat of the tree. God wanted man to be like Him, to choose what to do what is right according to what the commandment of God is.
We will encourage you to exercise that, to will to seek God, and to hear from Him. We won’t spoon-feed you or give you a comic book. We won’t give you everything in each interpretation. We would like you to appreciate and draw the message from something that is important. If you go to a museum and look at a painting, you appreciate what the painter did and you try to get his message. Sometimes they will interpret it for you, but you are encouraged to sit or to stand in front of the painting, to look at it, and draw the message.
The icons in the Church have no interpretations. You look at the scene and you let God speak to you. You incline your ear and you incline your heart, if need be, to seek God. God reveals Himself but you also have to do your part. You seek Him. You crane your neck to see something and you reach deep down and utilize the God-given sensitivity so that you understand and you hear what the Spirit is saying.
In the Liturgy, we have to exert effort to shut out all the worries of the world and come in to the presence of God. Pay attention because something good is going on. The Spirit is speaking to the churches. “He who has ears, let him use them, and let him hear.” In the gospel where Jesus was warning the disciples when future things would happen, about the rumors of wars and seeing the abomination of desolation, there is a parenthetical message that says, "Let the reader understand." You have to make an effort to hear God. He won’t always speak bombastically. Sometimes He speaks in a still small voice. If you are too busy or too wired and you have earplugs in your ears, you won't hear the message.
Proverbs 2:1-5 says, “My son, if you will receive my sayings, and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom. Incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God.” You will have to exert effort, which Proverbs 2 says is the same effort as you would make in treasure hunting. We seek treasure and that is the same zeal and intensity that we need to apply in seeking the voice and the will of God.
If you go to the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the cathedrals in Europe, you will see all kinds of paintings, icons and statutes, and most of them don’t have what you have in museums like a plaque or a board that describes the thing to you and tells you the message. No, you sit there and you strain your neck looking at the ceiling because all of the church’s history and the Bible are there. You have to study and look closely because after a while, God will speak to you and understand this is what Jesus was saying in words in the Bible but expressed in still pictures. You can pay for an audio tour, but it is not God’s speaking to you.
This year and hopefully, the rest of the Season, we will have to do a lot of meditating. We will give you less of entertainment. We will give you less spectator activities. We will encourage you to meditate and seek the will of God. The key is to fast, to pray, and to do works of charity. Deny yourself, fast, take up your cross, and follow the example of Christ. Jesus said in John 7:17, "If you are willing to obey, you will receive the revelation from God.” You have to be willing to demonstrate and show it. You have to actively participate in order to get that which God wants us to see.
We are called the people of God. We are not an audience; we are not spectators. What we are doing right now is called the Eucharistic Liturgy. Liturgy is the work of the people. Eucharistic Liturgy is work of the people in thanksgiving, offering sacrifices of thanksgiving. It is service of God. It is not a show, a one-man show, a show of a cast with spectators. We give our offering, not the Presider’s offering, but the people’s offering side by side and made acceptable by the sacrifice of Christ Himself. When you become still and know that He is God and actively involve yourself in His will, you will see revelations galore. If you are willing, God will show you.
James said, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you." There is this saying that I have heard that goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” I believe in this. They say, “That is not true. God helps those who cannot help themselves.” This is true, too. This is what Christ did on the cross. We couldn't help ourselves; we couldn’t get sin out and away from us, so God helped us who could not help ourselves. It doesn't stop there. When we were babies, our parents changed our diapers and we were trained to walk. But when you are a ten-year old, you can help yourself. You can walk. Parents will help you with some other things, but you need to help yourself also and God seeks that from us.
About fasting, Moses fasted before he received the Commandment on Tablets of stone. Elijah, before meeting God on the mountain, also fasted. Jesus, in our gospel today, fasted forty days and forty nights. Prayer and fasting prepared Him for His ministry which was marked from the beginning by an intense battle with temptation. He overcame. There was one time when the disciples could not cast out the demon from a child and Jesus said, “This does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” Some things are needed for us to prepare. It is by prayer and fasting.
St. Basil said that fasting was ordained in Garden and was the very first commandment that was given to Adam. He also said that “You shall not eat” is a law of fasting and abstinence. Adam was given the command to cultivate and keep the earth. Genesis said, "No shrub of the field, no plant was yet on the earth because God had not sent rain yet and man had not yet cultivated." The literal rendering of cultivate was serve the earth. As long as Adam observed the true meaning of fasting and obeying God and serving, he was in dominion.
