First Sunday of Lent: Getting Lent Right

Let’s start today with a survey. How many of you have given something up for Lent? And how many of you are happy about that? How many of you would say that giving something up for Lent brings you closer to God?

I think a lot of people – myself included – have given something up for Lent because they felt they had to. It may even be that we’ve wanted to give something up for Lent because we figured that in these forty days we had the opportunity to make ourselves better. But I think we have that all wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give something up for Lent – in fact I think you should, but for maybe a different reason, and we’ll come back to that. But what I think we have wrong is the whole idea that we can, or even that we should, make ourselves better during Lent. Today’s readings tell us that it’s the other way around: God wants to use this time of Lent to do something amazing in our own lives.

The part of today’s Liturgy of the Word that really stands out for me is the Gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have this same story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Matthew takes eleven verses to tell the story, and Luke takes thirteen. But Mark, who we have just read, gives us the story in just two verses. We might suspect that Mark is giving us the “Reader’s Digest Version,” that we’re missing something here. But that’s not quite the case. In those two verses, Mark makes some pretty important points and it would be good for us to slow down, hear them again, and not miss anything.

The first point Mark makes is that Jesus is driven into the desert and its temptations by the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when the Bishop said, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” to me on my Confirmation day, I never pictured that Spirit gifting me with a visit to the desert to confront my temptations. No, I pictured that Spirit as one of comfort and peace, and maybe you did too. But honestly, the Spirit gives us difficult experiences all the time. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have any prophets, all of whom had to say some very difficult things to people who didn’t want to hear it. If that weren’t true, nobody would ever take up the leadership of a community during difficult times. So it’s no big stretch that it’s the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness to confront temptation.

Now that Jesus was tempted at all should be very comforting for all of us. Let’s take another survey: who here has ever experienced any form of temptation in their life? It doesn’t matter if it was a second piece of chocolate cake or something much uglier, and I don’t want you to say what it was out loud, but who here has ever experienced that? So that Jesus experienced temptation should be a source of comfort for all of us who have had to go through that ourselves. Now this survey, I just want you to think about in your head, so you don’t need to raise your hand. I want you to think of one temptation that has been particularly difficult for you in your life. When you have that in mind, think about all your attempts to deal with it. Would you say that it is true that if you worked hard enough, that temptation would go away? Or would you say that sometimes it would go away, and other times it would take over even worse? If you’re like me, sometimes you have your good days and sometimes you have your bad days, and temptation is always with you no matter what.

But here’s what I think is very interesting in today’s Gospel: Mark never says that the temptations stopped after Jesus left the desert. From that, we can assume that Jesus had to deal with temptation every day, just like you and I do. That’s what we mean when we say that Jesus was fully human: he dealt with all of the same temptations that we do. It might seem like it was no big deal because he was always victorious over that temptation, but make no mistake: that was never a done deal. He had to struggle with temptation in the same way that we do. Even in the last moments of his life, he was tempted to abandon his mission – we know about the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed that the cup would pass him by. We know he ultimately accepted the Father’s will, but we also know he agonized to the point of sweating blood over the temptation to give it all up. Jesus was tempted in the same way that we have been. To say anything else is simply not true.

So to those of us who have struggled with temptation and have often been defeated by it, Jesus comes to stand with us. To those of us who are feeling defeated by temptation right now, Jesus comes to redeem us. If our temptations seem like permanent fixtures in our lives, so is God’s love and forgiveness. That’s what we see in the rainbow of God’s covenant with Noah. That rainbow was a sign of the covenant, but not a sign that Noah and his descendents would see it and live up to their part. No – it was a sign that when it appeared in the heavens, God would see it and remember his mercy and his promise never to wipe out humanity again. The rainbow isn’t a symbol of what we are going to do, but of what God does for us, time and time again.

And so we can take courage, I think, that Jesus stands with us. We can go out into the wilderness of our own temptations knowing that, even though we have to go through it, we don’t have to go through it alone. All we have to do is call to mind the rainbow and God’s covenant with Noah and we’ll know that God is intensely devoted to the love of his people. All we have to do is look up at that cross and we’ll know that Christ came to redeem our suffering and put an end to death. All we have to do is approach the Eucharist today to know that God longs to feed us with nothing less than the body and blood of his only Son. Today’s Liturgy quite rightly reminds us that there is no part of our own life that is too ugly for God, and there is no way that we can fall too far for God to reach out to us. Today’s Liturgy reminds us that Lent is not about what we can do to make ourselves better people, but that Lent is about the great lengths to which God will go in order to have us at his side for all eternity. That’s why Lent is a joyful season. Yes, joyful.

So our efforts during these forty days should not be so much about making ourselves better people. That may be an admirable goal, but it’s not what Lent is ultimately about. We should take this time to find ways to open ourselves more to God’s love. And that’s why I think we should all give something up for Lent. Maybe giving something up will create a hunger in us – that hunger may be the result of fasting from food or some particular food, or from giving up television or the internet, or whatever it is that has us believing that we can take care of our own hungers and fulfill our own needs. If giving something up makes us hungry in some way, we can live with that hunger knowing there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide. And giving up some of the stuff that clutters our lives may open us up to the wonderful gifts that God is longing to give us.

So I think that’s the motivation we have to have in giving something up for Lent. If we give something up and then prayerfully reflect on the blessings God gives us each day, we might find ourselves receiving much more than we’ve ever imagined. And in the end, if we approach Lent this way, we won’t have to worry about making ourselves better people, because Lent will make us better people through the power of God. We will become people who are open to the love and the healing, redemptive presence of God in our lives; people who can face their own temptations and inadequacies and not be defeated by them; people who are so richly blessed that we cannot help but let those blessings flow into the lives of other people as well.

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