On the first Sunday in Lent, we find ourselves in the desert with Jesus and the devil. Why must our Lenten journey begin here?
Gospel (Read Lk. 4:1-13)
St. Luke tells us that after His baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.” We immediately sense that Jesus is on a mission. The first action of His public ministry is to retreat from the public and, in a solitary place, face God’s primordial enemy. Why?
Knowledge of salvation history helps us answer this question. In the Garden of Eden, a place of sublime delight, God’s enemy was allowed to tempt Adam and Eve to let their trust in God’s Fatherhood die (see CCC397). When they believed the serpent’s lies rather than God, they decided to disobey Him. We know the tragic consequence of that disobedience.
When God formed a people for Himself, the Israelites, they also experienced a time of testing. After they had been liberated from slavery in Egypt and had begun their journey home to the Promised Land, they had to sojourn in the desert, where they faced shortages of food and drink, attacks by their enemies, and the temptation to return to Egypt in their hearts by practicing the idolatry they had left behind there. God was teaching His people to trust Him, no matter what. They found this hard to do! Over and over, they, too, let their trust in God’s Fatherhood die. Even when they reached the Promised Land, they refused to take possession of it, fearing its inhabitants more than they feared God. This final disobedience resulted in forty years of wandering in the desert, until the hard-hearted generation got what they wanted—they died before they could ever step foot in Canaan.
Once we understand this history, Jesus’ mission in the desert to face the devil takes on greater meaning. First, He was willing to fast for forty days and nights. Adam and Eve fell for a tantalizing piece of fruit; the Israelites accused Moses of trying to kill them by starvation; Jesus willingly denied Himself food, giving the enemy no foothold. When the devil urged Him to “command this stone to become bread,” he knew that in the Sinai wilderness, God told Moses to speak to a rock and make it produce water (see Num 20:8). The subtle suggestion was, “Moses did it. So can You.” Jesus, however, knew the reason why God allowed His people to experience thirst and hunger. Quoting Scripture, He said, “One does not live on bread alone.” Trust in God keeps a man alive.
The devil tried another approach. Knowing that the Israelites always wanted to substitute a visible god for the invisible One, he tempted Jesus with visible earthly “power and glory” if He exchanged the worship of God for the worship of a lie. Jesus knew the reason why God prohibited idolatry, quoting the exact words of Scripture: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and Him alone shall you serve.” Worshipping a lie cannot produce life.
Finally, the devil struck at the core of what can rock a man’s trust in God: “… throw Yourself down from [the parapet of the temple].” In a truly diabolical twist, the devil himself quoted Scripture: “He will command His angels…to guard You.” In other words, “Make God show up. Surely He would never let You suffer.” Adam and Eve did not want to suffer the loss of what the forbidden fruit might do for them. The Israelites did not want to suffer the cost of trusting in a God they couldn’t see. The devil played on man’s conviction that suffering can’t be part of God’s plan for him.
Jesus’ answer silenced the devil, again using the words of Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Jesus knew that man cannot use suffering to force God’s hand; it cannot become an excuse to let trust in God’s Fatherhood die.
Now we know why the Spirit led Jesus into the desert. In this solitary, haunted place, He faced down the attacks from God’s enemy to which all other human beings had succumbed. In His own Person, He undid our mournful history. Something new was now beginning in the story of man. It was only the beginning, however. The devil “departed from him for a time.” Lent will keep us focused on the drama to follow.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, how thankful I am that You were willing to tangle with and defeat the devil on my behalf.
First Reading (Read Deut. 26:4-10)
Just before the Israelites were finally to enter the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering, Moses gave them many instructions about keeping their covenant with God. One thing he feared was that once the people had taken possession of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” a land they themselves had not cultivated, they would forget the God Who had delivered them and made their new life possible (see Deut 6:10-12). So, Moses instituted a “firstfruits” offering. This required the people to make a confession of faith before the altar. They were to review their history and acknowledge their utter dependence on God. Their words were to be accompanied by action, of course. They were to give back to the Lord the first “products of the soil, which they announced as having really come from Him. Then, they were to express their humility and gratitude by bowing “down in His presence.”
We see here, 1500 years before the birth of Jesus, the call to trust that has always been the bedrock of man’s relationship with God. Israel’s worship was meant to anchor them in humility and dependence on God, just as ours is. We also make offerings at Mass: our money, the goods of our life on earth (the bread and wine), and ourselves. Our worship is meant to enable us to withstand the devil’s temptations, because now we face them in Jesus.
If we have lost this perspective, if our proportions are all wrong, if have succumbed to the lies of our enemy, Lent is the time to shake off the old and put on the new. If we have forgotten the God Who saves us, Lent is a time for remembering.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, help me hear the call to self-examination and renewal of trust in You this Lent.
Psalm (Read Ps. 91:1-2, 10-15)
Here is the psalm the devil partially quoted to Jesus as he tempted Him in the desert. It is, indeed, a song of God’s promise to protect with angelic help those who love Him. However, the devil didn’t quote the confession of faith with which the psalm begins: “…say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.’” The psalm promises help for those who call upon God, who “cling” to Him, who “acknowledge His Name.” First comes trust in God’s Fatherhood, then comes His deliverance. It cannot be the other way around (“deliver me, Lord, then I will trust in You”), which is what the devil urged on Jesus. When we have this right, we can sing with the psalmist, “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Rom. 10:8-13)
In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul emphasizes that salvation is available to all who call upon the Name of the Lord, Jew and Gentile alike. What does it mean to “call upon the Name of the Lord”? St. Paul says it means to believe with the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead (He is the Divine Son of God) and to “confess with [the] mouth that Jesus is Lord” (we owe Him our lives). There is a visible and an invisible element in the faith that saves. In other words, we live what we believe, just as Moses taught the people to do in the offering of the firstfruits and just as Jesus did in the temptation in the desert.
To live what we believe—Lent now gives us an opportunity to check ourselves. Is our faith both visible and invisible?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I need Your grace this Lent to truly live what I believe.