Jesus spoke against the hypocritical attitude of the Pharisees. He revealed the true meaning of fasting. Isaiah 58 talks about true fasting. What is the real meaning of fasting? Is it really ceremonial or do you fast for the purpose of doing works of charity? If you fast and you continue to be hypocrites and have hate, strife and division and you point the finger, then your fasting is wasted and is meaningless. Jesus said, “Don’t just deny yourself. You deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow after Me as I demonstrate love by giving of Myself.” If you just deny yourself by fasting and do nothing else, it is just like you are going on a hunger strike. You can put meaning or not, but it doesn’t do you good. You have to take up your cross and follow Christ completed.
Pope Benedict said, "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. True fasting is then directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will.” Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me.” “If, therefore, Adam disobeyed the Lord’s command ‘to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,’ we, the believers, through fasting, intend to submit ourselves humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy. Denying ourselves of material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God. Cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbour."
Jesus became hungry. His flesh became weak when He fasted which you would think flesh would be at its weakest and this is the time to tempt it with food. His flesh became weak, but His Spirit became strong. When we mortify the flesh or when we deny the flesh for a time, we strengthen the spirit and make it more sensitive to God.
2 Corinthians4:16 says “Though the body decays, yet the spirit is being renewed day by day.” Fasting complements living on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. See Jesus’ knowledge of Scripture. He and the disciples did not have the luxury of being able to tuck their Bible under their arms. No individual owned the Bible. Maybe Paul did with a few pages of the prophet, but it wasn’t thin paper like what we have. They did not have Scriptures individually owned. They had to listen in the synagogues and in their Bible studies. They had to incline their ears. It is a shame that they knew more of the Bible than we who individually own Bibles, who have Bibles on our phones, which is available every day in different translations. It is free but do we know it? Meditation on the Word of God is part of praying and fasting, and this strengthened Jesus.
In Acts 8, can you imagine Philip when God spoke to him and said, “Go, join that eunuch in his chariot.” The eunuch was reading from Isaiah. Imagine the eunuch asking Philip, “What are you reading?” The eunuch says, “This part were Isaiah says this and that, but I don’t understand it.” Can you imagine Philip saying, “Let me get the Deacon. I will catch up with you. Where are you going? I will get the Deacon, the Parish Priest or the Bishop because I was absent when they taught that in the synagogue.” They had to incline their ear and their hearts to hear and to seek God.
Fasting and praying helps us to dwell on things which according to Philippians 4:8 are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, with excellence, and worthy of praise.
It gets our attention away from the mundane and the things that are the exact opposite of Philippians 4. Fasting is voluntary in our part. If we want to seek God and want to know Him more, we detach ourselves from the routine business of everyday life a lot of which are unnecessary. We cease from the rat race. We just stop and cease from striving and know that God is God. As sons of God, our wealth is not measured by how much material things we possessed. It is measured by our knowledge of God.
Even the “.com” executives, the geeks, the technical people would advise people to get off-line. You don’t have to look at your Facebook account every day. What you have to do is listen to God every day without ceasing. I am not saying to always just to do nothing, but in everything you do, seek God. Listen to Him. He may be speaking to you through something that you are reading which is not of a Christian author. You could probably see something that is just happening on the streets because wisdom also speaks on the streets and we need to listen and to be sensitive.
Whenever Archbishop Hines and I were in India before, we would only stay at the hotel because there is not much outside. There is nothing to go to and nothing to see even on TV. We are forced to be still, to meditate, and to read God’s word. In that environment, you get a lot more revelation from God than when you are in the city with all the noise and the distractions. You will be amazed how sensitive you can be when you become still and seek God. Then, when we do our part to do that, things will come because we will not be distracted by unnecessary things. I am not saying to not work ever again or don’t ever take care of your family and do what you do. Once in a while, see the pattern of the work and Sabbath. If you observe those times of rest, then you are energized and you become more effective when you do face again the work part and the challenges. You will be more strengthened because you have been reenergized and you have received from God. As Jesus would minister, once in a while, He would go up to the mountain and He would pray overnight. It is a pattern. We need to take time to pause and fast and pray so that we can better know God and better do works of charity. Then, God’s genuine grace can freely flow through us, into us, and through us.
Romans 5:17 says that the recipients of grace will reign in life through Christ because His grace is more abundant than sin. Where sin abounds, His grace all the more abounds. The key is to seek God. We will reign in life, through Christ, who Himself overcame temptation as He gave us the example, as He gave us the pattern. We will also overcome temptation and we will reign in life with Him and through Him.
We encourage you: be attuned to God. If you ever are always to be on-line, be on-line with God. Get off-line with unnecessary things and there are a lot of them. Always be attuned to God, not just in Lent, but hopefully, we may lead a fasted life and set this as a pattern for the rest of our days because this is the way it is in the kingdom of God.