FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (YEAR C)
St. Colette Boylet, Virgin and Franciscan; St. Ollegarius of Tarragona, Bishop; Blessed Rose of Viterbo, Virgin, Franciscan
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble
Toward a Missionary Christian Conversion
Time flies and we arrive at a new Lent of our life. It is always the “venerable and sacred time,” as the Church reminds us in today’s liturgy (Prayer over the Offerings). Moreover, as Pope Francis recalled in his Lenten message for 2022, “Lent is a favorable time of personal and community renewal, as it leads us to the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Therefore, we all are called to live this Lenten season again, indeed, to “celebrate” it as a “sacramental sign of our conversion” (Collect Prayer in Italy). This leads to a true and sincere renewal of our Christian faith and life, whose missionary dimension is constitutive and, therefore, to be (re)discovered and (re)lived. It is not by chance that we asked God in the Collect Prayer to help us his faithful to “grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.” Actually, the Word of God of this first Sunday of Lent offers us some important hints to know better Christ and his true mission, and consequently to better live our vocation as Christians, that is, as “followers of Christ.”
1. The Way of Christ “Led by the Spirit”
I would like to call today’s Gospel passage not as “The temptations of Jesus”, but as “The way of Christ with the Spirit in the desert.” This is what the evangelist Luke wanted to emphasize at the beginning of the episode, as well as throughout his gospel. The Holy Spirit was intimately connected with Jesus from the moment of conception and accompanied him in every stage of his earthly mission. After all, the classic Latin liturgical introduction of the passage “In illo tempore” “at that time” (the phrase occurs in many non-English Lectionaries) refers to the very moment after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit again descended on him. (The English version of today’s Gospel starts meaningfully with “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit…”)
Such an emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit is also important for the journey of every Christian, i.e. Christ’s disciple, particularly in this Lenten season. May Lent never be just a period of pious practices of penance and good ethical and/or social works, but it should also and above all be a time of life renewal in the Spirit. In other words, please do not start this Holy Season, thinking about some good intentions and works (and then get lost in them in the end) as the ultimate purpose to live fruitfully the forty days to come. Rather, please care primarily about how to renew your personal relationship with the Spirit of God, that Holy Spirit each of us has received at the moment of baptism, of confirmation, and, in the case of some, at the moment of diaconal, priestly, or even episcopal ordination. It is time to allow ourselves to be “led by the Spirit,” again and even more intensely and more intimately, just like Christ in his life and mission, especially in his forty days in the desert. It will therefore be a joyful time with Christ in the Spirit, even if one will have to face everything that happens along the way, including fatigue, hunger and thirst, and temptations. It will therefore be a time of grace, of purification, of reorganizing Christian life and mission according to the dictates and inspirations of the Spirit, following the exemplary words and deeds of Christ.
In this regard, the heartfelt exhortations of St. Paul the Apostle to the first Christians will always be relevant, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1Thes 5:19), and “Do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30). Likewise, we should keep in mind this Lent Pope Francis’ recent recall in his message for World Mission Sunday 2022: “All Christ’s missionary disciples are called to recognize the essential importance of the Spirit’s work, to dwell in his presence daily and to receive his unfailing strength and guidance. Indeed, it is precisely when we feel tired, unmotivated or confused that we should remember to have recourse to the Holy Spirit in prayer. Let me emphasize once again that prayer plays a fundamental role in the missionary life, for it allows us to be refreshed and strengthened by the Spirit as the inexhaustible divine source of renewed energy and joy in sharing Christ’s life with others.” The prayer mentioned here must be understood in a global sense that embraces the actions of invoking the Spirit, of listening to the Word of God in the Spirit, of meditating and discerning everything with the Spirit. Always and everywhere, especially in the moment of trial and temptation.
