Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
February 22, 2015
Gen 9:8-15, Ps 25, 1 Pet 3:18-22, Mk 1:12-15
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
Coming with Christ to a Deserted Place
Most people have no desire at all to go to the desert, certainly for no more than a brief visit. But after all the snow in the last month and the subzero temperatures, many of us would admit that the desert is looking a lot more appealing! At a spiritual level, however, we should always have a great love for the desert, because the desert is what helps us to understand the 40-day pilgrimage of Lent, in which we join and imitate Jesus in the desert and ponder the fruits of what he learned and experienced there upon his return. Every Lent, the same Holy Spirit whom we read in today’s Gospel drove Jesus into the desert wants to drive us into the desert with him. Lent is meant to help us recapitulate Christ’s 40 days away from everything so that we, apart from every distraction, can focus on our relationship with God and others and on who we are and, with Christ’s help, can confront and overcome the way that the devil seeks to distort those relations and that image.
To go into the desert is increasingly difficult for people today. We’re so connected that if we are out of cell phone range we can easily feel totally lost. On preached retreats, it’s becoming harder by the year for people to be silent exteriorly and interiorly. While the Lord is not calling us all physically to go to the Nevada desert, he is calling us to the state of the desert, removing ourselves from distractions, from the television, computer, radio, newspaper, and the various things that may be fine in themselves but crowd our lives with noise so that we can’t hear God and with clutter so that we can’t see God. The first temptation we face in Lent is to refuse to go into the desert with Christ, to think that our Lent can be complete if, for example, all we do is give up chocolate and potato chips. The first big hurdle is for us to hear Christ’s voice from the desert saying, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mk 6:31).
The Conversion that Happens in the Desert
The next lesson we need to grasp is what is supposed to be the fruit of that time in the desert. What does the Holy Spirit who drives us to this Lenten desert experience want to help us to achieve? Jesus shares this lesson with us as soon as he finished that first 40 day retreat. He returned saying, “Repent and believe in the good news.” These are the words he shared with us on Ash Wednesday, as our foreheads were marked in the sign of the Cross with ashes. To repent — what metanoia means in Greek — is to revolutionize the way we look at things, at the world, at ourselves, at others, so that we might put on the way Christ looks at things. It means to turn one’s thoughts upside down, or better right side up. It’s as if we’ve been going in one direction and Jesus tells us, “Stop, turn around and go in the opposite direction.” He’s not calling us to a slight course correction, not to a one or two degree turn, but to something far closer to 180 degree turn, a radical conversion. He wants us to examine all those parts of our life that are not in alignment with him and convert in such a day that we begin to turn with him (which is what con-vertere means).
When we look at the way the devil tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, we see the three fundamental ways we can get out of spiritual alignment and can learn from Christ how in Lent to seek to press the reset button in our spiritual life to come back into alignment. As St. Matthew and St. Luke indicate to us in their larger descriptions of Jesus’ time in the desert, the devil subjected him to “every temptation” (Lk 4:13), and those can be summarized as temptations to disorder his relationship with God, with others and with himself.
The Three Disorders Toward Which the Devil Tempts Us
The first was to disorder his relationship with God, indicated by the temptation to throw himself off the parapet of the temple presuming that God would save him by sending his angels to prevent his even dashing his foot against a stone. The devil seeks to tempt us, in short, to commit spiritual suicide, to believe that God will prevent any harm to us or others if we do something fatally risky. The devil tries to get us to get us to jump off of various cliffs and then blame God for letting us suffer. Jesus shows that the proper response is never to put the Lord our God to the test, but in fact to love him and throw ourselves into his arms rather than from dangerous precipices into sin.
The second temptation was to disorder our relationships with others. The devil promised that he would give him rule over all the cities, to be in control over everyone else, to have them serve him rather than he serve them, if only he would take the bargain of falling down before the devil in homage. Jesus resisted the temptation toward this type of diabolical control by quoting Scripture about worshipping and serving the Lord our God alone. And when we do so, we seek to serve others made in that God’s image and likeness, reverencing the Lord in them, seeking to serve them with love rather than be served, to lay down our lives for them as Christ himself did.
