Lent I Year C (Deut 26:1-11, Rom 10:8-13, Lk 4:1-13)

The Christian journey through Lent is something of a journey through the desert. It is characterised by fasting, penitence and charity as these are the ways in which we can prepare our souls and bodies to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We are sorry for our sins, but also joyful in knowing that Christ has overcome sin and death. There is a joyful character to what we do and who we are because of what Christ has taught us and done for us. It’s a hopeful, and a healing time. It’s a chance to give ourselves a bit of encouragement in our spiritual lives, and to get ready. 

Our first reading this morning from Deuteronomy is an account of the festival of first fruits, a Jewish Harvest Festival. The prayer is an account of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. It is a prayer of gratitude, ‘And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you’ (Deut 26:10-11 ESV) which also forms part of the Jewish Passover ritual. As Christians, Christ takes us from the wilderness of sin to the promised land of reunion with God the Father and each other. This greater passover sees humanity freed from sin and death through the love of God. This is what we are preparing to celebrate with joyful expectation. 

Likewise, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans 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 ESV) This is the heart of our faith as Christians: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, or any power of this world. He saves us, by His Death and Resurrection. We believe this and bear witness to our belief. 

Our Gospel this morning takes right back to the beginning. Just after His Baptism, as He begins His public ministry, Jesus goes out into the desert to be alone, to be quiet, to fast and to pray, to be close to God the Father. While He is in the desert Jesus is tempted by the devil. The devil begins by saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ It is a temptation to be relevant, Jesus is hungry. The devil is saying, ‘If you’re the Son of God then do this’, something which the crowd will say to Jesus as He goes to be crucified. They 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 ESV) Jesus is pleasing to God because He is obedient, whereas Satan is all about disobedience, not listening to God, not obeying Him. Jesus has been led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and 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, the opposite of a garden becomes the place of reconciliation and healing.’ [1] Jesus who is the Living Bread come down from Heaven, conquers Satan with the Word of God, Himself the Word made flesh who will feed us with Himself, to give us life in Him. The Church exists to feed Christ’s sheep with Word and Sacrament, and to proclaim that He is the Son of god and Saviour.

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 ESV) 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. The church stands condemned for the mistakes of the past and the present, but in recognising this there is the possibility of a more humble church in the future: reliant upon God and not on the exercise of power. At its heart, the Good News of the Kingdom is about repentance: turning away from the our sins, turning back to our loving Father and asking for His forgiveness. 

The third temptation, the temptation to put God to the test, is 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 Jesus will go up to is the Cross on Calvary, where He will suffer and die to save humanity. This is what God wants, to show His love for the world, not just a stunt. 

The devil departs, Jesus’ faith is stronger than temptation. The temptations are real, and 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 as the impossible of us, just that we try, and repent 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’s more about quality than quantity: true repentance, for what we’ve done and failed to do, and a resolve not to do so in the future are what are needed. 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 subjugate our appetite. It isn’t a holy diet, but rather an exercise of the will and a mastery of the flesh: we 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, so fasting stops us being slaves to our desires. It sets us free, and helps us to listen to God, and draw closer to Him. It helps us enter into Christ’s suffering, so we can follow the way of the Cross. We do this joyfully, because we are following Christ, learning to resist temptation, aided by prayer and a generous heart. Christians are made as well as born, and this Lenten season helps us to grow in faith, hope, and love, so that we may celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection with greater joy. 

[1] Ratzinger, J. (2007) Jesus of Nazareth, London: Bloomsbury, 27.

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Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17, 2Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of her Lenten journey towards the great festival of Easter. The entire Christian community is invited to live this period of forty days as a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal. 

In the Bible, the number forty is rich in symbolism. It recalls Israel’s journey in the desert: a time of expectation, purification and closeness to the Lord, but also a time of temptation and testing. It also evokes Jesus’ own sojourn in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry. This was a time of profound closeness to the Father in prayer, but also of confrontation with the mystery of evil. 

The Church’s Lenten discipline is meant to help deepen our life of faith and our imitation of Christ in his paschal mystery. In these forty days may we strive to draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example. We seek to conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism. For the whole Church may this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in union with the crucified and risen Lord, through the experience of the desert to the joy and hope brought by Easter. [1]

Fasting, repentance, prayer, and even the imposition of ashes were not unknown to Jews. That is why we as Christians carry on the tradition such things are wise and beneficial as we enter the desert of Lent. They remind us that, first and foremost, we should recognise our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, and our own turning away from a God of Love and Mercy. While we may admit this, outward signs are not enough. There is nothing that we can do in a solely exterior fashion: ripping our clothes, placing ashes upon our foreheads, which will, in and of itself, make a blind bit of difference. What matters, where it really counts, is on the inside. To rend one’s heart, is to lay ourselves open, to make ourselves vulnerable. It is in this openness and vulnerability, that we let God do His work.