2. The Temptations in Jesus’ Mission
Even if the evangelists Luke and Matthew only tell us about three temptations of Jesus in the desert, which then only occur at the end of the forty days, it is clear that the number and the moment are rather representative. So much so that the Gospel of Mark emphasizes the essential: “[Jesus] remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:13). This is taken up and emphasized even more in Luke with the initial statement (“[Jesus] was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil”) and in the final one (“When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time”). Thus, following the inauguration of his public activities with the baptism in the Jordan, Jesus will have to face the reality of the trials-temptations along the entire journey of his mission, whose emblematic image is that period in the desert. This is the common experience of those who want to serve God, fulfilling the divine mission, as can already be seen in Abraham, father of faith, and also in Adam, the first man. It is no coincidence that the sage Sirach teaches (not without the Spirit’s inspiration): “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, / prepare yourself for trials. / Be sincere of heart and steadfast, / and do not be impetuous in time of adversity” (Sir 2:1-2). Willingly or not, in the life and mission of every disciple of God there are trials and temptations that come from the “flesh” (human nature), from the “world” (environment adverse to God), and from the Evil One (cf. 1Jn 2:16-17; 5:19). All this diverts human beings from the path traced by God for them and, ultimately, divides humanity from their God.
In this perspective, Jesus has also suffered various temptations in carrying out the entrusted divine mission, not only to be in solidarity with every disciple of God, but also to clarify to everyone the true nature of his mission as the Son of God. In this regard, the Homiletic Directory rightly and authoritatively states, “The temptations that Jesus undergoes are a struggle against a distortion of his messianic task. The devil is tempting him to be a Messiah who displays divine powers. ‘If you are the Son of God…’ the tempter begins. This foreshadows the ultimate struggle that Jesus will undergo on the cross, where he hears the mocking words: ‘Save yourself if you are the Son of God and come down from the cross.’ Jesus does not yield to the temptations of Satan, nor does he come down from the cross. Precisely in this way, Jesus proves that He truly enters the desert of human existence and does not use His divine power for His own benefit. He really accompanies our life’s pilgrimage and reveals in it the true power of God, which is love ‘to the very end’ (Jn 13:1)” (no. 61).
Thus, going into the details of the three temptations but without getting lost in the various possible interpretations, by refusing to transform the stone in bread after the devil’s suggestion, Jesus emphasizes the primary purpose of his evangelizing mission is to take care of the hunger for the Word of God among the people. He will certainly perform the miracle of the multiplication of the bread to feed the people in the desert place, but it will only be the sign of the gift of the true Bread from heaven, which is He himself, the incarnate Word of God. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
By refusing to bow down before the devil to receive the (political) power and glory of earthly kingdoms, Jesus reaffirms the one true God as the center of his life, worship and adoration, and therefore, of his mission. In fact, at the hour of the Passion, he will reiterate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).
Finally, Jesus refused to act as the devil suggested in base of the very words of God in a psalm, and to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple, in order to spectacularly prove his messianic nature in front of the people and the Jewish religious leaders. Thus, Jesus said no to the frequent attempt (indeed, I would say, perennial attempt) to abuse the Word of God for one’s own gain, to bend God’s will to his/her own, to apply His Words according to the human vision. In this, Jesus stands in contrast to the arrogant and unfaithful attitude of the People of God at Massa and Meriba in the desert, “there your ancestors tested me / they tried me though they had seen my works” (Ps 95:9). In the same spirit, Jesus will later refuse to perform a “special sign” at the request of the religious authorities to prove his messianic mission. Instead, he will place everything in the hands of God who will reveal and prove His Messiah when and how, exclusively according to His divine plan.
3. The Victory of Faith and Faithfulness (Fidelity) to God
In this way, Jesus has suffered and overcome temptations, “leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1Pt 2:21) in the journey of faith of his followers, called to continue his divine mission of proclaiming the Gospel of God in the world. Here, the teaching of the Catechism emphasizes the fundamental spiritual meaning of the event: “The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event [of Jesus’ temptations]: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfils Israel’s vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals himself as God’s Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: he “binds the strong man” to take back his plunder. Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father” (no. 539).
The forty days of Lent are then a propitious time for a renewal of faith and faithfulness (fidelity) in God and in his Son, which is the “winning weapon” of the “children of God” against the temptations of evil, just as Jesus did. This attitude of absolute faith / faithfulness comes above all from gratitude for the many benefits God has bestowed in the life of every believer, as seen in the profession of faith of every member of the people of Israel in the First Reading. Above all, it comes from gratitude for God’s greatest gift for us: Jesus Christ his Son, who died in love and has risen for the salvation of the world. With Him and in Him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we embark on the Lenten journey of this year to live with a renewed spirit our Christian life and the mission God has given us in Christ.