Pastoral Reflections

The First Sunday in Lent - 2017 

In our Gospel lesson today we heard how Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. During his forty days in the desert, Jesus proved that his love for his Father was stronger than everything else. If we authentically love Jesus, our love cannot help but draw us closer to him during Lent.  Our love for and closeness with the Lord enables us to overcome any barrier put there by the devil. 

Jesus’ retreat into the desert is indeed our model for the Lenten season. If Jesus had given in to any of the devil’s temptations, he would have most certainly wrecked his Father’s plans for him. Similarly, whenever we give way to temptation, we wreck God’s plans for us. Sin separates us from God’s grace and what God intends for us; it also disconnects us from other believers. This is the reality we learn in the wake of the first sin, that is, the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.     

As a result of that first sin, Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden. Sin separates us from Jesus.But if we authentically love Jesus, we will do everything possible to overcome sin during Lent and beyond, and remain united with him. If we have wandered off the path, Lent is our opportunity to renew our relationship with Jesus; to become re-centered in him.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we should ask ourselves a series of straightforward questions. Do we love Jesus enough to address and repair in our life whatever may be separating us from him? What will be required of us during this Lent to accomplish this?  Do we love Jesus enough to take Lent seriously so that at the end of Lent we can say we gave up this sin or overcame that sinful inclination so that we can indeed be closer Jesus? Do we love Jesus enough so that when we celebrate his resurrection at the end of Lent, we can also celebrate Jesus’ new life in us because we overcame a sinful struggle during Lent? Do we love Jesus more than anything that is, or may be keeping us from him? Lent is indeed the time to draw closer to Jesus.

When we are ill, we go to the doctor and the doctor often writes a prescription. If we take the medicine, as prescribed, we hope to get better and usually do. For centuries the Church has recommended a prescription for Lent to help us get spiritually better, to bring us closer to Jesus and to help us overcome sin. That prescription consists of the three things we heard in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18); prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are a remedy to help cure our soul, revitalize our faith, and enable us to become Christ-centered. 

This remedy is the wisdom of centuries of experience; the experience of centuries of holy people who drew closer to God during Lent with the remedy of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not only is this remedy the wisdom of centuries of experience of holy people, it is the precise teaching of Jesus. 

As we heard in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, it is Jesus who taught us about prayer, about the value of fasting, and about the value of almsgiving. Why would anyone question the value of what Jesus taught us and tout that there is a better way to live our Lent?  If our desire is to renew an authentic connection with Jesus during this Lent, we can accomplish this through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

We could say that the three Scripture quotations attributed to Jesus in today’s Gospel, as he rebuked the devil when tempted, are reflective of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. When Jesus says, ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve’ (Luke 4:8, see Deut 6:13) Jesus is teaching us to put God first in prayer and worship. When Jesus rebukes the devil with ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ (Luke 4:4, see Deut 8:3) he is reminding us that fasting shows God is more important to us than any earthly thing we may desire. Finally, when Jesus confronts the devil with ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test (Luke 4:12, see Deut 6:16), Jesus is reminding us not to test God by expecting him to intervene or look after those in need as this is something that we can and must do ourselves.    

To pray we need quiet time. We cannot pray if the TV is turned on, or there are other distractions around us. We read in the Gospels that Jesus often went up into the mountains to pray (Matt 14:23; Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12; 9:28). It was quiet up there, conducive to prayer and meditation. If Jesus needed quiet for prayer, how much more do we need quiet in order to effectively pray? Can we find quiet time every day to spend with Jesus? We read in 1 Kings 19:11-13 that Elijah hid in a cave, and a windstorm went by but God was not in the windstorm, there was an earthquake but God was not in the earthquake, there was a fire but God was not in the fire.  Finally, a gentle breeze went by and Elijah knew God was in the gentle breeze. To find God we need a place of gentle breeze in our life every day. A church, an adoration chapel, a personal prayer area in our homes are obvious places. Can we also pray together as a family for a portion of time at least once day? The rosary is a wonderful prayer for use together as a family. 

Over the centuries, Gregorian chant was given a central place in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is something that we can work towards, as we transition to an all Latin liturgy. One could say that this type of reflective music is more akin to the gentle breeze in which Elijah recognized the Lord. One of my joyful memories from seminary is Gregorian chant during every Sunday Mass. We call the music during Mass sacred music but what could be described as unsacred music has been creeping in gradually. The Church has guidelines for sacred music so that we may better hear the Lord speak to us.

Jesus was asked why his disciples did not fast while the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted. Jesus replied that the while the bridegroom was with them it was not the time to fast but when the bridegroom would be taken away then it would be time for them to fast (Matt 9:14-15; Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35). Now, my dear friends, is that time. We can fast from TV for a time and that would give us more time to pray so then we would be fasting and praying together. We could also fast from the internet and electronics for a time and thereby spend more time with family. Above all of course, Lent is about giving up sin. All the fasting of Lent is to give us a greater strength to fast from sin. 
Fasting is for Jesus.

Almsgiving is an expression of our love of God and love of others, which, after all is the first and greatest of the commandments. When we love God we love others in their need and give to them from our surplus because they are also children of God. That is why we begin the Lord’s Prayer saying, “Our Father…” because we are all children of one Father in heaven. Once when talking to the Pharisees when they were concerned about externals Jesus said that if they gave alms then they would be clean (Luke 11:41). On another occasion Jesus said that giving alms earns you a purse that never grows old and treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33). Jesus taught the parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man did not even give his scraps to the poor man. And when they both died the poor man was in heaven the rich man in agony.

As we journey through this season of Lent, let us take up the challenge that Jesus gives to and models for us.  Let this Lenten season not be in vain but rather let it become an opportunity for a bountiful blessing.

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