First Sunday of Lent – Year C – March 10th, 2019
DT 26:4-10; PS 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; ROM 10:8-13; LK 4:1-13
Gi 2:12b-18; Ps 50: 1 Cor 9:24-27: Mt4:1-11
1. Lent: why?
The Gospel of the first Sunday of Lent takes us with Jesus in the desert, the place of the encounter and of the intimacy with God, but also the place of the supreme fight with the tempter. The aim of these forty days is that the Church, following the example of Jesus Christ, who went into the desert to fast for days, makes us live the same period of time to prepare us to “celebrate the event of the Cross and Resurrection – in which the love of God redeemed the world and shone its light upon history” (Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2013). The purpose of Lent is not for mortification. It is for the encounter with Christ at Easter. For this walk toward the Crucified Resurrected, it is necessary to purify our eyes, our heart, and our mind, to look, love and understand others and ourselves as God does. In this exodus toward God’s land, prayer, “that is the effusion of our heart in the one of God” (Father Pius of Pietralcina), is necessary. “It is necessary for us to pray because prayer gives us a pure Heart and a pure heart knows how to love” (Mother Theresa of Calcutta). A pure heart has pure eyes to see God.
If it is useful to know the purpose of the number of forty days, it is good also to know that its origin is not in the Gospel, but in the Old Testament.
In Genesis, we read that because of the flood, the wise man Noah spent forty days in the arc with his family and the animals that God had told him to carry along. He waited another forty days after the flood before coming ashore (Genesis 7:4.12; 8, 6).
The book of Exodus tells us about Moses who remained forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai with God and received the Law. During all this time he fasted (Es 24, 18).
Also, Deuteronomy tells us that the walk of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land lasted forty years and it was a privileged time in which the elected people have experimented God’s fidelity. “Remember how for these forty years the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the wilderness…The clothing did not fall from you in tatters, nor did your feet swell these forty years,” said Moses at the end of these forty years of the desert (Dt8:2.4).
Forty were the years of peace for Israel under the rule of the Judges. (Judges 3:11.30). Unfortunately, after this period, the lack of the memory of God’s gifts and of the application of the Law took over.
Forty days were needed for the prophet Elijah to reach mount Oreb where he met with God (1 King 19, 8).
Forty days were requested by Jonah from the citizens of Nineveh to do penance and they were forgiven by God. (Jonah 3, 4)
Forty are the years of the kingdoms of Saul (Acts 13, 21), of David (2 Sam 5:4-5) and of Solomon (1 Kings 11, 41) the first three kings of Israel.
In the New Testament, we read that forty days after his birth Jesus was taken to the Temple and Simon, at the end of his life, could meet the Son of God, at the beginning of his life among men. Forty were the days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert where he went under the guidance of the Spirit (Lk 4:1-13). While praying Jesus fed himself with God’s Word using it as a weapon to win evil. After these forty days, the Redeemer started his public life. Forty were the days during which the resurrected Jesus instructed his disciples before “finishing” his human adventure, going to Heaven and sending the Holy Spirit to continue it with us and in us. (Acts 1.3)
In conclusion, forty is the symbolic number with which the Bible shows us the most important moments of the experience of the faith of the people of God. This number doesn’t represent a chronological time but a necessary time to see God’s work. It is a time to make up our minds and take responsibility without postponing it.
2. A providential time
Besides prayer, to live this period as a time propitious and providential, the Church indicates also fasting and almsgiving.
To better explain fasting I’d like to use the words mortification and sacrifice in their current meaning. They mean moderation in the impetus and in the instinct, moderation in the use of the instinct. ‘Temperare” in Latin means to govern according to the purpose, to the purpose of maintaining in the order. We could then translate the invitation to sacrifice and the invitation to mortification and fasting as loyalty to what is “more significant”.
There is actually an immediate meaning of it: when one is hungry and throws himself on food when one has affection and “uses’ the other person for his instinct. There is the love of entirety, the desire to be recognized that if is not moderate becomes vainglory, pride, and thirst for possession. There is greed in the instinct, a non-moderation in the instinct. The Church invited to “fasting” because in moderation food could be used as a tool for the walk. Doing so, we can relate to the other persons as companions in the pilgrimage of life looking at them as icons of God. It is freedom from the result so that one is really able to love the other person, free from the other person’s reply, from the way the other person answers to us. It is true freedom. It is to love and that is, true love without lies. Secondly, it is freedom from one’s self, namely from taste.
3. Almsgiving equals charity?
If we want to be strict, the answer is: no. Alms is not a synonym of charity, it is good work. However, there is some truth in this popular equivalence because almsgiving is a sign of charity and of compassion toward the poor.
We must not reduce “charity” to solidarity or simply to humanitarian help. A Combonian missionary (Father Tiboni, 88 years old) who spent his life in Uganda, used to say: “The biggest charity we can have toward the African people is to announce to them that Christ is risen.” ”There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbor than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person.” (Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2013)
Almsgiving means to live the atonement of our neighbor’s sin, to feel in agreement with the world, to make amends. It means also to donate something. However, let’s not believe that we should be satisfied with almsgiving because this is a charity not “The Charity”. True Charity is to give God our souls. It is not to change only something. It is to change one’s life and to live it in a sacrifice of communion.
