Lent: the Time to Bring God's Mercy Into the Human Desert

Lectio Divina: 1st Sunday of Lent, Year C

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Roman rite
First Sunday of Lent – Year C – February 14, 2016
Dt 26.4 – 10; Ps 91; Rm 10.8 – 13; Lk 4, 1-13
Ambrosian Rite
First Sunday of Lent
Joel 2, 12b-18; Ps 50; 1 Cor 9.24 to 27; Mt 4, 1-11

1) Lent as exodus.

Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness of Israel are the echo of the exodus, the forty years spent by the Jews in the desert after the liberation from Egypt. If we want to understand the meaning of the experience of Jesus and if we want to understand the meaning of our Lenten journey with Christ, then we must meditate on the events of the history of Israel and of the life of the Redeemer. However, if we want this meditation not to be a simple intellectual reflection, we have to make our journey of conversion going to the Lord «with all your heart and with fasting, weeping and mourning» (Joel 2:12). «With all your heart» means that the conversion must start from the center of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom. How can this exodus, this return to God, be possible? It is possible thanks to a force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God. It is the power of his mercy.
Lent is a time full of grace and mercy that the Church offers to us to commit ourselves to the spiritual exodus and to the process of conversion to Christ through a more attentive listening to the Word of God, a more intense prayer, fasting and charity. In this Jubilee Year of mercy, Lent is proposed as a «favorable time to finally get out of our existential alienation through the listening of the Word and through corporal and spiritual works of mercy» (Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2016).
  Therefore, Lent is a favorable time to rediscover our faith in God as the fundamental criterion of our lives and of the life of the Church. This still requires a spiritual warfare, because the devil opposes our exodus of sanctification and tries to make us deviate from the way of Christ that leads us to the Father. For this reason every year on the first Sunday of Lent the Gospel of Jesus’ temptations in the desert is proclaimed.

2) The temptations of Jesus.

Jesus was tempted. From what is written in the Gospel of St. Luke we see that the temptations were well over three and are referred to as the temptation of bread, the temptation of prestige and the temptation of power. In fact, St. Luke tells that the tempter was with Jesus from the beginning and tried to act on Jesus with “every kind of temptation.»
But why was Jesus tempted? With the Fathers of the Church we can answer that the temptations are part of the «descent» of Jesus in our human condition, into the abyss of sin and its consequences. A «descent» that Jesus has done to the end, to the death of the cross and to underworld of extreme remoteness from God. Doing this, He is the hand that God extends to man, the lost sheep, to bring him to safety. As Saint Augustine teaches, «Jesus has taken from us the temptations, to give us his victory» (see En. In Psalmos, 60, 3: PL 36, 724).
The three temptations have a common denominator and can be considered as three different ways of a single temptation with which Satan tests Jesus in the desert. The desert – as the Bible teaches – is not so much the place of temptation and test, as an opportunity to experience the proximity, loyalty and mercy of the Lord: «the Lord, your God … followed you on your journey through this vast desert. The Lord your God has been with you these forty years and you have lacked nothing «(Deuteronomy 2: 7).
Bringing his attack to the human freedom of Christ, the devil wants to push the Messiah against God, prying on human greed to possess things, people, and God Himself, and to seek self-fulfillment in disobedience to the Father presented as an envious and rival God.
In fact, what does the devil suggest to Jesus? To follow a path and to realize a life contrary to the one that the Father had planned for him, trying to instill in his heart the doubt about the goodness and faithfulness of God. From the temptation of Adam and Eve on, the «strategy «used by the devil to lead us to sin is always this: to make us doubt the love of the provident Father so to lead us to disobey the divine design of goodness. If in the minds and hearts of a human being takes place the false idea that God is envious of the human happiness, it is easier to induce to evildoing, pushing to the disobedience of a law that is no longer grasped as coming from the love of a Father rich in mercy and goodness, but by the jealousy of a God envious and enemy of humanity.
In the desert the devil tempted Christ to lure him from his obedience to the Father, showing as real life an existence contrary to the divine plan. How? Here are the three forms of temptation.
The first: «If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.» It is an invitation to demonstrate the ability to provide for himself independently from the Father. But Jesus, who had fasted in the desert for 40 days, replied: «Not by bread alone does man live but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father.» Christ says that he intends to live his mission in the obedient listening of the Father. This shows the unique relationship of Christ with the Father and the trusting abandonment to Him.
For this reason fasting is an important Lenten practice to wake in us the hunger for God as a fundamental requirement. Therefore, fasting is not only to eat little or nothing for a few days of Lent, but to deprive ourselves of something so to understand the need for God in our lives
The second relates to the power that the man wants in order to succeed. «The devil led the Messiah to the top and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth.» Satan thought that he could bribe Jesus, promising him «the power and the glory» (Lk 4, 6) of the world if he had prostrated in adoration before him (Lk 4.7). It is the temptation to believe in a God ready to fulfill our selfishness. Jesus answered: «The Lord, your God, shall you serve» (Lk 4.8).
From this we learn that the Christian person does not serve himself, herself or the people, but only God: he or she is in perpetual adoration, to the service of the Father and of his love that pushes towards the brothers and the sisters. For this reason, the second Lenten practice is almsgiving, which is not so much to give some coins to the poor, but to live a fraternal charity practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy as Pope Francis recommends.
The third form of temptation is the most acute. The devil offers to Christ: «If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down» (Lk 4.9) from the pinnacle of the temple. It is as if Satan says: «Put to the test your Father to see if He keeps his promises.» Jesus’ answer was determined: this means “to tempt God,» not to trust the Father, Life and source of Life . Christ lives in total abandonment to the Father and he will confirm this abandonment always up to going the Cross and say: «Into your hands O God, I commend my spirit.»
In light of this, let’s live the third practice of Lent: a more intense prayer. In order for this time of penance and conversion to be fruitful for all of us, let’s pray: «Grant us, almighty God, that, during the annual exercises of the holy Lent, we can advance in the mystery of Christ and seek its effect (in our lives) with a worthy behavior «(Collect for the First Sunday of Lent).

