20 February 2010

First Sunday of Lent (Ordinary Form)

First Reading, Deuteronomy 26:4-10
The Israelites are offering their firstfruits and proclaiming the love and mercy of God by contrasting their former nomadic existence with the joy of possessing their own country; a "land flowing with milk and honey." Gratitude for God's abundant love and kindness is the theme to be underscored here.

Lent is a time for serious prayer, reflection and meditation; a time for penance, a time to remind ourselves of the importance of God in our lives. Serious sin makes us like nomads. It separates us from our heavenly Father and from the family of God which we have in the Church. The Sacrament of Penance restores it all. This overwhelming display of our Lord's love and mercy deserves all the gratitude we can muster, especially when considering the times that we're not so loving and not so merciful.

This Reading is symbolic of our Lenten journey. Like the wandering Aramean we are also strangers in a foreign land. The Israelites cried out to the Lord, Who heard their cry and freed them from bondage, guiding them along the way during their Exodus. We have also been freed from our bondage to sin and death by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. By becoming Man, we are reminded that our God not only guides us along the way but also experienced our labor, toil and affliction first hand.

At the end of our forty days we rejoice in our Savior's victory at Easter, the day our Lord destroyed that which kept us in bondage. Sundays are not included in the forty days of the Lenten disciplines. Instead they are weekly reminders of the glorious Easter mystery. By His Resurrection Jesus has gained for us, not a land of milk and honey, but a promised new life of eternal joy and peace.

When the journey of this life is traveled faithfully, the light at the end of the tunnel reveals the beatific vision – the unimaginable joy of what eye has not seen nor ear has heard (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).

Second Reading, Romans 10:8-13
"Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say?" As we begin this Season of Lent, what a marvelous invitation to prayerfully study the pages of Scripture. Pope Benedict XVI called a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October of 2008. The theme was: "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church." The Holy Father said he hoped that meeting would help Catholics realize the importance of the bible.

A simple confession of belief in Jesus coupled with a belief in the heart is not a no strings attached, free pass for getting into heaven. Confession with the lips is not simply a belief in the Person of Christ; it's also a belief in everything He taught by word and deed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Name of "Jesus" contains all: God and Man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray "Jesus" is to invoke Him and call Him within us. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the Name of Jesus is invoking and welcoming the Son of God Who loved them and gave Himself up for them (cf. CCC 2666).

Thus the profession/heart formula is a practice of faith in daily life. Saint Paul tells us that Jesus enriches "all who call upon Him." That's a thought which would be very difficult to exhaust in meditation.

Gospel, Luke 4:1-13
Certain numbers in Scripture are symbolic. Even when a literal understanding applies, there still is often a symbolic representation as well. Forty is symbolic of a long period of time in which there will be difficulties and temptations to try to overcome; but it also represents a time of preparation to receive graces which will flow from the Hand of God.

Noah was in the ark as rain poured from the heavens for forty days and forty nights (cf. Genesis 7:4---8:6). The Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years to get to the Promised Land. Moses went up the mountain to be with God and was there for forty days and forty nights (cf. Exodus 24:18). There are other examples in Scripture where the number forty is prominent. In this Gospel Jesus spends forty days in the desert. You know the old saying: You can't arrive at Easter Sunday without getting through Good Friday first. A period of struggle followed by a reward would seem to be God's infallible plan for eternal bliss; why else would a Cross, an apparatus used for severe punishment and execution, be a sign of eternal salvation? No pain, no gain may be the universal plan, but it's a plan that man has tried to avoid with great fervor since the fall of humanity.

Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and is led by the Spirit. Certainly our own baptism fills us with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is led to the desert. The Church, guided by the Spirit, leads us to the desert every year to prepare for Easter. The desert is certainly a very real place but it also can be representative of what has happened to humanity. Man was created in the splendor of glory and dwelled in paradise; but man turned away from God and fell from grace and now that garden of paradise is a barren desert.

One would have to think that this Gospel is recorded solely for our benefit. The devil trying to overcome God with temptations is surely a lesson in futility. The love of God for His people is evidenced here as the God of Paradise and Perfection humbles Himself and enters man's lowly desert and confronts the very distraction which turned man away from His Creator and His God. The outcome of our Lord's visit to the desert finds the devil's strategy and tactics unsuccessful, unlike his encounter in Eden.

Jesus withstanding the temptations of Satan, though, shouldn't come as a surprise to any Christian; therefore, our Lord withstanding the tempter's attacks really isn't the point of this Gospel. What is likely occurring here is that Jesus is identifying the real enemy to us. We have been baptized and are sent to spread the Good News; but belonging to God as His very own children and carrying out His plan for us will certainly bring opposition. Opposition most often comes under the guise of flesh and blood and other forms of created beauty which appeal to our fallen, therefore, weak nature. But Jesus is showing us who is hiding behind flesh and blood, and all those alluring temptations. While the devil can hide from us he can't hide from our Lord and in this Gospel story Jesus exposes the father of lies and brings him out into the open desert.

There are two sides to Lent: on one side it is a time for acknowledging the occasions we have succumbed to enticing ideas and have turned away from God; but on the other side it is a determined resolve to do penance and gracefully remain in the Bosom of our Lord. During these forty days, much like the Israelites, we will journey through the desert together and look forward to the Promised Land of Easter. And like Christ, one should be encouraged to go into the desert alone, a place set aside for personal prayer and silence. While alone in the desert our Lord's garments are wedged between a pair of clasped hands in prayer so that when the tempter arrives, faithful endurance will prevail causing him to depart. Scripture reads: "Resist the devil and he will fly from you" (James 4:7).

Our Holy Father of happy memory, Pope John Paul II, defined Lent as a time for "intense prayer" and for "serious discernment about our lives" and our figurative desert is the place to do both. In Matthew's version of the temptation in the desert, after Satan tempts Jesus to turn a stone into bread, our Lord's response of, "One does not live on bread alone" is continued with "but by every word that proceeds from the Mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). On a translation note, in Luke's Gospel the Latin Vulgate does include the words which translate as "but by every word of God" even though it is absent from the liturgical text.

The bread that doesn't satisfy is the manna that was given to the Israelites (cf. Exodus 16). It's interesting, though, that in this exchange between our Savior and the devil there are three words which are synonymous with Jesus. He is the "Stone" which the builders rejected (cf. Psalm [117] 118:22, Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:4; 2:7), He is the "Bread" of life (cf. John 6:35; 6:48), and He is the "Word" of God (cf. John 1:1). And this spiritual diet of Word and Bread are exactly what we receive respectively at Mass from the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.