First Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7;
Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned
The Trials-Temptations in the Missionary Journey of Christ (and of His Disciples)
With Ash Wednesday, we began the season of Lent, in which we set out with the whole Church towards the Easter of Christ’s resurrection. It is always the “venerable and sacred time,” as the Church reminds us in today’s liturgy (Prayer over the Offerings). 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 Trials-Temptations in Jesus’ Journey after His Baptism
It is important to remember that Jesus’ three temptations of Jesus took place right after His baptism in the Jordan. Therefore, the same Spirit of God, which had descended upon Jesus earlier, now led Him into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil,” as emphasized in the Gospel. The trials-temptations that Jesus faced in His life after His baptism in the Jordan River evoke the forty years the People of God spent in the desert after the Red Sea crossing. During this period, Israel had to face various difficulties and many hardships that repeatedly provoked temptations against its faith/faithfulness in God who saves. Israel’s story also becomes the image of the post-baptismal journey of every believer and his/her faith, which is exposed to continuous trials-temptations throughout life.
With this in mind, the forty days of Lent that we are living now will be a kind of metaphor (of miniature) of our journey of the life of faith towards the final victory of the resurrection. Therefore, these days must always be lived in this Paschal perspective, that is, in view of Easter, as the Pope reminds us in this year’s Message for Lent; and this is true both on the liturgical and existential level.
The emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit is 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.
2. The True Bread and True Trust in God along the Way
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 (as underlined in today’s Gospel), 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). 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). On the other hand, Jesus’ teaching highlighted the indispensable role of the Word of God and therefore the need to listen to it in every believer’s life. It is the necessary bread for everyone on his/her way, also and above all in this Lenten season.
Then, 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. This will be true trust in God in the life and mission of every faithful person, as it was for Christ.
3. “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve”. The fundamental principle of the believer’s life
In the end, 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). Furthermore, the principle proclaimed by Jesus reflects the famous profession of faith “Shema Israel” in Dt 6,4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” Worshipping the One God will be the expression of exclusive love for Him, and this will be the non-negotiable fundamental principle in the life of faith. It should be kept in mind in the fight against any temptation to compromise with the Tempter for any easy but ephemeral riches, glory, and success! Such worship in love will be the final victory of faith and faithfulness to God in the life of every believer.
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.