The third temptation was to disorder our relationship with ourselves, using what God has given us egocentrically for our own purposes rather than for God and others. This is shown in the temptation the devil gave to Jesus to change stones into bread after forty days of hunger. How strong this temptation must have been! But Jesus replied that we live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from God’s mouth. We’re supposed to use our talents not selfishly but for God, others, and ultimately for ourselves, that the word of God may be done in us.
The Three Remedies Christ Proposes to Turn Things Right Side Up
In response to these three fundamental temptations, Jesus not only shows us how to resist with the power of the Word of God but also as Divine Physician prescribes for us the medicine on Ash Wednesday when he speaks about the three traditional Lenten practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These help us to become stronger against the devil’s seductions to disorder our relationship with God, others and ourselves respectively. They constitute a crucial part of our Lenten penitence. They are part of living with Jesus in the desert and entering into his resistance of every temptation.
In terms of prayer, when we pray in our inner room in intimacy with God the Father, we make him our priority. Perhaps the biggest sin most people are guilt guilty of is pushing God to the periphery of our lives. We pray only when we need something. We pray only a few minutes a day. But this is simply not consistent with really believing in God and loving him above every other love. It’s also dangerous. The devil well knows that for many of us he would never be able to convince us never to pray. So what he tries to do is to get us to think that we’re too busy to pray much and that God doesn’t really care about our praying more than when we can, after we’ve done all of the things that we treat as practically more important than time with him. St. John Paul II talked about this in his great document Novo Millennio Ineunte at the beginning of this millennium. We had a chance to ponder it at Mass at his tomb on Tuesday. He wrote, “It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.’ They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes,’ accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions.” That’s the devil’s draw play: to get us to accept a shallow prayer life so that he can eventually draw us away from the Lord into superstitutions and eventually into spiritual oblivion. He wants to lead us into that truly risky situation. That’s why increasing the quantity and quality of our prayer time in the Lenten desert is what will have the most dramatic impact in changing us and turning around our minds and hearts. Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. The more we seek God’s will in prayer, the more time we spend praising him, thanking him, begging for his forgiveness and confiding to him for what we and others need, the more we will become like him and love what he loves. As the devil wants to tempt us toward minimalizing prayer, the Spirit wants to drive us into the desert with Jesus so that our whole lives will be characterized by prayer.
In terms of the medicine for the distortion of our relationship with others, Jesus prescribes almsgiving. The truth is, succumbing to the devil’s subtle or plain temptations, we often seek to use others for our ends and to ignore them if they don’t fit into our own ends. We often see ourselves in a competitive survival of the fittest with them rather than loving cooperation with them. We may assuage our consciences reminding ourselves that a few times this week or this month or this year we’ve done some acts of charity, but for a follower of Jesus charity must become a way of life. That’s what real almsgiving does. Jesus gave everything for us and told us to love others as he has loved us. He became the Good Samaritan and rescued us and told us to go and do the same. Almgiving is not just about sacrificing our things or our time, but ultimately sacrificing ourselves. A Christian is supposed to be a person for God and others; that’s what the devil wants to distort and that’s what Jesus, especially in Lent, wants to fortify.
The third distortion that the Divine Physician wants to cure is of our relationship with the material order. So often we can prioritize our material needs, living for the pleasure of our bodies. We can become hedonists, people whose happiness is defined in terms of the meals we eat, the drinks we consume, the human experiences we can accumulate. God doesn’t call us to give up all the good things of this world he created good, but he does call us to a deeper form of happiness, prioritizing our soul. That’s why fasting is so important. The only way we can learn to live by every word that comes from God’s mouth is by not living on bread alone, on material things alone. Fasting helps us to cut our dependence, because either we control our appetites or they control us. When we do, begin to hunger for what God hungers for. Fasting opens us up in gratitude to God’s providence, his giving us each day our daily bread, in caring for others who are in material need.
