Fifteenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
First Sunday of Lent
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
Lent is a strange time of year mentally. Even more than in Advent and at Christmas, in Lent we are actually called upon to re-examine life and the world and our place in it, to re-assess where we are and where we’re going. Part of that process can involve the customary giving up of certain pleasures (like candy or drinking) or habits (like nail-biting or hitting the snooze button), or even the taking on of additional activities or responsibilities (like going to daily Mass or visiting the sick). But maybe we can also try something a bit simpler yet deeper, by zooming in on the details of the things we experience every day and learning to see them as they are, on their own terms. Everything and everyone has a character and a journey all its own beyond what we may see, even if we see them regularly, and that character and journey can greatly affect and inform our own. For example, the readings today involve stories with which most of us who know the basics of Judeo-Christianity are familiar: the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Yet perhaps there is more to these stories and the concepts they exhibit – i.e., salvation, temptation, confession – than our casual familiarity may be aware of. Perhaps here too we can extend a Lenten discipline of taking nothing for granted.
In the First Reading, Moses instructs the Israelites to offer to God the “firstfruits” of their harvest. These offerings were not uncommon in the ancient world – it’s one reason temples had treasuries – and a form of it exists in the modern Church in the form of tithing and the offertory collections that are primary means of support for parish clergy, staff and maintenance. So the important part, the extraordinary part of the story is not that this offering is being instituted, but why it’s being instituted. Remember: Israel was to be different from the other nations surrounding it in its practices and its conduct, different enough that their way of life would act as an example. So too with this firstfruits offering, which is to be accompanied by a declaration of why the offering is being made: “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us…we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry. …[B]ringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.” Not only did God answer their prayer by delivering them from Egyptian oppression – and in awesome fashion – but He also set them up in the land from which they now reap a harvest. And so a portion is given back to God in thanksgiving, with a solemn declaration reminding them – and us – that is God who provides for every need, and it is Man who must never take that generosity for granted. A gift that is expected is no gift, and gratitude that does not seek to repay is not gratitude.
Even the devil himself reminds us of this fact in the Gospel reading, as he assaults a physically weakened Jesus in the story of the temptation (Latin tentatio, attack) in the desert. The devil makes three demands of Jesus: that He turn stones into bread by means of His divine power; that He worship him instead of God in exchange for possession of all kingdoms of the world; and that He throw Himself from the top of the Temple and rely on the Father to send angels to catch Him. In response to the first two demands, Jesus tells the devil essentially what He tells us in His great Sermon: that life is more than food and the body is more than clothing. Jesus has no need or desire, even in this weakened state, to exercise His power or to bargain with the Prince of This World, for He relies on God to save (Latin salvare, to preserve, sustain) Him, just as God saved the Israelites. So in the third demand it is that reliance on God that the devil will test, by putting Jesus in a situation where He will have to call on God to save Him: “Throw yourself down from here.” The devil, for all his faults, remains one who believes in his heart; he knows, as Jesus does, that God can send legions of angels to protect Him. It seems, for the tempter, a wonderful Catch-22, for even if Jesus calls upon the Father to thwart the devil, the devil still proves his point. Heads, I win; tails, you lose.
But Jesus does not fall victim to the temptation. In fact, He doesn’t even flip the devil’s coin; he stands it on its edge, using words of the Law that undergird even the instructions in the First Reading: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” These words apply, of course, in a very literal way to Jesus, being both true God and true Man. But they serve as a guide for us as well, in our more subtle battles in faith. Reliance on the salvation (Latin salus, health, well-being) promised by God is a two-fold action; it must be internal and external at the same time. Christianity is the religion of the “both/and.” To have either an internal belief or an external belief is not enough. Jesus is both true God and true Man; man will always have both a body and a soul; we both demonstrate faith through works and generate works through faith; we take God into ourselves both spiritually through prayer and physically through Holy Communion. We live not on bread alone, but on both bread and the Word.
Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Romans from which comes our Second Reading, expresses it this way: “[O]ne believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Talking in public about God cannot be enough; it does nothing for you or for God. Having a private relationship with God cannot be enough; it does nothing for anyone who’s not you, including God. We need to realize more fully all the time that God’s promise is both “in your mouth and in your heart,” as Paul quotes from the Law. That is why the Israelites gave back from their livelihood to the God Whose salvation made that livelihood possible. That is why Jesus was able to best the devil’s “either/or” attacks, showing us how to do the same in the process. And that is why Paul instructs the Church to both believe (Latin credere, to trust) and confess (Latin confiteri, to acknowledge) their salvation, which is now fully effected by both the Death and the Resurrection of the God-Man.
“[E]veryone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” Paul reminds us. It was true for the Israelites in Egypt, it has been true for the Church, and it is true for everyone today. But it can never be a selfish act, or half-hearted, or born of a sense of entitlement. Otherwise, it’s simply a cry for help. He may answer a cry for help (or He may not), but it’s not the same thing. To call upon the name of the Lord, to invoke Him so personally into your affairs, is an action that must presuppose an authentic belief in Him – not in what we think He is, not in what we want Him to be, but in Him as He has revealed Himself. It is a request that can only really be made from seeing God for What He is and on His own terms. It’s a choice to go deeper into the mystery of the God Who is Love, the God Who is weak and strong at the same time, the God Who is the Just Judge and the Divine Mercy, the God Who became Man so that Man could become God. It is an acceptance and a proclamation of the God of the “both/and,” and what that has to mean for us and for everything around us when we both believe and confess that it is true.
The devil will come to us all before long, and in ways we may not expect. It’s his job; it’s what he does. And we will know him for sure because he will present a choice: either God or us. May we always have the strength, the wisdom, and the courage to choose the former. And if he dares tell us to call on the name of God to save ourselves, may we look right into his eyes and say: “You first.”