3) Open our misery to God’s mercy.

The third practice of Lent, a more intense prayer, is very important because when we pray we let us be reached by God who, in Christ, came to seek us ( let’s think of the parable of the lost sheep Lk 15) and  then takes on his shoulders not only our sins but ourselves. Prayer then opens our misery to the mercy of Jesus, who today teaches us the total abandonment to the Father.
It is an abandonment that the consecrated Virgins in the World live through the complete gift of self to Christ, the Bridegroom who speaks to their heart in the desert (see Hosea 2, 2,) through prayer that allows to hear the word of God’s love and to learn from the heart of Christ, and through charity. «Prayer is to think about God, loving him» (Charles de Foucauld) and to recognize him in the neighbor, who is the icon and the authentic presence of Christ.
To recognize Christ in the neighbor requires an «angelic purity» (Mother Teresa of Calcutta) which is testified especially by those who live the consecrated virginity, because «virginity turns into angels those who truly embrace it» (St. John Chrysostom).
Patristic reading
Golden Chain
on Luke 4, 5 – 8
THEOPHYL. The enemy had first assailed Christ by the temptation of the appetite, as also he did Adam. He next tempts Him with the desire of gain or covetousness, showing Him all the kingdoms of the world. Hence it follows, And the devil taking him up.
GREG. What marvel that He permitted Himself to be led by the devil into the mountains, who even in endured to be crucified in His own body?
THEOPHYL. But how did the devil show Him all the kingdoms of the world? Some say that he presented them to Him in imagination, but I hold that he brought them before Him in visible form and appearance.
TITUS BOS. Or, the devil described the world in language, and as he thought brought it vividly before our Lord’s mind as though it were a certain house.
AMBROSE;; Truly in a moment of time, the kingdoms of this world are described. For here it is not so much the rapid glance of sight which is signified as is declared the frailty of mortal power. For in a moment all this passes by, and oftentimes the glory of this world has vanished before it has arrived. It follows, And he said to him, I will give you all this power.
TITUS; He lied in two respects. For he neither had to give nor could he give that which he had not; he gains possession of nothing, but is an enemy reduced to fight.
AMBROSE; For it is elsewhere said, that all power is from God. Therefore from God’s hands comes the disposal of power, the lust of power is from the evil one; power is not itself evil, but he who evilly uses it. What then; is it good to exercise power, to desire honor? Good if it is bestowed upon us, not if it is seized. We must distinguish however in this good itself. There is one good use of the world, another of perfect virtue. It is good to seek God; it is a good thing that the desire of becoming acquainted with God should be hindered by no worldly business. But if he who seeks God, is from the weakness of the flesh, and the narrowness of his mind, often tempted, how much more is he exposed who seeks the world? We are taught then to despise ambition, because it is subject to the power of the devil. But honor abroad is followed by danger at home, and in order to rule others a man is first their servant, and prostrates himself in obedience that he may be rewarded with honors, and the higher he aspires the lower he bends with feigned humility; whence he adds, If you will fall down and worship me.
CYRIL; And do you, whose lot is the unquenchable fire, promise to the Lord of all that which is His own? Did you think to have Him for your worshiper, from dread of whom the whole creation trembles?
ORIGEN; Or, to view the whole in another light. Two kings are earnestly contending for a kingdom; The king of sin who reigns over sinners, that is, the devil; The king of righteousness who rules the righteous, that is, Christ. The devil, knowing that Christ had come to take away his kingdom, shows Him all the kingdoms of the world; not the kingdoms of the Persians and of the Medes, but his own kingdom whereby he reigned in the world, whereby some are under the dominion of fornication, others of covetousness. And he shows Him them in a moment of time, that is, in the present course of time, which is but a moment in comparison of eternity. For the Savior needed not to be shown for any longer time the affairs of this world, but as soon as He turned His eyes to look, He beheld sins reigning, and men made slaves to vice. The devil therefore says to Him, Came You to contend with me for dominion? Worship me, and behold I give You the kingdom I hold. Now the Lord would indeed reign, but being Righteousness itself, would reign without sin; and would have all nations subject to Him, that they might obey the truth, but would not so reign over others as that He Himself should be subject to the devil. Hence it follows, And Jesus answering said to him, It is written, You shall worship the Lord your God.
THEOPHYL, The devil saying to our Savior, If you will fall down and worship me, receives answer that he himself ought rather to worship Christ as his Lord and God.
CYRIL; But how comes it that the Son (if as the heretics say a created being) is worshipped? What charge can be brought against those who served the creature and not the Creator, if the Son (according to them a created being) we are to worship as God?
ORIGEN; Or else, All these, he says, I would have subject to me, that they might worship the Lord God, and serve Him alone. But do you wish sin to begin from Me, which I came hither to destroy?
CYRIL; This command touched him to the quick; for before Christ’s coming he was every where worshipped. But the law of God casting him down from his usurped dominion, establishes the worship of Him alone who is really God.
THEOPHYL; But someone may ask how this injunction agrees with the word of the Apostle, which says, Beloved, serve one another. In the Greek, signifies a common service, (i.e. given either to God or man,) according to which we are bid to serve one another; but is the service due to the worship of the Deity, with which we are bid to serve God alone.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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