First Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

During the Easter Vigil Mass, less than forty days from now, we will be asked three very important questions: Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises? The response to each of these questions, of course, is “I do,” and we are called to answer them so that we can remind ourselves of the promises that were made at our Baptism and to recommit ourselves to the single-mindedness our faith requires. We see in today’s Liturgy of the Word first the consequences of forgetting these promises, and then the dedication that keeping them requires.

The first reading gets to the root of the true nature of sin. The man and the woman, that is, our first parents, have been given everything they could ever need or hope for. All of the creatures of the earth and all of the plants have been given to them as food, except for the one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They are fine and happy and even care-free when they follow God’s command. But, as often happens, eventually everything they could ever hope for is not nearly enough.

Along comes the cunning serpent, the figure who is the foreshadowing of Satan, and he convinces the woman, who convinces the man, that if they eat of the tree, they would know everything. So they eventually decide that they need to know everything more than they need to know God, and they eat of the rotten fruit, and with it come all the consequences of a life of sin. The care-free days are gone, and they need to cover themselves with fig leaves. They fear God’s wrath, and hide from him. They have unleashed the horrible cycle of grasping and hiding: longing for more than they need, they grasp at what they should not have; taking what they cannot handle, they hide from the God who is their creator and maker. They have decided they didn’t need God, but find out when it’s too late that God is the only one who can help them.

Repeat the cycle google millions of times throughout the ages: grasping and hiding, and you have the true nature of original sin. We inherit from our first parents the desire to grasp for more than we need and more than we can handle, then we get from that the fear that comes with receiving what we should not have and we have to hide from the One who is our only hope. All of sin is grasping and hiding.

And so Satan, cunning serpent that he is, tests Jesus in the desert. Jesus submits to the temptation because that is the only way he can be one with all of us tortured and tempted souls. Satan promises Jesus more than he needs and hopes he will grasp for it and end up hiding from God, but Jesus resists to show us that there is a way out of calamitous desperate cycle of grasping and hiding.

Satan tells Jesus he can stop hungering if he would just turn the stones into bread. The Son of God could certainly do so, and then he wouldn’t be hungry any more. He wants Jesus to decide that he doesn’t need God the Father to give him what he hungers for and to grasp at what would fill him up. But Jesus knows that bread alone won’t fill up the hungers of the human heart and turns toward God to give him what he truly needs.

But Satan can quote Scripture too, and he tempts him to throw himself off the parapet of the temple, knowing that God would send angels to take care of him. He wants Jesus to decide that he can be reckless and ignore the consequences of tempting God, and to grasp at eternity in the vain hope of getting there without God. But Jesus knows his Father is trustworthy and does not need to and should never be tested.

So now Satan brings out the heavy artillery. He plays on the very human desire to have it all. Jesus need not wait on God’s providence, Satan himself could give him all the kingdoms of the world. All Jesus has to do is grasp at what he does not need and worship the one who cannot save. And Jesus knows that worshipping anyone other than God is foolishness, and that it’s not worth having everything if you give up your soul to get it.

Grasping and hiding, that’s what the devil wants for us. What God wants for us is giving and trusting. If we give ourselves to him, we can trust in God’s goodness to provide everything that we really need, and way more than we could ever hope for.

But giving and trusting is much harder than grasping. Because we have all sorts of hungers. Hunger for foods we do not need to eat. Hunger for relationships that lead us to bad places and away from God. Hunger for self-worth that causes us to work ourselves to death. Hunger for euphoria that leads us to all sorts of addictions. Maybe we can’t turn stones into bread, but we grasp at things we do not need all the time.

And we have this idea that immortality is ours for the taking. We may not throw ourselves off the parapet of the temple, but we throw ourselves into making poor investments or gambling or get-rich-quick schemes thinking that there will always be a way to get out of the mess tomorrow. We throw ourselves into risky behavior in driving faster than we should, or smoking, or overeating – in so many ways we grasp at eternity thinking we will never die.

But maybe most of all we want all the things we do not have and maybe cannot have. We want the latest gadgets, we want the biggest houses, we want the most money, we want it all. And there are lots of easy ways to get it if we are willing to sell our souls. Maybe we’re not actually worshipping Satan, but we definitely aren’t worshipping God.

At the root of our sinfulness is the thought that we do not need God. That we can get what we want by grasping at things beyond us. And then we end up in just the same place as our first parents, all over again, hiding from God lest he find out we have tried to cheat him out of what he wants to give us anyway.

The antidote to grasping and hiding is letting go – giving what might even seem to be necessary to us, and trusting that God will give us what we need. That can be the treasure of Lent for us. In fasting, we can let go of the idea that we alone can provide what is necessary for our survival. God can feed our hungers much better than we can. In almsgiving, we can let go of the idea that everything is ours if we would just worship the one who cannot give us what we truly need. God gives us what’s really necessary in life, and also life eternal. And in prayer, we can let go of the cycle of grasping and hiding and return to God in trust and love.

David the Psalmist knew that he had sinned greatly in grasping for what he could not have. And so the Psalm he sings today is a model for us of letting go of all that and trusting in God’s grace to give us what we truly need:

A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.