Author: Fr. Michael Byron
March 11, 2019

There’s been a commercial running on TV for a few years now that I have found kind of weird and mildly irritating.  It’s for a company that will take your DNA sample and test it and then report back to you just exactly who you are.  There are a few different versions of this ad, but they all feature testimonials from people who thought that they belonged to one ethnic group but who actually are attached to a different one.  And so the man who thought he was German but actually is Scottish traded in his lederhosen for a kilt, and the woman who thought she was Irish but is actually Native American Indian now no longer eats corned beef and cabbage but rather wild rice.  All this because the DNA company has re-defined their identity for them, for a modest fee. 

Of course there’s nothing wrong with coming to know and understand your cultural history, or for helping other people to discover theirs.  But it’s that bit about how a person lives as the result of having that information that seems so strange.  I’d like to hope that nobody actually alters their way of being in the world as the result of the DNA tests provided them by the company.  Those people in the TV ads seem to say that because a person is part of this tribe he or she needs to behave in this way, as distinct from all others.  (And by the way, I have wondered, what if all that alleged DNA testing is a complete fraud and my results claim to tell me that I’m Dutch?  I wouldn’t know, and I hope I wouldn’t go out and buy wooden shoes as the result of that report.)

This may threaten to become silly, but in real life it is dead serious.  Because all of us are regularly informed that if we are part of a specific subgroup of humanity then we must live our lives in certain ways.  Perhaps the most obvious example is in politics.  Just think of all of the powerful voices that try to tell us all the time what a “real American” believes and does.  Or how a “real Catholic” has to think and behave.  Or what any true and loyal Democrat/Republican must say?  Or even worse, think of how often we are told what “all Muslims” are alleged to believe, or all Mexican, or all Jews of all immigrants.

Before we presume to know who and how everybody else is, we had better be very sure to know who we are, and how we are to be in this world.  And that identity does not come from any DNA test or any specific ethnic or cultural or religious or national attachment.  Not if we are Catholic.  It comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ and from our deep history of being in relationship with God.    Our Sacred Scripture readings for this first weekend of Lent demand that we remember who we are as followers of the Lord.  The book of Deuteronomy recalls that our religious devotion does not spring from a philosophy book or a catechism.  It is rooted in a deep memory of what has happened to us, to our ancestors, through the ages of history, and still today.  Remember Abraham, remember Egypt, remember hard labor and slavery, remember rescue, remember the gift of the Promised Land.  Remember who you are.

The gospel of Luke is even more explicit about it.  All of those familiar great three temptations of Jesus by the devil were basically the temptation to forget who he was.  He had just been told in the previous chapter by the voice from heaven at his baptism—“You are my son!  On you my favor rests.”  And now along comes Satan to propose that that wasn’t really true—that Jesus needed somehow to render an account of himself to the father of lies, rather than to God alone.

In all three temptations Jesus was being invited to do something just because the devil requested it.  Turn the stones to bread.  Worship me.  Throw yourself down.  At the bottom of it all was the demand: “Listen to me.  Take me seriously as your authority and do what I demand.”  Jesus knew exactly who he was, and so even though this exchange seems at first to be a battle over who can out-quote Sacred Scripture against the other, it’s really quite a bit more simple than that: i.e. Does the devil have a standing to tell Jesus who he is and to whom he belongs—or not? That’s the very same question that every one of us faces all the time even today.  To whom or to what do we hand over the authority to tell us who we are?  To DNA tests?  To our friends/family?  To our political party?  To our physical appetites?  To our government?  To our pastors or bishops?  To the media?  To science/technology?

We know who we are because of the one who made us, who has saved us, and who abides in us always.  It is God whom we worship here, and nothing/nobody else.  Those nothings and nobody’s will never cease trying to convince us otherwise—and that is the true heart of temptation.  It is why it is so necessary for us to be here, together, in this holy season, around this altar, to know just exactly who we are.   

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