Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

February 17, 2002

St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati

(Based on Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:7; Psalm 51:3-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)

What is Lent all about -- really? How would you answer that question if someone asked you?

In order to answer it, I'd like to take you back to the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Unfortunately, for a lot of good reasons many people can't get to Mass that day and so they miss the very first proclamation. That's too bad, because that first reading is a sort of fanfare that is intended to set the tone and get us focused on what it's all about. It should set the direction for all of Lent.

We read in the book of Joel:

"Rend your hearts, not your garments,

and return to the Lord, your God,

for gracious and merciful is God,

slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment."

Lent is not about external penances, 'giving things up'. That sort of thing. Those are simply external signs to help us to stay focused on the deeper task.

Lent is about our hearts. It's about stripping away all the accretions, the non-essentials, that collect over the year and clog up the soul. It's about returning once more to the foundation, the essentials. It's about rebuilding our spiritual lives, from the foundation up -- in preparation for a totally new beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Easter.

The beginning of our spiritual life, as we read in Genesis and Romans, is God's promise of life. God wants us to have life, God's own life. The beginning, the first act of a Christian spiritual life, the foundation which grounds everything else, is wonder at this amazing reality. Sheer amazement. And then thanksgiving, and praise of God.

The center is not sin, it's not shame, it's not guilt, it's not should, it's not duty, it's not obligation. It's a promise, an offering, an invitation -- which evokes desire. We want to live the life God offers because it is sheer gift. As John puts it: "It's not that we first loved Go but God first loved us." Our first response is one of humble acceptance.

I heard a fellow put it very succinctly recently: "I'm God -- and you're not."

But we need to put more flesh on that gift of life God has given to us in order to appreciate it. Because it's not 'life in general'. It's incarnate, given to us in our here-and-now situation in this world.

Last week someone sent me a wonderful message off the web. It was artistically presented, and it described some important things about our life.

It noted that out of every 100 people in our world, we -- of both North and south America together -- make up only 14; 86 belong to other continents, and 61 of them are Asians. . . .We belong to a very small minority. . . . Only 33% are Christians (Catholics and Protestants); 67 don't know the blessings of Christ in their lives. . . . 80% live in poverty. . . . If you keep your food in a fridge, your clothes in a closet, and sleep in a bed, you're richer than 75% of the world . . . . If you have a bank account, you're part of the 8% wealthiest of people . . . . you never had a relative die in war, never been a slave, and never been tortured, you're better off than 500 million. And it ends by saying "if you were able to read the message, you're luckier than one billion who can't read."

I don't report these things to make us feel guilty, but simply to help to appreciate the gifts we enjoy.

And beyond these gifts, we are offered the grace and favor of a God who desires to walk with us in a garden -- even in the face of sin.

You know, the passage we read from the Epistle to the Romans frequently gets us all tied in knots, as if it's all about what we call 'original sin.' That's not what Paul wants us to focus on at all. The point he's trying to get across is that, no matter how powerful sin is, the power of God's grace is greater: "how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace come to reign in life. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is not about their physical body, much less about sex. It's about their ease and comfort with a God who wants to walk with us in the garden in the cool of the evening. It's about their total trust and lack of fear in the presence of God. It is that trusting ease which is destroyed by sin -- and that is what God wants to restore with us.

And what does all this have to do with the temptations of Jesus in the desert?

They are the symbolic way of telling us about his own search for what kind of messiah his Father desired him to be. He was finding his path as he came to maturity. As we do.

And it's been pointed out that all the temptations were to misuse his power. To misuse the gifts of life given to him.

The first seduction was to use his power to produce earthly food, to lose his center: reliance on the word and promise of the Father. Lose that and he distorts his calling, his radical power.

Then there is the temptation to do the spectacular. If he does that, people will be compelled to follow him. And that is not his Father's way. God doesn't force, God invites -- and then respects our freedom to choose to respond or not.

And finally the devil wants to seduce him into becoming a political ruler, a king over all the world. When he's really called to be a servant.

Theologians note that when these words were first heard they were being addressed to the church. They are our temptations. Ultimately the same underlying single temptation, to fashion God's plan according to our image.

We are richly gifted, and our God wants to make us completely new again, to make a brand new start with the gift of the Spirit at Easter. One of the great biblical images is that of God as the Potter. The potter works tirelessly at shaping the loveliest of vessels -- and then decides it still isn't fine enough, so the Potter goes down to the potting shed and breaks the vessel in order to make an even lovelier one.

Sin is real, and it is powerful. But it is not the center, the core of our spiritual life. Where sin abounded, grace will make us more powerful.

"Rend your hearts, not your garments,

and return to the Lord, your God,

for gracious and merciful is God,

slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment."