The first reading this morning is from Deuteronomy and is part of the account of the Feast of First-fruits, called Shavuot. This feast celebrates the grain harvest in Israel, seven weeks after Passover. ‘What?’ you say, “Harvest Festivals?’ This seems a strange topic when we have just begun a six-week penitential season characterised by, amongst other things, fasting, abstaining from food. Yes, at first glance it does appear somewhat strange, but there is a reason.
The reading from Deuteronomy is mostly an account of the words and actions made by the one offering the fruits of the earth to God. This includes a narration of preceding events: Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to Freedom in the Promised Land. It is a prayerful retelling of the Passover story, which gives thanks to God for His mighty acts. As the Jews relive salvation history, we as Christians are preparing to do the same. Lent precedes Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, around the time of Passover, and also commemorates Jesus’ fasting in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry.
The Christian journey through Lent is something of a trek through the desert. It is characterised by fasting, penitence and charity. These are the ways by which we can prepare our souls and bodies to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We are sorry for all our wrongdoings, but we are also joyful knowing that Christ has overcome sin and death. There is a joy in what we do and who we are because of all that Christ has taught us and done for us. Lent is a hopeful, and a healing time. And the world certainly needs hope and healing at the moment. Lent is an opportunity to give ourselves a bit of encouragement in our spiritual lives, and it is a time to prepare. As Christians, Christ takes us from the wilderness of sin to the promised land of reunion with God the Father, and with each other.
The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans also begins by quoting from Deuteronomy (30:14), just before Moses offers Israel the choice between life and death, good and evil. But for Paul:
‘if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’ (Rom 10:9)
This is the heart of our faith as Christians: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, nor any power of this world. Christ saves us, by His Death and Resurrection. We believe this and bear witness to our belief.
Today’s Gospel takes us right back to the time immediately after Jesus’ Baptism, when He begins His public ministry. Jesus goes out into the desert to be alone, to be quiet, to fast and to pray, and to be close to God the Father. While He is in the desert, Jesus is tempted by the devil. Satan uses three different approaches, beginning by saying:
‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ (Lk 4:3)
This is a temptation to be relevant, Jesus is hungry. The devil is saying, ‘If you’re the Son of God then do this’. This is the same thing that the crowd will say to Jesus as He goes to be crucified. The Devil and the crowd both demand that God prove Himself, rather than accepting the presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God the Father, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Lk 3:22) Jesus is pleasing to God because He is obedient, whereas Satan is all about disobedience, not listening to God, not obeying Him. Whereas the first Adam causes sin to enter into the world by eating forbidden fruit, Christ, who is the second Adam, conquers by not eating. The desert is the exact opposite of the garden of Eden, and becomes the place of obedience, reconciliation and healing.
Jesus’ second temptation is to have power. The devil says to Him,
‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (Lk 4:6-7)
Jesus prefers heavenly glory and the salvation of humanity to worldly power. The devil can only offer a false god and fleeting power, whereas Christ stands for what is true and eternal. The temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil, leads to the misuse of power. It’s a very human failing. One that we see all too clearly in our world today.
The third temptation for Jesus, is to put God to the test, to be spectacular and self-seeking. Whenever we say, ‘look at me’ we’re not saying, ‘look at God’. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’. God does not need to prove anything. He loves us, and sent His Son for us. Jesus’ throwing himself from the Temple would be a spectacle, but it wouldn’t achieve anything. The high place which Jesus will go up to is the Cross on Calvary. Here He will suffer and die to save humanity. This is where God shows His love for the world, in humiliation rather than a glory-seeking stunt.
Eventually the devil gives up and departs. Jesus’ faith is stronger than temptation. All these temptations are real things that we face in our lives, but Jesus shows us that we can resist them. It isn’t easy, quite the opposite, but it is possible. This should encourage us as we try to follow Jesus’ example, and grow in holiness this Lent. God does not ask the impossible of us, just that we try, and that we ask for forgiveness when we fail. We grow in holiness in Lent through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Prayer offers us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. It is more about quality than quantity: expressing true repentance, for what we have done and failed to do, and resolving to do better in the future. Almsgiving helps us to be charitable and generous, to care for those in need, just as God is generous towards us.
Fasting is key, because it helps us to master our bodily cravings, to control what we eat and do, rather than being controlled by our appetites. Just as prayer is not about getting God’s attention or changing His mind, but rather changing who and what we are, making us more loving, humble and dependant on God. In the same way fasting stops us being slaves to our desires. It sets us free, and helps us to listen to God, and draw closer to Him. Through abstinence we enter into Christ’s suffering, so we can follow the way of the Cross. We do this joyfully, because we are following Christ. We are learning to resist temptation, aided by prayer and a generous heart. We pray that this Lenten season helps us to grow in faith, hope, and love, enabling us to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection with greater joy.
So, my brothers and sisters, may we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Paschal mystery so that we, and all the world, may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen