First Sunday of Lent First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:4-10 Responsorial: Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15 Second Reading: Romans 10:8-13 Gospel Passage: Luke 4:1-13
Do you remember being “sophomoric?” I do. Passion and energy are the great gifts of the young who bring new perspectives and refresh the communities that they inhabit. But of course, there is another side to youth – the strength of conviction can also be dismissive of the wisdom of others. The sophomoric, for all their lack of experience, know already what is right for everyone and everything. Is this pitfall a by product of the enthusiasm of the young, or is it something else? I cannot help thinking that the typical college sophomore is also in a moment in life when he or she is trying to establish a presence and identity of his or her own. There is great irony here as the sophomore asserts personal identity, but does so unrealistically, convinced that he or she has the answers that everyone else in the history of time has been to slow to recognize. Fortunately, the humbling effect of experience usually cures any sophomoric tendencies.
The alienation that exists between God and humanity, between humanity and creation, and among persons is a defining characteristic of human existence. With this alienation comes the inescapable reality of sin. We are at the beginning of an annual season of repentance that attempts to overcome sin and repair broken relationships with God, creation, and one another. Part of the purpose of the season involves our efforts to repent, to impose self-discipline, and to live more integrated human lives. But we would be spiritual sophomores if we thought that we could accomplish such grave and vast tasks by our own lights.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul prepares for his visit by explaining some of the fundamental aspects of his own experience and of the Christian life. Remember that Paul, in his previous life as a Pharisee, believed that he possessed a sure path to God. He was so sure that he was willing to impose that path on others, going so far as to use coercive violence. Jesus undoes Paul on the road to Damascus by revealing Himself, and the truth that Paul was wrong in such actions. Paul’s response to that mystical encounter was necessarily repentance. And yet it to this “least of apostles” that Jesus entrusted the crucial role of carrying the gospel to the very people that Paul once despised, the pagans of the gentile world. In his letters, Paul reveals his ongoing awe and astonishment at the unbounded grace of the gift he received.
In this particular passage, Paul addresses the nature of baptism. He wants his Christian believers to understand that God has chosen and transformed them, not for their gifts, or righteousness, or for their identity as Jew or Greek – but as pure gift – the grace of a loving God Who offers a bridge where people could not build one.
First and foremost, Lent is a season of grace. It is not a mere matter of our penitential practices, but a coming to awareness of what God has wrought in history and in our own lives. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, we see Moses instructing the people in the practice of offering the first fruits of the land to God. The people have received everything from the Lord: their land and that that which comes from it, their freedom, their identity as the chosen people, and life itself. The first fruits are a concrete expression of this dependence upon God – the same dependence that is at the heart of the poetry in the responsorial psalm.
In the case of the gospel passage, we hear from Luke about the “temptations” in the desert. While we might wish to draw a moral lesson from Jesus’ refusals to embrace worldly domination, the real purpose of the passage concerns Jesus’ identity. Recall that he has just been revealed as the “beloved Son.” His faithfulness is perfect and complete. The devil can only offer “ifs:” “if you are the Son,” “if you worship me.” Jesus responds with clear truth, trust in the Father, and faithfulness that will stand at the center of the events to come on Calvary.
As we begin our spiritual and charitable practices for Lent, we might want to recall their purpose and context. We acknowledge that we cannot restore our world, the human race, or even ourselves to God by any power other than the grace that has been given to us in God’s gift of His Son for our redemption. True repentance is not an invention of our own. It is a response to the enormity of the new identity offered to us in baptism. As it was for Paul, it is an astonished, anguished, joyful, trusting, and joyful calling upon the Name of the Lord!