1st Sunday of Lent (C)
(Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13)
Since the Lord Jesus came to lead us in the fight against sin and death, against the devil panoplied in power and pride, it was fitting that He be tempted for our sake and on our behalf. And so, after receiving John’s baptism and immediately before starting upon His public ministry Jesus was – as our emerging champion – led by the Spirit to be tempted in the desert by Satan, and there the divine integrity of His being as the incarnate Son of God was manifested to His adversary in divine wisdom and filial obedience.
Later, having jealously observed his hated and feared opponent in order to finally succeed against Him, Satan’s opined ‘weak link’ in Jesus’ incarnate being was its physicality which, though beautiful in its perfection, Satan thought he might profitably put to the test: first of all by infiltrating His Mystical Body, the Church (Lk. 22:3,31-32) as best he could, before finally committing himself to a definitive paroxysm of rage against Divine Goodness -- manifesting Itself most sublimely in the Father’s gift of His incarnate Son as Son of Man and Lamb of God -- in the crucifixion and death of the only Sinless One on Calvary. And thus it was that Jesus, overcoming satanic pride by His own inconceivable humility before God and love for mankind, won for us the grace that would enable us to work with Him and by His Spirit, for our own salvation and the glory of the Father Who originally created us and eternally loves us as His adopted children in Jesus, His most beloved Son.
Now, if we look carefully at Our Blessed Lord’s temptations in the desert in today’s Gospel reading, we can recognize the broad outlines of temptation faced by humankind everywhere; for the devil tempts men, women, yes, and even children, first of all, through their earthly appetites, just as he did with Jesus when he said:
If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.
They are very many who succumb to this first sort of temptation by repeatedly pandering to their appetites for food, alcohol, sex, and earthly pleasures and satisfactions of all sorts. Yet, there are many who will overcome, or at least resist for a time, this “common” sort of weakness, until the next big hurdle -- the temptation to personal pride by the indulgence of self-will, above all in the exercise of power and authority -- brings them crashing to the ground:
Then the devil took Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. And he said to Him, “I shall give to You all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.
Some few, however, might not readily succumb to even such temptations; and, being neither overwhelmed by sensual pleasures, nor proudly eager to exercise power or authority over others, they may not even strive to be seen by others as most talented, acknowledged as most capable, or admired as most popular. Nevertheless, because all human beings are, in one way or another, sinful, these remaining few will ultimately succumb to the last temptation experienced by Jesus in the desert:
(The devil) led Him to Jerusalem, made Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here.
There we have the temptation most closely corresponding with the devil’s own character, hatred for God in his spiritual pride and self-proclaiming holiness, and disdain and supreme contempt for humankind when ultimately inducing them to suicide.
But what about those human weaknesses of fear and despondency which inhibit so many by persuading them to hide, or even shut themselves away, so that nothing can either be expected from them or asked of them?
In one sense this last failing is the worst of all; for, what can be done with one who refuses to move? Someone going in the wrong direction can be redirected; anyone who is faltering on the way can be encouraged and strengthened; and those who are seeking but confess themselves to be puzzled and uncertain can be enlightened; but what can be done for someone who has no desire to do anything other than to hold tight?
The sins of pleasure are a perverted acknowledgement of the divine truth that creation is truly beautiful and we are not self-sufficient; for, without repeated injections of contrived and distorted satisfactions of whatever sort, such sinners find themselves deeply unhappy and unfulfilled. Likewise, the sins of pride are a testimony to our God-given human potential for advancement and improvement of all sorts: and indeed, at times, sinners of that sort show great human ingenuity and skill, expend enormous energy and make great endeavours, in order to satisfy that most insatiable of all passions: self-aggrandizement. On the other hand, however, the despondency and fear which can paralyze a human being gives no witness to our human dignity or divine calling; indeed, it tends to rob us of our authentic human character, since it is of the essence of human kind that, being made in the image and likeness of God, they are destined for fulfilment and, indeed, called to seek and to find it eternally with Him.
