1st Sunday of Lent 2021
Scripture Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
It is Lent—and time to renew our covenant. A covenant is an agreement that binds us into a relationship based on honor. The word “Lent” itself means Springtime, a time of renewal, refreshing. The first reading from Genesis emphasizes this theme of new beginnings. The account of the flood reads like a new Creation story: the receding waters, the association of animals with humans, the blessing to be fruitful and multiply.
A new covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow.
The waters in the story of the flood, destroyed evil and saved the good. It offered a totally new beginning, a Springtime. Baptism for the Christian carries with it that promise, the destruction of evil and a new birth.
The gospel tells the desert experience of Jesus where he was tempted. One thing to note carefully is the meaning of the word to “tempt”. In English “tempt” is consistently thought of as negative. It is always seen as an enticement to do wrong. But the Greek has a quite a different element in its meaning. It means to test far more than it means to tempt in our sense of the word. What we call temptation is not meant to make us sin; it is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to make us bad; it is meant to make us good. Temptation is not the penalty of being human, but the means to become fully human. It is the test which comes to a person whom God wishes to hone as his instrument.
The gospel interestingly speaks of Christ being driven by the Spirit into the desert where he is confronted by Satan. I found it interesting to discover that Satans in the history of the Persian Empire, which did extend into Palestine, were political agents who went around testing secretly the loyalty of the king’s subjects of the realm. In that understanding, Jesus is not so much being tempted to sin, but tested to see if he would be loyal or disloyal to who he is as the beloved son of the Father.
Temptations are always there and are difficult to overcome. The day we feel that we are no longer subject to temptation, we really should take our pulse because we will probably be dead. Most of us dread being put to the test. We even pray not to be led “into temptation”. Yes certainly “deliver us from evil”, but to be tested is not something we can avoid. It is a coin with the flip side being an invitation to virtue. It is so easy for us to say to others, “Just say no,” but it is difficult when we are the ones who are tempted.
The complex aspect of temptations is that they all contain an element of attractiveness, an element of good. All of God’s creation contains beauty. We, human beings, pervert that beauty and turn something that is good into bad. For example, the human body is beautiful; pornography is a perversion of the beauty; it short-circuits the purpose of the beauty which is to draw into communion; where there is no communion- the other is viewed as an object with no dignity. Legal drugs are wonderful medications that can, for example, enable people who suffer from anxiety attacks, depression, to have some stability in their lives. Yet the same medications can destroy lives through addictive behavior.
All sin is attractive, if it were not attractive, it would pose no test for us. We are not generally masochistic. We do not set out to harm ourselves. Eve looked upon the fruit and “it was pleasing to the eye.”
Battling temptation humanizes us, just as it did Jesus in the desert. Indeed, battling temptation is meant for our strengthening not our destruction. And in the end, as Friedrich Nietzsche recognized, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.”What are the wild beasts? Anything that threatens our life and waits to devour us. Anything that fills us with fear, makes us insecure and consumes our hope. We may face the desert experience of unemployment, illness, hurting relationships, failure, sin, discouragement. The wild beasts seem to be like a vulture attentive, waiting for me to weaken and to lie down with a broken spirit.
We need to be equipped to face the desert with the spiritual tools for survival. Jesus’ instruction in today’s Gospel contains two points. The first is to “reform” our lives. The second is to “believe in the gospel.” “To reform” means to recognize the evil in our lives and to turn our back on it. We are aware of the evil tendencies that occasionally mess up our lives. For example, we are aware of selfishness that puts our comfort ahead of others’ needs. We are aware of pride that keeps us from admitting our faults. We are aware of laziness that keeps us from helping others. “To reform” means to face up to these evil tendencies in our lives and to do something about them. Jesus tells us to “believe in the gospel.” This means to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that his love draws us to life. It means to seek out Jesus and to receive from him forgiveness and healing.
As Christ entered that desert, he knew that He was not alone. Faith is the spiritual tool that defends us in desert times. Our freedom necessitates the testing that reveals where the heart’s true treasure lies. Only the accidentals of the testing differ for each of us, because of the variety of gifts each one possesses. But the heroes of faith, the saints, down to the present, triumph over their trials because they have put on the mind of Christ. A person with a divided heart, on the other hand, easily fails in a test of faith.
Blessed John 23rd, when a youth wrote, in the “Journal of a Soul”: “From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own lifeblood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.”
We must not think that in one campaign Jesus conquered the tempter forever and was never tempted again. The tempter spoke again to Jesus when Peter tried to dissuade him from taking the way to the Cross; and the temptation of Jesus waged in the garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:42-44). Sometimes people worry because they think they should reach a stage beyond temptation. How is that possible if we are to be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect”?