Saint Augustine in the eleventh chapter of De civitate Dei writes that the only sacrifice is communion. The only sacrifice is the passage to communion and to say “I am you”. The only sacrifice then is love. This is the greatest revolution brought to the world first by the prophets, then by Jesus. His love makes possible all sacrifices for the assertion of the other person, even the sacrifice of life. For this reason, the Church identifies the virgins and the martyrs with the highest way of love because virginity and martyrdom are the testimony that the biggest joy of life is to assert the other person and to assert that all is the other person in “ alms”. The word alms comes from the Greek eleeo (I have compassion) from which, through the adjective eleemon (merciful), comes the Christian- Latin eleemosyna and from there the word in other languages (i.e. French aumone, Spanish limosna, Catalan almoina, English alms, German Almosen). The etymological and Christian meaning of alms is to give compassion and mercy, sharing not only the bread but also the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.
Commenting the parable of the wise virgins Saint John Chrysostom urges everybody “Let cleanse us our soul in alms” and to the virgins, he says “the fire of virginity dies if one doesn’t pour the oil of alms on it and this oil can be found among the poor.” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homely III; 2-3)
The Consecrated Virgins are the wise virgins of the Gospel because their entire life is spent in donation to God and to serve the neighbor in compassion. They not only give alms but also, with their consecration, “are” the God’s alms to the world.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
ON THE BEGINNING OF LENT
Let charity be exercised by your living good lives
- The solemn season has come round when I must remind your graces about giving more attentive thought to your souls, and chastising your bodies. These, you see, are the forty days held so sacred in all countries of the earth, that the whole world, which God reconciles to himself in Christ,†2 celebrates them together with remarkable devotion as Easter approaches. If there are any animosities which should never have been born,or should promptly have died, and yet have been able to persist between brothers or sisters up to this very moment, whether out of heedlessness or stubbornness, or a proud and certainly not modest kind of shame, then let them now at least be terminated, such as the sun ought not to have been allowed to set on,†3 at least after so many sunrises and sunsets let them at last be extinguished by their own setting below the horizon, never further to be renewed by any rising.
The heedless person forgets to put an end to a quarrel; the stubborn one is loath to grant pardon when asked; the person who is proudly ashamed disdains to beg pardon. Animosities live on in these three vices; but they kill the soul in which they don’t die. Let a spirit of recollection keep watch against heedlessness, of compassion against vindictive stubbornness, of gentle good sense against proud shame. If you recall that you have neglected to make it up with someone, then wake up and shake off your torpor. If you are so keen to exact payment from your debtor, just think for a moment that you are God’s debtor. If you are ashamed to ask your brother or sister to forgive you, overcome this bad sort of shame with a good sort of fear, so that with destructive animosities terminated, with them finally dead, you yourselves may live.
All this is the work of charity, which does not act crookedly (1 Cor 13:4). So let charity, my brothers and sisters, insofar as it is present among you, be exercised by your living good lives; while insofar as there is little of it there, let it be obtained by your praying for it.
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We should add to alms what we subtract from ourselves by fasting and abstaining from our usual diet
- But during these days our prayers should be more than usually fervent; so to help them with suitable supports, let us also be more fervent in distributing alms; we should add to them what we subtract from ourselves by fasting and abstaining from our usual diet. Though as a matter of fact, those of you who are prevented by some needs of your bodies or the requirements of a special diet from abstaining, and so adding to the poor person’s dish what you subtract from your own, should be even more generous in your alms, and give more to the poor precisely because you don’t take anything away from yourselves.†4 At least in this way, since you are less able to give a boost to your prayers by chastising the body, you will ensure, by enclosing more abundant alms in the heart of the poor, that it can pray for you. That is the salutary advice of the holy scriptures, eminently well worth following: Enclose your alms, it says, in the heart of a poor man, and there it will pray for you effectively (Sir 29:12, Vulg).
Nobody should take such pleasure in the goodness of being generous, as to forfeit the goodness of being humble
- I must also remind those of you who abstain from meat, not to shun the pots in which it has been cooked as though they were impure.†5 The apostle, after all, speaking about this sort of thing, says, To the pure, all things are pure (Ti 1:15). You see, the point of such observances, according to sound doctrine, is not to shun ritual impurities, but to curb our appetites. So it is too, that those people who refrain from eating meat in order to hunt up other kinds of food that are both more expensive and more difficult to prepare, have got the wrong end of the stick entirely. I mean, that isn’t undertaking self-denial, but just changing your kind of self-indulgence. How am I going to tell these people to give to the poor what they deprive themselves of, when they give up their usual diet, only to spend more than ever on obtaining another sort? So during these days, please, be more regular in fasting, more sparing in what you spend on yourselves, more generous in what you bestow on the poor.
These days also require abstinence from marital relations. For a time, says the apostle, so that you may have more leisure for prayer; and then come together again, in case Satan should tempt you on account of your lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:5).†6 This, surely, is not very taxing or difficult for faithful married couples just for a few days, seeing that widows have undertaken it from a certain point in their lives to the very end, and that the holy virgins manage it for the whole of life.
And in all these things be fervent and devoted, while suppressing every inclination to be proud of yourselves. Nobody should take such pleasure in the goodness of being generous, as to forfeit the goodness of being humble. None of God’s other gifts make anything have the slightest value, unless they are tied together with the bond of love.