In our first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy,
we hear Moses giving instructions to the Israelites
on how to celebrate the offering of their first fruits at harvest time.
Given that today is the (long-delayed) beginning
of the Archbishop’s annual appeal,
the temptation to focus this homily
on the incredible generosity of the Israelites in their giving,
and to try to draw some contemporary parallel,
is almost overwhelming.
But, strengthened by our Lord’s example in today’s Gospel reading,
I will resist that temptation
and simply say, “Let those who have ears to hear. . .”
Instead, I would draw your attention
to the narrative that is ritually recited
prior to the offering of the gifts.
It is as if he Israelites must remind themselves of who they are
before they bring the fruit of their life and labor before the Lord.
“My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.
But there he became a nation great,
strong, and numerous.”
The Israelites – God’s covenant people – are to recall
how they left the land God had given them
and lived as aliens in Egypt, and prospered for a while.
“When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us,
imposing hard labor upon us,
we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers,
and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.”
The Israelites are to recall
how they came to be oppressed by the Egyptians,
and how, though they had forgotten God,
God did not forget them.
“He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand
and outstretched arm,
with terrifying power, with signs and wonders;
and bringing us into this country,
he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.”
The Israelites are to recall how God
saved them from their oppression
and brought them to the land
that has produced the fruit that they now offer to God.
It is only then,
when they have remembered who they are, and whose they are,
that they can freely offer back to God
the gifts that God has first given to them.
Why this ritual recitation?
Why tell over again the story
that they all probably know pretty well any way?
Well, it is easy to forget who you are.
The Israelites were constantly tempted to think
that they were the people of other gods
rather than the People of the one true God,
who had saved them from oppression.
And for us, too, it is easy to forget who we are.
Not, of course, that we forget our names;
but with all the clamor of the world and its allurements,
we can forget the deepest truth about ourselves –
that we are God’s people and disciples of God Son –
and begin to think that we are something else:
maybe a wonder-worker who can, and must, solve everyone’s problems
by turning stones into bread;
maybe a power-broker who can, and must, break a few eggs
to get done what needs to be done;
maybe even a minor celebrity who can, and must, bask
in the admiration of others.
In our Gospel today we hear how Jesus resisted the temptation
to think of himself in these ways
because he remembered who he truly was:
the Messiah who must give himself over
to the way of cross and resurrection.
And we can resist these same temptations
if we remember who we are.
This is one way to think about what Lent means.
Lent is a time to remember
that we are God’s people and disciples of God’s son.
It is a time in while, by our disciplines
of prayer and fasting and alms-giving,
we let God teach us once again who we are and whose we are.
In the RCIA, Lent is known as
“The Period of Purification and Enlightenment.”
During this time our catechumen, Laura,
and our candidate for full communion, Dan,
will undertake the final period of their preparation
for reception of the Easter sacraments.
It is, as the Rite of Christian Initiation says,
a time intended “to enlighten . . . [their] minds and hearts . . .
with a deeper knowledge of Christ the Savior” (RCIA §139).
For it is in coming to know Christ more deeply
that they will come to know who they really are.
For they will know that it was for them that Christ gave himself over
to the way of cross and resurrection.
For us, too, Lent is a time of purification and enlightenment.
Perhaps we are used to thinking of it as a time of purification,
when we try to wean ourselves away from bad habits
by giving stuff up.
But it is also, and even more so, a time of enlightenment,
a time in which we seek to let God’s light shine in our hearts,
by removing from our lives those things that cast the shadows
that keep us from seeing the deepest, truest,
and most real thing about ourselves:
the fact that God has called us to be God’s people
and disciples of God’s Son.
During Lent, whether praying at Mass or praying in private,
ask God to give you the light you need
to know yourself as you really are,
as God knows you to be.
So as we pray during this period of enlightenment
for those who are preparing
to receive the Easter sacraments,
we pray also for ourselves,
that God will enlighten the eyes of our hearts.
Lent is a time to turn away from the false images of ourselves
that we are tempted to take as true –
those images that would seem to make us greater than we are,
and those images that would seem to make us less than we are –
so that we can see ourselves as we truly are:
those wandering souls whom God has heard
and rescued from the oppression of sin
and brought into a land flowing with milk and honey.
Then, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened,
remembering who we are and whose we are,
we can offer back to God the gift of our life and labor
that God so generously gives to us each day.