5 March, 2017. 1st Sunday of Lent
Lent offers us time to reflect on our life as sharing in the life of Jesus and growing in the image of God. This includes an aspect of dying to self and of rising to God’s new life of grace and rebirth.
First Reading: Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7
The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
2nd Reading: Romans 5:12-19
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.
And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, and On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Prostrate before God
Response to today’s Psalm: “Have mercy on us O LORD for we have sinned!”
When charismatic practices were at their height in the 1960s and ’70s, we became (more of less) used to seeing someone fall prostrate on the floor praying. Still, what a shock when people suddenly collapsed, slain in the Spirit. As such, prostration is not that unusual since at the perpetual profession of vows in a religious community, also at presbyteral ordination, the candidate for a time lies prostrate on the floor as a sign of total dedication to God. I once shared a homily comparing prostration and adventure. One word seems to immobilize, the other energizes with get up and go. Both words evoke the church that Matthew envisions of worship and mission. I mention church not only because Matthew is the evangelist of the Gospel as church, but also because Lent is a time of repentance and the renewal of us precisely as a church community.
The third temptation in Matthew (4:8-11) is Satan taking Jesus up a high mountain, showing and promising him the kingdoms of the world if he would prostrate and worship him. Luke puts the scene of the temple last (Luke 4:9-12) to highlight its significance as the place where his gospel account begins and ends. Matthew prefers, for reasons special to his presentation of the Gospel, to have the temptation to worship as final. There, two words help out each other: prostrate and worship. When the first word is used alone, we translate it as “worship.” It can mean just “ask” as in 18:26, the servant asking for mercy or in 8:2 the leper asking to be healed. But there are incidents where more is employed: the magi prostrate themselves 2:2, 8, 11 as Herod claims he would also like to do. For the magi prostration was worship. Would it have been so for Herod? Perhaps if he ever resolved his internal conflicts! (14:9) For the church in the boat in 14:33, all worshipped Jesus who walked on the water and then the great union of prostration/worship and mission in 28:17, the Risen Lord’s final commissioning of the disciples.
Christians do not live Lent pretending that we do not believe in the final outcome. We do believe. Our anticipated worship of the Risen Lord draws us into the unfolding of the story. Here Paul’s rabbinical way of interpreting the Scriptures comes into play by his use of the phrase: “how much the more!” This key to the meaning of a text can build comparison or contrasts. Here Paul uses it to contrast the grace of being in Christ with the dis-grace of being in sin (vs.15 and 17 and vs. 9, 10, 11). With this key in place, Paul can expand the contours of the discussion. Not only does the contrast lie between grace and disgrace but by how many more (read “all” in light of Romans 3:22 and Genesis 2:2-7) were we to qualify it (persons), (5:15) and by how much more were we to quantify it (structures). This “more” extends to the point of using the word “reign” to speak of God’s grace, which contrasts with the temptation thrown at Jesus to reign over sin. Paul’s verse 21 is particularly forceful here: just as sin ruled towards death, “so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “Exercise dominion” is how NSRV translates “reign.” This language definitely suits Matthew 4:8: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”” There is no way to translate adequately the word invented by Paul to describe the grace of God; even the sound speaks for itself hypereperisseusen (v.20): overflowing and superabundant! The overflow gives us an equation. Prostration is to adventure, what worship is to mission. The mission is to proclaim how much the more! (The Homiletic Directory from the Vatican says that the homily should be a hymn of praise for the great deeds of God. Amen to that!)
Finding Grace in the Desert
This year the Church together with Lutheran believers is commemorating the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation. As they look back on a troubled history, and deplore the church divisions that so fatally weakened Christianity in the eyes of the world, they also draw near to each other in a new appreciation of the spiritual and theological wealth of their dif-ferent traditions. They confess their poverty and failings, so as to able to set off together anew in the strength of the Lord. Since October 31st, 1999, when Catholic and Lutheran authorities agreed on a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” at Augsburg in Bavaria, Catholics have become deeply appreciative of the teaching that Luther held most dear, namely, the claim that we are justified before God not through any works of our own but solely by God’s free pardon granted to us through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther drew this teaching out from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and in doing so he provided “a medicine for the Church” as Pope Francis has said.
The good news of the forgiveness of sins, the good news that Christ takes on himself our sins and clothes us instead, in a “joyful exchange,” with the mantle of his own righteousness, depends of course on a prior “bad news,”, the bad news that the human race is sunk in sin and powerless to free itself from it. That aspect might be rejected as fatalism by many today. The old language of the Fall of Adam and of inherited Original Sin is not taken for granted any longer, and thus the language of St Paul in today’s second reading may seem archaic and unattractive. Actually, this text was famously mistranslated in the Vulgate, the Latin text of the New Testament, for it does not say “in him we all sinned” but “in that we all sinned” or “since we all sinned.” So sin is not so much a taint imposed on us from the outside, a meaningless fate stamped on every baby as a tax to be borne, but is rather seen in the general proclivities of our real lives, where we try to cast off “sin that clings so closely” (Heb 12:1), and where we can succeed in doing so by cooperation with Christ’s abundant grace. His word of forgiveness takes away our sins and declares us to be his saints. So we need not be always moaning and groaning over our sinfulness, but can join gladly in the creative project his justifying word sets in motion.
