Luke 4:1-13, First Sunday of Lent
Welcome to our liturgical celebration of the first Sunday of Lent! As we very well know, this special season begins with Ash Wednesday, famous for its ritual of the imposition of ashes.
What is the meaning of the ritual for us? I believe we can say that the imposition of ashes is a ritual reminder of two fundamental truths about ourselves in relation to God.
The first truth: it is a reminder about ownership. In the past, when a person asserts ownership over something, he places a distinctive sign on it, an imprint, as it were, showing exclusive proprietorship. This is part of the function of signatures, and of wet and dry seals on documents which are still in use today.
When I was younger, I remember seeing cows and carabaos being marked for ownership using a heated iron pushed against their skin, leaving an indelible laceration. I remember seeing the chickens owned by our neighbor wearing green rings around their left legs and roaming around our backyard. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are imposed on our foreheads, traced in the form of a cross, to signify who truly owns us. It is a reminder that parents don’t own their children, that husbands don’t their wives, that the banks, no matter how much is owed to them, don’t own the borrowers. Ownership over our lives belongs to no one else but God.
The second: the imposition of ashes is a reminder about identity. This is captured quite well in one of the formulas used in the ritual: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Who are we then? The ritual reminds us that, really, we amount to nothing, we are simply dust, but God chose to breathe life into us and loved us. Apart from God, we cannot even begin to exist, much less continue in existence.
Sometimes, however, we live as though we are intoxicated by our self-importance. Our accomplishments can make us think that we are indispensable. Last Wednesday, we were issued the reminder not to lose sight of our basic identity as dust, and of the resulting humility that this truth should inspire in us.
In the Gospel for today, we are told that Jesus was tempted by Satan. Three times he was tempted, with Satan using very alluring images. First, Satan used “bread” which represents everything nice and attractive. This includes food, drink, drugs, sex, gambling and other things which appeal to the senses and can easily lead to addiction. Second, “kingdoms”, an image which represents hunger for power and influence. Third and finally, “throwing the self (from the pinnacle of the temple)” which represents preoccupation for personal glory and self-promotion.
One of the ways by which we understand sin is to look at it as an experience of malicious forgetfulness. When we indulge in our addictions, or when we compromise our values for the sake of acquiring power, or when we get trapped inside the vicious cycle of narcissistic vanity, somehow we have lost grip of who we are and who owns us. If we study closely the story of Israel in the Old Testament, we find out that at the root of all their sins is forgetfulness. Israel has forgotten its identity as God’s chosen people, and the consequent blessings which cascaded in abundance from this divine choice (cf. Ps 103).
Today we pray that we always remember who we are deep down, and who really owns. This way, like Jesus, and by God’s grace, we may triumph over our own tests and temptations.
[Photo credits: Google]