“Passing the Desert Test by Using the Disciplines of Lent”
Homily – 1st Sunday of Lent, Year “A”
February 26, 2023; St. Mary’s Cathedral
In keeping with the Church’s ancient tradition, we begin the season of Lent by hearing about the story of our Lord retreating into the desert to spend forty days in fasting. This gives the rationale for our forty days of Lent: we retreat into the desert, spiritually, to fast with Jesus for forty days. The desert is indeed a place of testing: all comforts are taken away, food and water are scarce, one is at the mercy of the elements and must trust in God for salvation.
Our Lord in the Desert
So our Lord was tested there; as we are told, he was tempted by the devil at the end of those forty days. The devil, as we know, is the great divider. The very origin of the word means “to throw apart.” That is who he is, the one who wants to divide us: divide our families, our faith communities, our neighborhoods, our nation. And here he seeks to divide the Son of God from his Father. Notice how he uses this title in addressing our Lord: “if you are the Son of God.” Here his envy is on display in all its wickedness. As the gospel says, Jesus was led into the desert “at that time.”
“That time” is the time immediately after his Baptism, when, emerging from the water, the voice of the Father was heard from heaven proclaiming, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This is who the devil wants to be, he wants to take Jesus’ place as the Son of God, and so he seeks to divide him from his Father, as he divided Adam from God, who made him.
We heard about this in our first reading, when the devil took advantage of the moment when Eve was separated from Adam, and succeeded in tricking them into eating the forbidden fruit and so separating them from God. This began God’s plan of salvation to unite us back to himself, beginning with choosing a people, the people of Israel, from whom he would send His Son to repair the breach caused by our first parents.
Israel in the Desert
For that ancient people of Israel, the desert was also a place of testing: for forty years they wandered in the Sinai desert searching for the Promised Land after being released from slavery in Egypt. God put them to the test, and so often they failed: they did not believe He would take care of them, that He would provide food, that He would provide water, that He would protect them from their enemies and from the elements, that He would guide them in the right way, and they even went so far as to worship a false god.
The responses Jesus gives to the devil are quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, which recounts for us Moses’ final discourse to the chosen people before they crossed the Jordan River to enter into the Promised Land. Here they are at the end of their forty year sojourn in the Sinai, about to receive the inheritance their God had prepared for them, and Moses gives them a discourse to prepare them for this historic moment.
The basic commandment? To remember; remember all that the Lord did for them and His fidelity to them. And so that they might remember, he commands them: “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God”; “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test”; “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
The Meaning of Lent
Because the devil is real, and he tempts each one of us, seeking to separate us from God and from each other, we take these forty days of Lent to fast with our Lord in the desert. It is important that we take advantage of the practices of Lent, so that the evil one will not succeed in separating us: the practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other acts of charity. And it is important that we do fast, literally fast, abstaining from eating food, especially foods that we enjoy, so we can feel the difference in our bodies.
This teaches us to be less attached to those things to which we feel attracted, so we can be more attentive to caring for the other. There are other forms of fasting that are efficacious as well, such as fasting from watching television or from social media. But corporal fasting is always an integral part of Lent, and it helps to focus and properly direct our prayer and acts of charity.
We do not live this out, though, in an abstract way. We do not literally go into the desert, or go far away from our everyday circumstances. It is right there, in our everyday life, that we must live this out, not seeking some great miracle or display of majesty, but in the everyday situations in which we find ourselves: our families, our places of work, with schoolmates, with fellow parishioners, with all those with whom we interact on a day-to-day basis. As the saying goes, charity begins at home. Being less focused on oneself and what you want and seeking the good of the other is what love means, and that is what builds up unity, strengthening the bonds of communion we have with one another, and thereby with God.
The devil cannot resist this. He seeks to divide us from God by dividing us from one another. We cannot let that happen. But we will only be successful if we remember: remember all our Lord has done for us, all that this time of Lent reminds of, how he freely accepted the most dishonorable death of the Cross in order to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us back to his Father. And we must remember in very practical, concrete ways, not in the abstract: submitting ourselves to the disciplines of Lent – fasting, praying, and seeking always to do good for the other – persevering in acts of penance, and above all in the sacrament of Penance, confessing our sins in the sacrament and receiving the absolution of the priest.
Let us look for these little ways to show God that we remember, that we seek communion with Him by our love and union with one another, so that we, too, with our Lord and with his help, may defeat the devil and so share the glory of heaven. As one Scripture scholar put it, “Our being children of God is not a matter of miracles, but of understanding God’s will through openness to His word and carrying it out in love, trust and obedience.” May God grant us this grace.