Saturday, February 28, 2009

March 1, 2009: First Sunday of Lent (B)

Few days ago I was visiting a church office, and I asked the receptionist, "What are you giving up for Lent?" She said, "I'm giving up gossiping and complaining." "Oh," I said. "I'm giving up diet coke and chocolate." After I said that she gave me a look that said, "Oh Father, is that all you're giving up?" I have to tell you it seemed shallow at the moment, but my body is telling me that it's not so shallow. How many of y'all drink more than one cup of coffee or caffeinated soda a day? For a couple of days after Ash Wednesday, I had a headache this big. I was going through caffeine withdrawal. Believe me, I wanted to grab a diet coke or a dark chocolate when that headache came. I could hear in my head the jingle, "Just for the taste of it, Diet Coke!"

Here is an interesting fact about caffeine withdrawal. As little as one cup of coffee can begin your addiction to caffeine. Some of the young people here may drink energy drinks. Well, the so called "energy" is really caffeine, and lots of it. So what happens when you pull back, cold turkey? Like any addiction, your body craves it when it's gone. Then from two to nine days, you can have the following withdrawal symptoms: headache, fatigue or drowsiness, "unhappy" mood or irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flu-like symptoms such as nausea, muscle pain, and stiffness. This is only Day 4 of my cold turkey from diet coke and chocolate. So if I seem irritable, I'm still having withdrawal symptoms.

Many of you have promised God that during this Lent you're going to give up something. Believe me when we make promises, we make them when we are strong and able. But how does that promise stand when we have pounding headache, feel "unhappy" and drowsy from withdrawal? What happens when we renege on our Lenten promise? Is it a sin? The answer is no. The promise we make is a voluntary devotion which the Church does not regulate. Giving up on things like TV, caffeine, chocolate really falls into self-discipline. Does God ever make promises to us? He certainly has since the time of Adam and Eve. But he uses a different word for 'promise.' In our First Reading, we hear the word, "Covenant" spoken by God to Noah. God said, "I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood...This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth."

So what is a covenant? Is it like a promise or a contract? A contract involves promises that one party makes to another. Buying a house is a contract between a seller and a buyer where the buyer promises to pay certain amount and the seller promises that his house is in great shape. The covenant on the other hand involves persons taking oath to each other. Whereas in a contract, property is exchanged, in a covenant persons are exchanged. Think for example of marriage; marriage is not about property or service exchanged. At wedding spouses take oaths that they would give their entire self to each other. That is covenant.

The reason why I focus on the word 'covenant' on this First Sunday of Lent is that our readings show that someone greater than us has taken an oath to make covenant with us. God who is infinitely greater than us chose to take an oath to give Himself to us. In the Old Testament, the sign of that covenant is the rainbow as He told Noah. What do you think the sign of His covenant is in the New Testament? We hear it from the elevation of the chalice by the priest: "Take this all of you and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me." The sign of God's new covenant is His very own Son who shed blood through his side and emptied Himself for us. He became the victim lamb for our sake. And for our part of the covenant, all we can do is give up diet coke and chocolate? And even then, we renege on our promise time to time? Why does God make such a covenant with us, knowing that we're not going to hold up our side of the oath?

We read in our Second Reading: "Beloved, Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God." The reason why Jesus entered the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to be tempted by Satan was to lead us back to the Father. Think of it this way. Why do parents sacrifice all their sleep, all their disposable income, and available time for a small and weak new-born infant? What do they benefit from all that work and energy spent? Materially the parents get nothing in return from the infant who can't even begin to work for his own food until 16 years of age. If marriage and raising a family was a contract, it makes absolutely no sense. But it is a covenant where parents take oath to give all of themselves to the child knowing fully well that child cannot return much in kind. At the heart of this parents-and-child covenant is love. Likewise, at the heart of God-and-man covenant is love. It's the only motive that makes sense. Therefore, Lent is not about us making our small promises to give up something and end up breaking our promises. Lent is about being aware that Someone who loves me is going to be tempted for me, going to suffer for me, and even die for me. The greatest gift of Lent is the awareness that, "I am loved by God."