Responding to Temptations, First Sunday of Lent (A), March 13, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry

St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA

First Sunday of Lent, Year A

March 13, 2011

Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11


The following text guided this homily:

Responding to Temptations

  • In his beautiful Lenten message written to the Catholics of the world, Pope Benedict tells us very clearly what this Sunday is all about: “The First Sunday of the Lenten journey reveals our condition as human beings here on earth. The victorious battle against temptation, the starting point of Jesus’ mission, is an invitation to become aware of our own fragility in order to accept the Grace that frees from sin and infuses new strength in Christ – the way, the truth and the life. It is a powerful reminder that Christian faith implies, following the example of Jesus and in union with him, a battle “against the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world” (Eph 6: 12), in which the devil is at work and never tires – even today – of tempting whoever wishes to draw close to the Lord: Christ emerges victorious to open also our hearts to hope and guide us in overcoming the seductions of evil.”
  • Pope Benedict built on this in his Ash Wednesday catechesis in which he said, “The First Sunday of Lent, called Temptation Sunday because it focuses on the temptations of Christ in the desert, invites us to renew our definitive decision for God and courageously to confront the fight that awaits us to remain faithful to Christ. There’s always the need to make a choice, to resist evil, to follow Jesus.”
  • The same devil who tempted Jesus in the desert, the same serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the first reading, will tempt us, and we are called to imitate Jesus in boldly battling against Satan. The whole reason why we have this Gospel today is because Jesus himself wanted us to know what he went through so that we can learn from him. There were no other eyewitnesses. Jesus himself must have described for St. Matthew and the other apostles what occurred at the end of his 40 days in the Judean desert so that they might never forget two things:
    • 1) Recognize that the devil exists and is at perpetual war not only with God but also with us.
    • 2) Recognize what means will defeat the devil’s desire to destroy us and God’s image in us forever.
  • There are some people who like to pretend that the devil is just some phantasm of medieval theology who dresses in a red jump suit, carries a pitchfork and whispers evil things over our left shoulder. Once people set up this straw-Satan it’s somewhat easy to dismiss him. But this really isn’t who the devil is. The devil is an evil spirit who rejected God’s plans for the human race.
    • It’s impossible to be a good Christian and not recognize the presence of the devil. One of Jesus’ most famous works was exorcisms. He was routinely healing those who were possessed by demons. He sent out his apostles with the power to expel demons. And they did. St. Peter was so aware of the presence of the devil that he warned the first Christians that the devil “prowls like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.” In baptism, we confess our recognition of the reality of the devil when we explicitly reject Satan, all his evil works and all his empty promises. It’s impossible for us to take our baptismal promises seriously unless we believe in the devil, because we profess our rejection of Satan, all his worthless promises and his evil works.
    • There’s been a healthy recent return, even in Hollywood movies, to the incontestable presence of the devil in the world. In the last decade there have been several movies on exorcism, including the recently released movie, The Rite, who amalgamated various true stories of how the devil showed himself in those who were possessed. The phenomena observed in exorcisms, people speaking ancient languages they’ve never learned backwards, puny teenage girls all of a sudden being stronger than several muscular men three times their size, knowing some of the secret sins of those present, people spitting up nails and other junk, really occur. For us not to take the presence and purpose of the devil seriously would be even more irresponsible than for the U.S. to pretend that Al Qaeda doesn’t exist.
  • The second thing we need to know is how to defeat the devil.
    • For most of us, the means is not to call an exorcist because we, thanks be to God, are not possessed. Jesus didn’t need to be exorcised. The apostles didn’t need to be exorcised. St. Anthony didn’t need to be exorcised. The vast majority of us will never need the extraordinary means of exorcism but rather we need — and need to take advantage of — the ordinary means God gives us. What are they?
    • The first is the Sacrament of Confession, whereby after we, like Adam and Eve, have sinned, after we have gotten ourselves dirty in the filth of sin, after we’ve wandered from the Father’s house and love, we come back, with sorrow we beg for God’s forgiveness, and we allow him to cleanse us anew like he cleansed us on the day of our baptism. The devil absolutely wants to do everything possible to keep us from going to confession, to keep us from returning to the state of grace, to keep us in his clutches. And we have to be honest: he has triumphed with so many people in this way, getting them first to sin and then to convince them either that they don’t need God’s forgiveness or get them to put off coming to receive it. He wants to get us to used to living with mortal sins on our soul so that we treat them as not that big a deal, so that, for example, we’ll come to confession once a year and then give a list of mortal sins, of voluntarily missed Sunday Masses, of lying, of cheating, of failure to pray, of blasphemy, of bad words, deeds and omissions toward  family members, friends or co-workers. If we’re going to defeat the devil, we need the Sacrament of Confession. That’s where Jesus expels demons from our lives.
    • The second thing Jesus gives us are the Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, which strengthen us against the three main categories of temptations the devil uses against us. We see these three main categories in the temptations Jesus withstood in the Gospel.
      • The first is to focus on material hunger rather than spiritual hunger — Jesus had fasted for 40 days and it was understandable that, at least at a physical level, he would have been physically weak. In the temptation to change stones shaped like loaves into bread, Jesus was faced with the temptation to seek to satisfy above all his earthly hunger, to focus on getting a this-worldly meal, to use his talents for his own benefit rather than for God and others. What was his response? He cited the Word of God that we don’t live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. He prioritized his spiritual hunger over his material hunger. He found his life in something other than three-squares a day. We need to learn from this. Many of us, even though we say we believe in God, practically live as materialists. We work so hard to put food in our refrigerator and on our tables, but don’t work as hard or at all to nourish ourselves spiritually. That’s why we’re vulnerable to the devil’s temptations. Fasting precisely helps us to reorder everything, to say no to the devil’s temptations to prioritize our stomach rather than our soul. When it comes to fasting, many of us, as I’ve been saying, are sissies. We fast a little, rather than fast boldly. What would you think about a professional football player who works out by lifting five-pound barbells rather than does serious weight-lifting? He wouldn’t stand a chance on the field. Well we think we can be strengthened to battle against the devil just by giving up some sweets. We need to do more. But there’s another part: we need to feed off the word of God. What are we filling ourselves with. Pope Benedict said on Wednesday, “We do not fasting truly unless we are being nourished by the Word of God.”
      • The second is to distort our relationship with God, becoming presumptuous, getting him to get us out of jams rather than putting him first and seeking to do his will. Parapet of the temple. Prayer.
      • The third is to distort our relationship with others. To have dominion over them, rather than to serve them. Almsgiving.

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 GN 2:7-9; 3:1-7

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being.

Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and placed there the man whom he had formed.
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals
that the LORD God had made.
The serpent asked the woman,
“Did God really tell you not to eat
from any of the trees in the garden?”
The woman answered the serpent:
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;
it is only about the fruit of the tree
in the middle of the garden that God said,
‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’”
But the serpent said to the woman:
“You certainly will not die!
No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it
your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods
who know what is good and what is evil.”
The woman saw that the tree was good for food,
pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.
So she took some of its fruit and ate it;
and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized that they were naked;
so they sewed fig leaves together
and made loincloths for themselves.

Responsorial Psalm PS 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17

R/ (cf. 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Reading 2 ROM 5:12-19

Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by the transgression of the one, the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned.
For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation;
but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act,
acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one,
the many will be made righteous.

Gospel MT 4:1-11

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply,
“It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God

Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone
Jesus answered him,
“Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
“Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve

Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.