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Archbishop Follo: The Lent of Jesus and our Lent

May our reading of the Bible become a criterion for our prayer so that it become a criterion for our life.

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Roman Rite – First Sunday of Lent – Year B – February 18. 2018
Gn 9,8-15; Ps 25; 1 Pt 3: 18-22; Mk 1: 12-15
Ambrosian Rite
Is 57.15-58.4a; Ps 51; 2 Corinthians 4.16b-5.9; Mt 4,1-11
Sunday at the beginning of Lent
1) Converting to the truth of love.
The first Sunday of Lent – Year B – offers us the narration of the temptation of Jesus in the desert according to the Gospel of Saint Mark which, compared to that of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, is characterized by a great brevity. With the sober and concise style of Saint Mark, the Gospel introduces us into the climate of this liturgical season: «The Spirit pushed Jesus in the desert and in the desert he remained forty days, tempted by Satan» (Mk 1:12) and served by the Angels (Mark 1.13)
In these two verses, we find synthesized the two aspects of the biblical conception of the desert. On the one hand, when it is said that the Spirit pushed Jesus into the desert where he remained forty days (like the forty years of the Jewish people in the desert) tempted by Satan, the desert is seen as the place of temptation. On the other hand, the desert is referred as the privileged place for the experience of the Covenant, that is, for the love of the Lord, whose angels serve Christ. Doubtlessly the words of the prophet Hosea resound: «Behold, I will draw her to me, lead her into the wilderness, and speak to her heart» (2: 16) are recalled.
In the stone garden that is the desert, the new Garden of Eden made a place of death by sin, Jesus overcomes the old and dull look on the things that seduce, and helps us to look at life with new eyes holy and full of love.
After receiving the baptism from John, Jesus enters the desert[1] led by the same Holy Spirit who had descended on him consecrating him and revealing him as the Son of God.
In that solitary place, place of trial as the experience of the people of Israel shows, appears with great drama the reality of the emptying of Christ, who has stripped himself of the form of God (cf. Phil 2: 6-7). He, who has not sinned and cannot sin, submits to trial and therefore can sympathize with our illness (cf. Heb 4:15). He allows himself to be tempted by Satan, the adversary, who from the beginning opposed God’s saving plan for men.
To these men, Christ tells the good news: God is near, «repent and believe in the Gospel». Believe in love.
At the beginning of Lent, these words «convert and believe in the Gospel» are addressed to each one of us. This is not an injunction that arises from will, but an indication that flows from love.
Jesus comes to announce the law of freedom, and not to denounce according to the law of slavery. His announcement is a «yes» that creates a new alliance of life, and not a «no» that punishes with death. If we answer yes to his yes, we will live a good, beautiful and happy life like his.
To be able to say this «yes», we must convert and believe in the Gospel. This yes puts us with Christ on the path of charity. Let us not forget, however, that in order to take and live the path of love, one thing is an indispensable condition: to be converted, that is to abandon one’s own will through humility. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux discovered it by reading the Gospel where Jesus recommends to the disciples: «Truly I say to you unless you will be converted and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven» (Mt 18: 3). And what else does it mean to become children – asks St. Bernard – if not “to become humble»? (On Lent II, 1). Therefore, to convert is to learn the difficult art of humility.
Conversion is the «humble and total yes» of those who give their lives to the Gospel, responding freely to Christ who first offers himself to man as the way, the truth and the life, and as the only one who liberates him and saves him. Precisely this is the meaning of the first words with which, according to the Evangelist Mark, Jesus opens the preaching of the «Gospel of God»: «Time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near; be converted and believe in the Gospel «(Mk 1,15).
2) Penance and conversion[2].
To convert means to change direction on the path of life: however, not with a small adjustment but with a return home, as did the prodigal son.
To convert is to turn mind and heart to God who in Christ has come close to us.
To convert is to welcome the gift of God’s closeness. I think that the strongest and most meaningful word that Jesus pronounces today in the Gospel is: the Kingdom of God is near. It means: the lordship of God is present in the person and in the work of Jesus Christ, and it is near because it began and grows among men with the presence of Jesus. Conversion is to approach this presence, it is to be reached by the Spirit because we feel distant, orphans of God.
In these forty days, the Church asks us to live with intense prayer, with sincere penitence in contrition and with generous almsgiving that means that compassion towards the poor is not only an emotion but a sharing of goods.
The works of Lent that the Church asks us to do are three: prayer, penance, and almsgiving. Today, I will focus on penance to help us arrive at the celebration of the great mystery of the Easter of his Son, purified and completely renewed in mind and spirit.
Penance has two essential elements: the contrition of the heart and the mortification of the body. It should not be forgotten that, if it is the heart of man that wants evil, it is often the body that has helped him to commit it.
The principle of true penance lies in the heart: we learn it from the Gospel in the examples of the prodigal son, the sinner who washes the feet of Christ with her tears, Zacchaeus the publican and St. Peter, who offered his pain to Christ and whom He confirmed in his love.
During Lent, the Christian must practice penitence of the heart and consider it as the essential foundation of all the acts pertinent to this holy time. However, penance would always be illusory if it did not add the body’s tribute to the internal feelings it inspires.
