Sunday, February 14, 2016

First Sunday of Lent - C: What can we not give up?



My Dear brothers and sister in Christ

Peace be with you. The question most associated with Lent is, of course, what did you give up? We tend to associate this time most closely with fasting. In my Ash Wednesday homily, I emphasized that the reason we fast during lent is not to lose weight but, rather, to make room for God in prayer and make room to be more loving to others. In the last few years, on Ash Wednesday I’ve noticed a few comments from my friends who no longer practice Catholicism but still remember what we do during lent saying that they are going to give up going to church or give up being a christian for lent. Now, of course, these statements aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Still, I think there’s something in them that our readings from today’s Mass are inviting us to reflect on.

The first reading and gospel both talk about an experience in the desert. The first reading described a creedal statement that the Israelites would have made when offering a portion of the first picking of their crops to God. Basically they say that God guided them into Egypt when they were near death and made them so abundant that the Egyptians were afraid of them and persecuted them. So he guided them through the dangers of the desert to the abundant land they were about to occupy. Basically, Moses is reminding them that, even though they may be afraid to give over the first picking because of the uncertainty of knowing that there will be other pickings and, thus, more food, when they trusted him before he didn’t let them down. Moses is inviting the people into an anamnesis, a way of remembering similar to the way Jesus invites us in each Eucharist to be part of the last supper. History comes alive and we share in the experience of those who came before us. We are invited to “Do this in anamnesis or memory of Jesus.”

The gospel, likewise, tells the familiar story of the Jesus in the desert. If you look at the organization of the temptations, you may notice that St. Luke organizes them differently than St. Mark and St. Matthew. For them, it goes bread, temple, world. For St. Luke, he starts with bread but then puts all the kingdoms of the world before they end in Jerusalem at the Temple. It’s clearly not a memory slip on the part of this evangelist. He is using the temptations in the desert to model the taunts of the soldiers while Jesus is hanging on the cross. Like the devil, they will invite Jesus to care for his own welfare, to make use his power over the government and to subvert the power of God. It’s particularly significant that St. Luke ends at the Temple in Jerusalem, so that Jerusalem becomes the place of culmination. One commentary I read had this beautiful explanation as to why St. Luke puts it last. “On that high place of the Temple, the devil takes the texts of the Torah to offer the dizzying suggestion that Jesus test his sonship against the promise of God to protect him. How clever? For what is the radical obedience of the servant except something very close to just such a blind leap? But Jesus does not succumb to this spiritual vertigo. He returns to the.. text of Deuteronomy ‘You will not test the Lord your God’: not only to rebuke the tempter but also to state the conviction of authentic faith.”

On Ash Wednesday, I said that the point of fasting is to make room in our busy lives for God, which is somewhat true. But, today we hear an even deeper, even more challenging part. Fasting reminds us of that which we cannot fast. We, Americans, aren’t accustomed to thinking in this way. We tend to be better collectors who, may, occasionally go through and throw things out or give them away to the poor but, for the most part, we collect more and more stuff. The desert experience of fasting in Lent, rather, challenges us to think in terms of who we cannot give up. Jesus is offered the love of pleasure in the offer of bread, the love of possessions in the offer of the world, and the love of glory on the parapet or peak of the temple. He turns them down with the same love that he showed from the cross when, he said, “Father into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

We show our devotion to God through daily personal prayer, through reaching out in love to the suffering and sorrowing, through gathering for the eucharist, and through celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. In each of these, we approach God with humility, setting aside our own selfish desires, and humbly reminding ourselves that we worship God alone and we do not put him to the test.