The 1st Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 10-15
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 10:8-13
Gospel: According to St. Luke 4:1-13
I love Lent.
I love Lent because it is a New Year’s resolution do-over. I love Lent because it reminds me to read the Bible. I love Lent because it means that winter is begrudgingly moving into spring. But most of all I love Lent because it forces me to look at reality – a reality that I like to ignore.
Man, you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I don’t really mind the other formulations that are used by ministers of the ashes, but, as with so many things, the original is the best. These words should take us back to the Garden of Eden and the fallout from the disobedience of Adam and Eve. As a consequence of his sin, Adam will toil by the sweat of his brow, and after his years of struggle he will return to the ground from which he came.
One can’t be confronted with reality in a more straightforward way than that. But the other side of that reality coin is the Paschal Mystery. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to save us from our bondage – not the bondage of toil and sweat and struggle, but our bondage to the sin that caused the toil and sweat and struggle. We still toil and sweat and struggle, but through Jesus we do so with purpose and meaning. Our toil and sweat and struggle are given meaning when they are nailed to the Cross with Jesus. The reason why a follower of Jesus is willing to suffer is not because suffering is ‘good,’ but because suffering can become redemptive and salvific in and through Jesus.
The story in today’s Gospel reading ties together all of what makes Lent meaningful to a follower of Jesus. First, the temptation in the desert hearkens back to the temptation in the garden and symbolically shows what has happened to the world since that original temptation – a garden has been replaced by a desert. Symbolically, that original garden points to another garden – a garden where Jesus begins the toil and sweat and struggle of his last hours.
Also, the time that Jesus spends in the desert is the same 40 days that we spend in our own Lenten desert – away from some of the comforts of our normal lives, the myriad pleasures that we have given up for Lent. Forty is a number that appears again and again in the Bible and it refers to a time of trial or testing before an epiphany, or revealing, by God. The Israelites are in the desert for 40 years before the Promised Land is revealed to them, and Jesus is in the desert for 40 days before He is revealed to the world at the beginning of His ministry.
Finally, and most importantly, it both looks back to the reason why Jesus came into the world in the first place, and looks forward to the Paschal Mystery, the completion of His mission. Jesus is willing to toil and sweat and struggle and eventually return to the dust from which He came – in the form of the tomb given to Him by St. Joseph of Arimathea. But His obedience defeats the death that was brought about by the disobedience of Adam and sustained by the disobedience of us all. His death enables us to share in His Resurrection at Easter.
Each Lent we are confronted with the story of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. We are brought face-to-face with the toil and sweat and struggle of the God Who offered Himself for our sake. We are shown the path we must walk if we are to become more than dust. Whether we like it or not, we are shown reality.