The Savior is not satisfied with moaning and weeping over our sins. He expiates them with the suffering of his body. The Church, that his sure interpreter, admonishes us that the penitence of our heart will not be accepted if we do not unite it with the observance of abstinence on Ash Wednesday and on Lenten Friday, and with fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The devil tempts starting from sensuality and gluttony, and that is why during Lent we are asked to practice not only prayer but abstinence and fasting.
At this point, it is legitimate to ask oneself which penance to make and which sacrifice to offer to the Lord to live well this Lenten period in particular and that of everyday life in general, in order to atone for our sins and walk with Christ.
The answer, which comes to us from the Bible and from Tradition, is: «To do the will of God in everything, always and in a perfect way». Those who offer a fast, offer to the Lord a part of themselves. Those who offer to the Lord the adhesion of their own will to his will, offer to him all of themselves. In this, the Consecrated Virgins are of example. These women, giving themselves body and soul to Christ, perform an act of perfect love. Each of them says «Lord I love what you love and I hate what you hate. I love virtue, I hate sin «. Moreover, they show that this is not enough. They love as God wants, with an authentic, joyful and grateful love.
In fact, if love animates this authenticity, the Lord reigns in the person with his joy (cf. Pope Francis). Moreover, the life of the consecrated virgin expresses concretely the importance of giving everything to God with joy and simplicity. Finally, they testify that giving oneself to God with gratitude is a sign of maturity because they are grateful to experience that God sustains them with the light of His look. Finally, they show that a grateful heart is a faithful heart.
Patristic reading
Golden chain
on Mk 1:12-13
Chrys., Hom. in Matt., xiii: Because all that Christ did and suffered was for our teaching, He began after His baptism to dwell in the wilderness, and fought against the devil, that every baptized person might patiently sustain greater temptations after His baptism, nor be troubled, as if this which happened to Him was contrary to His expectation, but might bear up against all things, and come off conqueror.
For although God allows that we should be tempted for many other reasons, yet for this cause also He allows it, that we may know, that man when tempted is placed in a station of greater honor. For the Devil approaches not save where he has (p. 18) beheld one set in a place of greater honor; and therefore it is said, «And immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.»
And the reason why He does not simply say that He went into the wilderness, but was driven, is that thou mayest understand that it was done according to the word of Divine Providence. By which also He shews that no man should thrust himself into temptation, but that those who from some other state are as it were driven into temptation, remain conquerors.
Bede, in Marc., 1, 5: And that no one might doubt, by what spirit he said that Christ was driven into the wilderness, Luke has on purpose premised, that «Jesus being full of the Spirit returned from Jordan, » and then has added, «and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness;» lest the evil spirit should be thought to have any power over Him, who, being full of the Holy Spirit, departed whither He was willing to go, and did what He was willing to do.
Chrys., in Matt., Hom., xiii: But the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness, because He designed to provoke the devil to tempt Him, and thus gave Him an opportunity not only by hunger but also by the place. For then most of all does the devil thrust himself in when he sees men remaining solitary.
Bede: But He retires into the desert that He may teach us that, leaving the allurements of the world, and the company of the wicked, we should in all things obey the Divine commands.
He is left alone and tempted by the devil, that He might teach us, «that all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution;» (2Tm 3,12) whence it follows, «And He was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, and was tempted of Satan.»
But He was tempted forty days and forty nights that He might shew us that as long as we live here and serve God, whether prosperity smile upon us, which is meant by the day, or adversity smite us, which agrees with the figure of night, at all times our adversary is at hand, who ceases not to trouble our way by temptations.
For «the forty days and forty nights» imply the whole time of this world, for the globe in which we are serving God is divided into four quarters.
Again, there are Ten Commandments, by observing which we fight against our enemy, but four times ten are forty. (p. 19)
There follows, «and He was with the wild beasts.»
Pseudo-Chrys., Vict. Ant. e Cat. in Marc.: But He says this to shew of what nature was the wilderness, for it was impassable by man and full of wild beasts.
It goes on; «and angels ministered unto Him.» For after temptation, and a victory against the devil, He worked the salvation of man. And thus the Apostle says, «Angels are sent to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.» (He 1,14)
We must also observe, that to those who conquer in temptation angels stand near and minister.
Bede: Consider also that Christ dwells among the wild beasts as man, but, as God, uses the ministry of Angels. Thus, when in the solitude of a holy life we bear with unpolluted mind the bestial manners of men, we merit to have the ministry of Angels, by whom, when freed from the body, we shall be transferred to everlasting happiness.
Pseudo-Jerome: Or then the beasts dwell with us in peace, as in the ark clean animals with the unclean, when the flesh lusts not against the spirit. After this, ministering Angels are sent to us, that they may give answers and comforts to hearts that watch.
[1] In the Holy Land, to the west of the Jordan River and the oasis of Jericho, there is the desert of Judah, which, by steep valleys overcoming a drop of about a thousand meters, rises up to Jerusalem.
[2] The Greek word that St. Mark puts on the mouth of Christ to invite to conversion is metanoia (literally «the change of mentality»). It does not indicate a simple change of opinion, but a radical change of life, imposed by the presence of the kingdom of God. And the most demanding request is that of faith.

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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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