13 Mar First Sunday of Lent-Archbishop B. O’Brien
Homily by Archbishop Brendan M. O’Brien
Sunday Mass on the First Sunday of Lent
St. Mary’s Cathedral
March 10, 2019
When we hear a passage of scripture such as today’s gospel, one of the ways of entering into it is to ask ourselves two questions:
- How does this passage help me to know Jesus better? and,
- How does this passage help me to know myself better?
If we begin with the first question, how does the gospel passage about the temptations in the desert help us to know Jesus better? I think we can say that it helps us to see how Jesus, in remaining true to his identity as the Son of God, had to struggle. In St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus’s ministry is focused on going up to Jerusalem, where he will be persecuted, suffer, and die. He makes this known to his disciples, but they, and especially Peter, don’t want to hear it.
The three temptations which Jesus experienced can be summed up by saying that he was tempted to fulfill the mission he had been given by other means than by following the Father’s plan for him. It would have been easier for Jesus if he had followed some of these suggestions of the tempter. ‘Turn stones into bread and feed the hungry’ – that would surely get him a following; or ‘fly off the temple parapet unharmed’ – that would certainly have convinced sceptics about who he was. What this passage about the temptations tells us about Jesus is that He did not use his powers for his own benefit or for a quick fix, which would draw new followers and hold on to them because of marvellous deeds. The Father had asked Jesus to trust, and he did. He surrendered Himself to the Father, and the Father didn’t let him down. God didn’t save him from suffering and death, but, rather, took him through suffering and death to victory.
The temptations of Jesus in the desert during 40 days remind us of the temptations of the Israelites as they wandered in the desert for 40 years. The desert has a very special place in the history of the Israelites. It is there that God gave them the commandments through Moses; it is there that God fed them with Manna from heaven; but it was also there that they succumbed to temptation and turned from the worship of the true God to erect the image of the Golden Calf. The desert is also a special place for Jesus. It is there that he was led by the Spirit after his baptism in the Jordan. Throughout his ministry, Jesus will be confronted by temptation, but we see that telescoped into this one dramatic event in the desert.
Let us now go to the second question: How does this gospel passage help me to know myself better? Temptation is something with which we all have some experience. However, when we think of temptation, we often see it in terms of sexual sins, telling lies, losing our temper, feeling resentment, and so forth. But, as one author mentions, the more dangerous and more fundamental temptations are to seek wealth for its own sake, to want status (everyone looking up to me), and power (so I can manipulate things and people to my own ends). When these are our goals, we forget our real identity, which is a son or daughter of God.
We see in the first reading how Moses reminds the people of who they are. At a festival, people bring some of their harvest fruits and offer them in gratitude to God, the source of these gifts. Moses takes the opportunity to instruct them not only to remember the gifts of God from the earth, but especially to remember the gifts that God gave them in the past.
It all started with their earliest ancestors: “My father was a wandering Aramean,”(perhaps a reference to Jacob). Their ancestors were wandering nobodies whom God rescued from Egypt and brought to the Promised Land. Remembering what God has done for them in the past will help them to trust that God will not abandon them in their present need or in their future difficulties.
Sunday Mass is our time to remember the great gift that we have received in the death and resurrection of Jesus and to rededicate ourselves to an always more faithful response. The season of Lent is our annual 40 days to help us to remember our true identity. At the beginning of Lent each year, we have the rite of imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. This reminds us of two things about ourselves: our fragility and our greatness. As Pope Benedict mentioned in one of his homilies, “The reception of the ashes is a gesture of humility whereby I recognize myself for what I am, a fragile creature made of earth and destined to return to the earth. But I am also made in the image of God and destined to return to Him. So I am dust, yes, but dust that is loved and moulded by his love.”
God animates us with his life-giving breath and makes us capable of recognizing his voice and responding to him. But we are also free and capable of disobeying him, and thus yielding to the temptation of pride and self-sufficiency. As we reflect on the gospel of the temptation of Jesus and how he responded, may we reflect both on our frailty as human beings, capable of sin and human weakness, and, at the same time, recognize how we are called to greatness and assisted by the Spirit to follow Jesus’s path of faithfulness to the Father. May thoughts such as these guide our Lenten journey.