Mar 4, 2017

1st Sunday of Lent: "Why not?"

"The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve"

Gen 2: 7-9;3: 1-7
Rm 5: 12, 17-19
Mt 4: 1-11

Why is it something becomes more attractive when we know we cannot have it? For example,
this past Ash Wednesday is one of those days of Lent we are required to abstain from eating meat.  All the Fridays of Lent are the same of course. It is frankly the least we can do as a Church community to share a common penance. Hopefully, each of us has adopted some additional way to prepare spiritually for Easter.   

So, after the later morning Mass on Wednesday I was hungry. It was now lunchtime and I had refrained for the day so far so I thought I would go down the street for a tuna fish sandwich. I dutifully stood patiently in line where you usually don’t give much thought to what people around you are eating. 

However, in my pang of hunger, I could not help notice that everyone in front of me and seated at the tables was eating meat!  Then my snooping nature took over: I didn’t want to question whether they were Catholic or not, I saw no smudges of ashes on their forehead, but I did notice the guy in front of me was having extra turkey put on his sandwich.  The fella in front of him had ordered roast beef. One side of me said, “I like tuna fish so why do I care?” so the other side answered, “Because you can’t have what they are having.”  It was a bit of a wake up call and just standing in line, observing what I saw, and the odor of beef in the air, suddenly made my tuna fish sandwich seem like more of a sacrifice.

Now, that brings us to our Gospel this first Sunday of Lent and the first reading from Genesis which relates the fall of Adam and Eve.  On a far more significant scale than my tuna sandwich we hear the story of both a garden and a desert. Yet, present in both is temptation and the source of that temptation is identified as the Devil or Satan.  In the scene of the garden, a place of beauty and abundance, Adam and Eve represent God’s original intent for humanity. They are friends with God; they walk with him around the garden. In our creation, God blew into us the “breath of life.” We had been given all we need. But, Adam and Eve also sadly represent what we now find in ourselves. Why do I want what I know I should not have?   

The power to choose freely, our free will, provides us the power to choose God rather than sin. So, it is an attraction to that which God said they were forbidden to eat; the fruit on the tree of life of good and evil, our own way over God’s desire for us. While they are surrounded by more than they will ever need and can share in all that God created, the most attractive pull was to the one and only tree they could not touch. My sudden attraction for what I could not have became far more than a meat sandwich! 

So, at the lie of the serpent, the evil one, they decide that God’s prohibition could be challenged and they took matters into their own hands in disobedience of God’s will.  It was tempting enough to recognize that the tree seemed “pleasing to the eyes, good for food, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” As the tempter told them they would know what God knows, so why not?  In other words, God was hiding something from them and the lie was that God was being deceptive rather than the father of lies himself. After all, it’s only one tree among hundreds.  And so they took matters into their own hands a forever choice we call that original sin that of pride and a desire to be equal to God in knowledge and wisdom.

That brings us to a desert.  A far less attractive destination where Jesus, after fasting forty days and nights, is hungry, weak, and vulnerable. Soon, the same deceiver comes along not as a snake but as himself. While scholars have debated just how much did the Devil knew about the mission of Jesus or fully who he was, the evil one certainly is determined to pull Jesus away from his purpose.  The temptations begin at the base level of hunger but quickly go to the deeper level of pride and power.  It lies in the question of Lent – how can any of us be a faithful son or daughter of God?  It’s the same question that we Christians should ask ourselves about the meaning of following the Lord as loyal disciples. What choices have I made that have blocked the grace of God in me?  How have I been prideful and independent? Prejudiced and self-centered?  

Jesus is tempted to choose that which seemed secure and definite.  I’m hungry so I should eat something.  It’s only bread after all and I can have it now.  This was followed by the opportunity to gain praise from those around him as he would throw himself down and angels would fly to his rescue.  Then, even more, now to establish his earthly kingdom all over the globe and be the Lord of the earth!

But the point of all this is that if Jesus had abandoned his mission in favor of one that was clearly not determined by his own Father in heaven, he would have aligned himself with disobedience (sin) and not with obedience and redemption, our salvation.  He would have agreed with the rebellion of the evil one in defiance of God and lived out a life of pride and selfishness rather than the power of God’s word and the will of God that all may have life. 

So, Jesus gets into a scriptural debate with the Devil.  He counters one quote with another: “One does not live on bread alone but on every word that come forth from the mouth of God,” Jesus retorts to the evil one who challenges our Lord to act in defiance rather than obedience.  The Devil quotes, “He will command his angels concerning you.” To which Jesus rebuts, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” This is not a war of words but a test between deception and truth; between all the other trees and just this one; a test of wills. Maybe even between my tuna fish and roast beef? I well know that other temptations are far more significant but the reality of our inherent weakness is true.

The point as we begin this season of renewal and purification, is our journey with the Lord in the desert of Lent.  We know that like Adam and Eve we find ourselves tempted by the world, our own fallen human nature, and the demons themselves, to act contrary to our own good intentions and take matters into our own hands in defiance of God’s sacred will for us – we sin.  But, because of Jesus’ own resistance, his obedience to his full mission, the doors of forgiveness and mercy have been opened.  Jesus affirmed that love for God, his will for us, is the only way to follow the truth we hear in the Scriptures and we celebrate in the Sacraments. 

While our lives may at times hardly feel like a Garden of Eden, God has provided an abundance for us of opportunities for grace and renewal:  prayer, sacrifice, facing the truth of our life choices and knowing that as creatures of a loving God we have been given all that we need to find ourselves in right relationship with him. 

Indeed, the world offers us many enticing things.  While much can draw us more deeply to God such as truth and beauty, creation, goodness, love and humility, others find us at odds with God himself such as pride, greed, power, revenge and a defiant independent attitude.  If we take our lives seriously before God we will find that we must do battle, we must resist and make a choice for the One who remained obedient to God and made us all “righteous” before God, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading from Romans today.

In the holy Eucharist, this bread made for us by Christ not in a desert but on a cross, we know that the price our Lord paid remains the model of our living.  He gave his life that we may have life and he feeds us with his very presence in order to provide us all that we need. 

So don’t worry about what others around you are eating – enjoy the tuna fish! 

Renewed now with heavenly bread,
by which faith is nourished, hope increased, 
and charity strengthened,
we pray, O Lord, 
that we may learn to hunger for Christ, 
the true and living Bread,
and strive to live by every word
which proceeds from your mouth. 
Through Christ our Lord. 

(Prayer after Communion)