Mass for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A and the Mass for the commencement of the academic year of the Holy Spirit Seminary, at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta
Readings: Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Psalm 50(51):3-6, 12-14, 17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Dear brothers and sisters,
This is an extraordinary sentence in the Gospel. Jesus was not spared of this basic human experience. He was tested and then emerged even more focused on his identity and mission as the Son of God. His 40 days of extreme vulnerability was reminiscent of the 40 years that God’s people wandered in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. This epic journey, known in the Bible as the Exodus, formed our ancestors in faith more than the destination itself. For they were purified and cleansed of all that was unworthy of God.
So Lent is a time for us to emulate the wilderness experience of Jesus in a way that leads to transformation. In the first reading, Adam and Eve underwent the test of trust in the form of the forbidden fruit. The serpent sows a doubt about the trustworthiness of God and appeals to their acquisitiveness for absolute power. What follows the betrayal of trust by our first parents is a breakdown of relationships in all directions. Their choice of selfishness alienated them not only from God but also from all that God had made.
The Gospel story is at pains to tell us how Jesus overcomes temptation and shows us the way out of our original slavery to evil. In effect, it is a self-emptying journey writ large and a prelude to total self-giving accomplished on the cross. It is the choice for the long hard road of love in powerlessness and vulnerability over against the default desire for security, power and self-preservation.
Let’s survey the three temptations. First, when Jesus is tempted to turn the stone into bread, he responds by pointing to a deeper hunger. By recognising God as the true bread, he exposes the fallacy of the greed, power and security. Self-indulgence, consumerism, military and economic strength will not make us safe and content. Acquiring all that satisfies our needs without any space for the human spirit or attention to the mystery of life will leave us enslaved. Jesus teaches us that only our nourishment in God can we have the power to break free.
The second temptation is to be the superhero. It’s the cult of popularity, which is rampant in our success-driven society. Jesus does not buy into this illusion. He does not throw himself down from the parapet of the temple or later, the cross. He shows us the way of enduring love. Finally, Jesus is tempted to be free from all pain, suffering and hurt. “[God] will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” the devil promises Jesus. The implication is that if we are beloved of God, then God will keep us safe: safe from physical and emotional harm, frailty and disease, accidents and even death.
Here again, Jesus shows another way of dealing with suffering. It is not a miraculous escape, an impenetrable shield and a spectacular rescue. It is, rather, the cross. He teaches us that we are loved in our vulnerability. Not out of it. We are the children of a God who accompanies us in our suffering, not a God who guarantees us a lifetime of immunity.
The lesson that Jesus taught us in the desert is to put God’s intention over above personal comfort and satisfaction. When we are too comfortable, too settled, we see no need; we feel no discomfort; we hear no summons to God’s vision for the Church and for the world. Jesus shows us that we can privilege solidarity over selfishness, self-giving over self-preservation, love over fear. The clue about how to live an alternative life in the world and to overcome evil is the cross. It is to accept the risk of self as opposed to the desire for selfishness. The paradox becomes apparent: to live like Jesus is requires the expenditure of self for the sake of others.
St Paul in the second reading gives us reason for hope. He compares and contrasts the two figures in order to bring out the superiority of the gift of grace and eternal life that comes to us in Christ over against the legacy of sin stemming from Adam.
Today we also pray for our seminarians and the formation staff at Holy Spirit Seminary as they begin the new scholastic year. We are blessed with these men who respond the call to follow Christ and embody his kingdom vision. Their journey of formation is like the exodus of God’s People and the self-emptying journey of Christ. Indeed, the rhythm of the paschal mystery is being rigorously enacted in the priesthood of our time. We need to die to all that is unworthy of Christ’s priesthood, in order to rise and resemble even more perfectly the Master-Servant. Instead of returning to some golden era of the Church, they are to embrace the refining and purifying that will enable them to live and serve like Christ.
“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness”. This suggests a powerful and deep struggle as he learns to embrace the unknown part of his messianic journey.
As we begin this Lenten season, let us not be afraid to live the self-emptying pattern of the Master. Lent is our time to renew our own baptismal commitment, to follow the way of Jesus and to live our mission with courage. May the God who led his Beloved into the desert to test, renew and transform him also enable us to do the same.
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