Our readings today have shown us something of humanity’s sins and failings, and perhaps that has already helped to set us on the way to health by spurring us to hate our lustfulness and pride and to despise our despondency and fear. Can they help us further in our needs? Do they hold yet further guidance and grace for us?
Let us think back to our first reading and, learning from it, begin to appreciate more and give greater expression to that most beautiful and praiseworthy virtue, gratitude, which springs up so naturally in the human heart, unless that heart has been rendered insensitive by the cares and concerns of deep-rooted selfishness.
Gratitude is a most beautiful virtue: its “innocence” gladdens both the recipient and the giver, for true gratitude is not, and cannot be, concocted; neither is it a virtue only for those who are specially talented, since it wells up freely and spontaneously from the depths of our common humanity.
The Lord brought us out of Egypt with 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. Therefore I have now brought you the first-fruits of the land which you, Lord, have given me.
The easiest and surest way to find joy in the Lord is, indeed, to become aware of and grateful for all the blessings of your life be they big or small. Above all, try to offer your Communion at Mass with gratitude to God in your heart.
Next, we can learn something from St. Paul’s teaching in the second reading, for so often people make relations with God difficult for themselves. They imagine God is demanding this and that from them when really He is not demanding anything but simply seeking to lead them, gradually, along the way towards the fullness of happiness and eternal life.
Now, you in Church today have come here believing – mind and heart – in Jesus; and hopefully you have learned to appreciate and want to express gratitude for the salvation He opens up before you. Learn then, from St. Paul, and undertake to confess with your mouth that gratitude you acknowledge as due from you:
For, one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
People of God, this is a teaching you can and should begin to put into action here at Mass! Don’t just stand or sit with your mouth closed and your heart dull; if you do not confess God here you will never confess Him outside before others who do not believe. If you put your heart into the Creed, the hymns, the responses at Mass, if you confess with your mouth in that way, you will show yourselves as worthy to be gradually led to speak up, when it is necessary so to do, before those who do not believe, or even mock. Don’t imagine for yourself seemingly impossible acts of public witness being demanded of you on leaving Church this day; try to praise God wholeheartedly here and now, and He may gradually lead you -- if you are worthy -- to confess with your mouth before others when the Spirit wants such witness of you. He will never demand what you cannot give: He will – if you are willing and worthy -- lead and encourage you first, and then, only ask you when you are able. Indeed, you will probably not even be aware that you are being asked, it will seem so natural for you to respond to the Spirit’s call when you have become accustomed to confessing gratitude with your mouth here at Mass.
Finally, we should have boundless confidence in God. St. Paul reminded us:
Scripture says, "No one who believes in Him will be put to shame."
The Israelites, slaves though they were, were led out of Egypt, despite the power of Pharaoh’s army, because they trusted in the Lord who had spoken to Moses; they endured the desert privations because they trusted in the Lord speaking to them through Moses, who though born a Hebrew had been brought up as an Egyptian; the Lord had called and inspired him to lead Israel into freedom; and, because Moses knew the Egyptians, under his leadership the Hebrew slaves learned confidence to trust their God and face up to the Egyptians.
Now, surely we can trust Jesus! He is, indeed, the Son of God and, since He is also most truly one of us, His Spirit knows how to guide us along ways that -- in Him and with Him -- are no longer impossible for us. That is why He is always wanting and seeking to lead us onward and upward to ever better and greater things; and that is also why the idleness that aspires only to sit cosy and hold tight is so unacceptable to Him. God has made us for Himself and in Jesus He has overcome for us all the trials and temptations that can come our way. Take confidence, therefore, and trust in the Lord and the Spirit He has bestowed on us: sing psalms and offer prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving in your life, and you will find them developing quickly into a joyful paean of witness and praise springing spontaneously to your lips as you find yourself being led along ways that delight and fulfil you beyond all your dreams. Then you will indeed thank God for your Catholic Faith which has helped you to believe in Jesus, our Lord and Saviour; to trust in His Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter; and to look forward in hope to the vision and the presence of Him Who is our God and, indeed, our most loving Father.