So a crucial part of our repentance and belief in the Gospel, of our Lenten desert experience, is entering into Jesus’ prayer, almsgiving and fasting. In the first reading, we encounter Noah and the second chance God gave the human race after the flood. In order to be saved, you needed to be on the ark. The Fathers of the Church eventually said that the Ark is Peter’s boat the Church: to be saved, you needed to be in the Boat. But we know that the Church is ultimately Jesus’ mystical body. To be saved we need to be a member of his body, we need to enter into him, and that means entering into his prayer, his fasting, his almsgiving, his life, death and resurrection. Every Lent, we examine whether we’re fully in Him who is the ark and grasp that to the extent we are, we’re alive and to the extent any part of us is not, then that part is dead.
The Evangelical Counsels
In this Year for Consecrated Life that began November 30, which is meant to influence everything that happens in the Church this year, it’s very important for us to let this ecclesiastical holy year flavor our Lent. As we’ve been noting for the last three months, the consecrated life is distinguished above all by the living of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in union with the poor, chaste and obedient Christ. These three counsels, to which we’re all called to some degree according to our state of life, helps us to triumph over the temptations of the devil, as we see in the free, rich, loving lives of so many consecrated men and women. Spiritual poverty refuses the diabolical fruit of materialism; chastity the diabolical fruit of lust and hedonism, using others for our pleasure; obedience the diabolical fruit of false freedom, disobeying God and trying to control rather than serve others. The more we respond to God’s graces to live these evangelical counsels, and the more we follow the example of those in the consecrated life in structuring our lives according to them, the more we will experience the freedom from the dominion of the evil one in our lives and the joy of happiness. Living the evangelical counsels strengths our prayer, fasting and almsgiving and helps us to enter into Jesus’ poverty, chastity and obedience that triumphed over the evil one.
Baptism and the Eucharist in the Defeat of the Devil
Jesus was led into the desert after his baptism by John in order precisely to lead us on an exodus through the desert into the promised land of his kingdom. Lent is this type of exodus that seeks to bring about a new order, a new creation, a new kingdom. We see that in the first reading the new order that was brought about by Noah, the flood and the ark. A similar thing is supposed to happen when, after our “drowning” in the waters of baptism, we’re led into the desert by same Spirit who drove Jesus into the desert after his baptism. In baptism and in the life of Christ to which it leads, we receive God’s help to renounce Satan, all his evil works and all his empty promises. Then we profess our faith in God —Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and in the Holy Catholic Church God founded. Lent is a time to repent and believe, to renew those promises and live them as not just truths we consent to, but as the fundamental realities of our lives, of who we are and what we do.
And the Eucharist is the great means by which we do this, which is why the Church always encourages people to try to make daily Mass especially during Lent. In preparation for the Eucharist, we always fast, at least an hour, so that we may hunger more and more for every word that comes from the Father’s mouth, and especially for the Word-made-flesh, Jesus, who comes from the Father’s bosom. In the Mass, we experience the supreme form of prayer, entering into Jesus’ own from the Last Supper and Calvary. And we not only receive Jesus’ greatest alms — his body, blood, soul and divinity — but are helped by him from the inside, to “do this” in memory of him, living truly Eucharistic lives by giving our body and blood, sweat, tears and heart in loving service to others. As we prepare to receive Jesus today, we ask him for the graces to live this 40 day calling us to “come with him apart from the crowds to a deserted place” in the most bold and holy way possible, so that we can experience the joy that comes from repentance and faith, and become signs with him to the whole world that this is the time of fulfillment and the kingdom of God is at hand.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Gn 9:8-15
“See, I am now establishing my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
and with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
I will establish my covenant with you,
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.”
“This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come,
of the covenant between me and you
and every living creature with you:
I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign
of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth,
and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will recall the covenant I have made
between me and you and all living beings,
so that the waters shall never again become a flood
to destroy all mortal beings.”
Responsorial Psalm Ps 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your love are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
Good and upright is the LORD,
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and he teaches the humble his way.
R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
Reading 2 1 Pt 3:18-22
Christ suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.
In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
who had once been disobedient
while God patiently waited in the days of Noah
during the building of the ark,
in which a few persons, eight in all,
were saved through water.
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.
It is not a removal of dirt from the body
but an appeal to God for a clear conscience,
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
who has gone into heaven
and is at the right hand of God,
with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
Verse Before the Gospel Mt 4:4b
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
Gospel Mk 1:12-15
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”