Listening to Paul’s words in today’s first reading in light of our own real-life experience, they can still communicate to us the joy of being justified by faith in Christ. There is sin in the world and its contagion spreads to us all; and this sin earns the wages of death. In contrast, through Christ, the “new Adam,” the for-giveness of sin and the free gift of grace have also entered our world, and they spread more abundantly than the contagion of sin, leading not to bondage and death but to freedom and to newness of life. “Where sin abounded, grace superabounded” (Rom 5:20, a little after today’s passage).
Of course lots of people will ask “what’s grace? what’s this newness of life?” Well, Lent is the season of grace and renewal, so it’s a time to realize how much we need to be forgiven, renewed, and sanctified, as individuals and as a community. We can create some empty space in our lives, where the grace of God can flourish. It’s a chance to cut down our intake of the unfulfilling fast-food of the social media and look for the nourishment of Scripture and spiritual reading. Or just stop in the midst of our activities for a few minutes every now and then, just to register the presence of God, the wonder of existence, or to pray the Angelus, a psalm, or whatever prayer we find useful. What is grace but the divine, re-creative presence at the depth of everything? Jesus was deeply rooted in that presence in the midst of the barren desert, and it made him immune to the tempter’s suggestions. Turning to that divine presence, in a turning-about of our very lives, we find the life and renewal that we all so badly need, not only for our own sake, but in order to share it with others. Jesus came back from the desert charged with new energy, healing people right and left, and ready to pour forth those words that shook the world and still shake it. Let us follow him into the silence of the desert to find there what he found.
Shun not the Struggle
A reflective way of looking at life is to see it as a struggle between sin and grace, selfishness and holiness. Our time on earth will be successful in the measure that we put aside sin and try to live by the grace of God. Today’s Scriptures show two contrasting reactions to temptation. The first humans, Adam and Eve, are imagined as preferring their own inclinations to the will of God. Jesus, the Saviour, on the contrary resisted temptation, remaining faithful to what God the Father required of him. St Paul reflects on how these choices affect ourselves: Adam’s sin brought trouble on all, but we are saved and offered new life because of the fidelity of Christ.
An old priest who was blind for many years before his death, liked to urge his penitents to renew their efforts with these inspirational lines:
“We are not here to play,
to dream, to drift.
We have good work to do,
and loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle.
Face it. Tis God’s gift.”
Temptation in one form or another is an unavoidable part of life. If we honestly examine our daily experience, we can find many aspects of temptation: impulses or tendencies counter to the right way of doing things. To rationalise away these temptations, so that they become socially acceptable and politically correct is itself an insidious temptation. We want to dictate for ourselves what is right and wrong, to draw for ourselves the boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour, unencumbered by any notional commandments of God. This is rather like Adam demanding to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Our real growth to Christian maturity comes by acknowledging and accepting the vocation of struggling against temptation, to achieve the kind of behaviour and attitudes Jesus expects. We must submit our behaviour to his gospel. Christ and Adam show the two opposite reactions in face of temptation: Adam, archetype of sinful, evasive, self-seeking humanity, finds plausible reasons to yield to it, and rebels against God’s will. Jesus, archetype of the new God-seeking man, resists temptation even repeatedly. It can only be conquered by this blend of patience and loyalty, supported by trust that what God requires of us is what is best for us.
Our Great Temptation
(José Antonio Pagola )
The scene of «Jesus’ temptations» is a story not to be superficially interpreted. The temptations described aren’t exactly of the moral order. The story is warning us of how we could ruin our lives if we leave the path that Jesus follows.
The first temptation is of decisive importance, since it can pervert and corrupt our life at its root. Apparently Jesus is being offered something innocent and good: put God at the service of his hunger. «If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves». His reply is profound: «Human beings live not on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God». Don’t make your own bread an absolute. Don’t put God at the service of your own interest, forgetting the Father’s project. Always seek first God’s reign and God’s justice. At every moment listen to God’s Word.
Our needs won’t get satisfied only by securing our bread. Human beings need and yearn for much more. In order to even rescue from hunger and misery those who don’t have bread, we need to listen to God our Father let our conscience feel the hunger for justice, compassion, solidarity.
The great temptation today is to change everything into bread: we reduce more and more the horizon of our lives to the mere satisfaction of our desires, we run around obsessed with a well-being that keeps growing larger, or make a consumerism that is without limits into our one and only goal. We deceive ourselves if we think that this is the path to progress and liberation. Don’t we see how a society that drags people to a consumerism without limits and to self-satisfaction, does nothing more than generate emptiness and meaninglessness in people, along with selfishness, alienation and irresponsibility in our living together?
Why does it startle us that the number of people who commit suicide grows tragically greater every day? Why do we keep ourselves closed up in our false wellbeing, raising even more inhumane barriers so that the hungry don’t get into our countries, can’t reach our neighborhoods or knock on our door?
Jesus’ call can help us to be more aware that human beings don’t live by bread alone. Human beings also need to cultivate the spirit, know love and friendship, develop solidarity with those who suffer, listen to our conscience responsibly, open ourselves to the final Mystery of a life with hope.
Saint Kieran, bishop
Kieran of Saigir, from Co. Cork, is numbered among the pre-Patrician saints of Ireland. He lived as a hermit in Ossory (Kilkenny), but was later joined by others with whom he founded a monastery. He is patron of the Ossory diocese.