Today as we celebrate this first Sunday in Lent, we are reminded that Jesus goes into the desert to pray before he begins his public ministry. The desert is a place of great extremes. It can be overwhelmingly hot during the day with the sun shining brilliantly on the landscape. At night it can be bitterly cold. Water is scarce. Vegetation is present but unusual. Wild life is present in the varying creatures that roam mainly at night. Shelter is difficult to find.
On one hand the living conditions are very harsh; on the other the landscape is quite beautiful. As we begin the season of Lent we are invited to go into a spiritual desert with Jesus as we prepare for the great celebration of Easter.
Jesus is in the desert for 40 days. We might reflect on the significance of 40 days. In the life of Israel the people wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land. This land was a gift from God promised to Abraham and passed down through Isaac to Jacob and his sons. Moses speaks of this promise and its impending fulfillment in his instruction to Israel recalled in the first reading for today’s Mass. He recalls their ancestors going down into Egypt, their slavery but most significantly their deliverance by God when the people cried out.
Moses says: “We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.”
Even though he does not mention the 40 years here it is a significant piece of their journey to the Holy Land. You may recall that they had sinned by turning away from the Lord to idols while Moses was on the mountain. Due to their sins they would spend time in the desert to be purified so as to be prepared to enter this Promised Land.
Jesus’ 40 days prepare for His public ministry where He will reveal the Father’s love and mercy in its fullness. For us the period of Lent, being 40 days, is a period in which we too prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. We reflect on our lives, on the great love and mercy which has already been bestowed upon us; we reflect on our response to the Father’s call to life and we express sorrow and contrition for the ways in which we have failed to or inadequately expressed our thanksgiving for His love and mercy.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus goes into the desert “to be tempted by the devil.” Indeed Jesus is tempted as it is recalled in the Gospel passage. Three times the devil tries to tempt Jesus.
In the first instance the attempt is tied to Jesus’ hunger. “Command this stone to become bread” but also a temptation to self-sufficiency and power; even to proving oneself when the devil says, “if you are the Son of God.” Jesus’ response is to quote Sacred Scripture: “One does not live on bread alone.”
The second temptation is one to power and glory. The devil tempts Jesus with this so that Jesus might worship him. Jesus responds, again quoting Scripture, “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
During the third temptation the devil uses scripture to try to get Jesus to “give in,” saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you ….” Jesus responds by trumping his quote: “You shall not put the Lord, you God, to the test.”
Jesus facing these temptations reminds us that we too face temptations every day. We are constantly making decisions and choices in life. These may vary greatly in significance but each one provides us an opportunity to grow in goodness.
Jesus gives us the example. He too was tempted. He resisted. Through this He is strengthened for what lies ahead. His life of self-giving love is one that will require great sacrifice and surrender. The time in the desert helps prepare Him for this. In the same way our Lenten experience can help us to be strengthened for love.
At the end of the Gospel passage St. Luke tells us that the devil “departed from him for a time.” He will return during the public ministry attempting to dissuade Jesus from His mission. This is especially true during the passion. Jesus again resists. He continues to love and to give of Himself to the end.
Going to the desert provides us an opportunity for great spiritual growth and renewal. While Jesus physically went to the desert, we go in a spiritual manner. The traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving provide us a “spiritual desert.” Setting aside extra time for prayer during the season of Lent not only helps us to grow in our relationship with God but affords us time to reflect that we are dependent on the Lord for everything we have and all that we are. Fasting as a penitential practice helps us to realize that for us, “man does not live on bread alone” but, as the quote continues, “on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Almsgiving not only is an act of charity, it is an opportunity to empty ourselves in love for others.
As we begin the season of Lent we pray that we may enter it with hearts longing to grow. Like Jesus we too go into the desert. We have the great opportunity ahead to grow — to grow in appreciation of God’s love for us; to strengthen our response to His love; to magnify our love of neighbor and to join our lives to His in loving praise and adoration of the Father.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.