It would be all too easy when faced with today’s Gospel to argue that outward displays of fasting, piety, and penitence, do not matter. But this is not what Jesus is getting at. What He criticises are deeds which are done to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law. This mechanised approach to piety, a clinging to the external nature of religion, without any concern for its inward spiritual aspect, is where the fault lies. When things are done for show, when our piety is paraded as performance, so that the world may see how good and religious we are, then we are nothing but an empty shell, a whitened sepulchre. The reward that such people receive is likewise an empty one.

Instead, Jesus upholds the standard practice of Judaism, but emphasises that what matters is that what we do outwardly is completely in accordance with our interior life. Our actions are an outward manifestation of our relationship with God and with one another. So Lent is to be a time when we as Christians are to seek to be reconciled with God and each other, and to be in full communion with God and his church. Our outward acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving need to be done in tandem with, rather than instead of, paying attention to our interior life: otherwise our efforts are doomed to failure.

The God whom we worship is one of infinite love and mercy. This is demonstrated most fully and perfectly on Good Friday, when we see what that love really means. Then, for our sake, God made Him who was without sin into sin, so that we in Him might share the goodness of God. Or, as St Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh century Syrian saint puts it:

The sum of all is that God the Lord of all, out of fervent love for his creation, handed over his own Son to death on the cross “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for its sake.”(Jn 3:16) This was not because he could not have saved us in another way, but so that he might thereby the better indicate to us his surpassing love, so that, by the death of his only-begotten Son, he might bring us close to himself. Yes, if he had had anything more precious he would have given it to us so that our race might thereby be recovered. Because of his great love, he did not want to use compulsion on our freedom, although he would have been able to do so; but instead he chose that we should draw near to him freely, by our own mind’s love. [2]

As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.’ [3]

As dreadful as we might be, or think we are, as utterly undeserving of the father’s love, nonetheless, as the parable of the prodigal son shows us, there are no lengths to which God will not go for love of us. The love and mercy which flows from Jesus’ stricken side upon the cross at Calvary are still being poured out over the world, and will continue to be so until all is reconciled in him. In his commission of Peter after his resurrection, Jesus entrusts to His Church the power to forgive sins, to reconcile us to one another and also to God. This reconciliation is manifested by our restoration to fellowship with God and his Church. 

It is not the most comfortable or pleasant thing to see ourselves as we really are. To stand naked in front of a full length mirror is, for most of us, I suspect, not the most pleasant experience. And yet, such a self-examination is as nothing when compared with us completely baring our heart and soul. It is not a pleasant task. But we know that God will judge us in love and mercy. He has taken away our sins on the Cross. So, despite our apprehension, we have nothing to fear. All that awaits us is the embrace of a loving father. No matter how many times we fail, no matter how many times we run away or reject his love, His arms, like those of His Son upon the Cross, remain open to embrace us. To heal all the world of the wounds of sin and division.

Austin Farrer, a twentieth century Anglican theologian wrote:

If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacraments, to shun besetting sins, to do good works – all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. The more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break so long as you are resolute not to put off repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Converted or unconverted, it remains true of you that in you, that is, in your natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not people who store goodness in themselves, they are just a people who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable. [4]

So then, may this Lent be for us all a time of repentance, a time for us to turn away from all which separates us from God and our neighbours. Let it be a time for reconciliation, for healing and growth. May the faith which we profess grow in our souls and shine forth in our lives to give Glory to God the Father, to whom with God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just all Might, Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power, now and forever….

[1] H.H. Pope Bendict XVI Catechesis at the General Audience 22.ii.12: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-conquering-our-spiritual-desert

[2] from The Heart of Compassion: Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, ed. A.M. Allchin, tr. S. Brock, London, DLT, 1989, 13

[3] from The Heart of Compassion: Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, ed. A.M. Allchin, tr. S. Brock, London, DLT, 1989, 37

[4] Farrer (1976) The Brink of Mystery (ed. C. Conti), 17, quoted in Harries, R. (ed.) (1987) The One Genius: Readings through the year with Austin Farrer, London: SPCK, 60.

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Augustine on the works of mercy

Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.

When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.

What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.

Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.

But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if  it is only  a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?

Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.

If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

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