Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A 2013-14
I happened to be reading Karl Rahner the other day and was surprised to find out that in the Western Church, the Season of Lent as a time of prayer and fasting was a much later addition than I had thought. It came sometime in the 7th century. Up to that time Holy Week was the only penitential time – the six days preceding Easter. So why did our liturgical concept of Lent develop and what do we see it as today?
Obviously, since it is a forty day period of time, it must have something to do with the Gospel of Matthew that we read today. In Matthew, before Jesus begins his three years of ministry, he goes off by himself into the wild to fast and to pray. As I thought about this it seemed that forty days was an incredibly long time to fast. Matthew says that near the end he was “famished”. He must have been! Now fasting does not necessarily mean that he ate or drank nothing, but since he was alone out in the wilderness, he couldn’t have had much. He was led to do this by the Spirit, so he did it. It also seems that this forty days must have been an important time in which Jesus was coming to terms with who he was. He left the world that he knew, the family that he knew and stripped himself of as much of his humanity as he could, in order to fully comprehend his divinity. Even though Jesus was God, he was also fully human, and our humanity often gets in the way of seeing and understanding the divine. Prayer and fasting for Jesus must have been the means to get closer to his Godhead, to communicate with the Father, to understand the dichotomy of being a God-human, and more to the purpose, he needed to know what he was supposed to do.
But he was fully human and at the end of the forty days, things happened to him in probably a very human way. Someone in his condition could begin to hallucinate, and while I do not want to say that the tempter was a figment of Jesus’ imagination (I believe the temptations were real!) his physical condition left him in a very vulnerable state.
When the tempter came after him, the devil cleverly played on that state. At this point, Jesus knew that he was the Son of God – his forty days had made that very clear to him – and so the tempter uses that point as a starting point in the temptations. If you are really the Son of God, what are you doing out here starving? You don’t need to starve; you could easily command these rocks become food for you. If you are God’s Son, what are you doing in this wilderness, stumbling around? You could summon angels to protect you. If you really are the Son of God, you don’t have to be here starving and lonely, you could make yourself King and be waited on, and everyone would want to befriend you.
The devil inside Jesus plays on the very human fears and needs of us all. But Jesus, though tempted, never gives in, never says what most of us would say. He has gone out to the wilderness to find God, to communicate with God, to realize his Godhead, and he knows now that this is all that matters – that his very life is directed to and by God. And so, he is able to say to the tempter that the only food he needs is the Word of God, the only help he needs is the love of God and the only kingdom he needs is the eternal kingdom of the Father. He tells Satan to get away from him. Even in his weakness and hunger and fatigue, he knows now what he has to do and what is important in human, as well as divine, life. “Away with you, Satan!”. And ironically, though he has turned down the request of angelic help, the angels come and minister to him as a sign of who is really is.
We are not gods, no matter that we try to act like we are sometimes. If Jesus who was Son of God needed to strip away his humanity through prayer and fasting in order to get a clear vision of God and what God wanted of him and his own Godhead, how much more must we need to do it?
In the first reading today we hear again the story from Genesis of the other great temptation. The one that we did not pass – the temptation to be like gods. This great decision of Adam and Eve was not thought out carefully in the wilderness. They were apparently hungry – either for food or knowledge – but they forsake God’s command and gave in to that temptation.
And so, in our second reading from Paul today to the Romans, Paul explains how Jesus came to make right that bad decision, that temptation so easily given into by Adam and Eve; how that would be made right by someone who would not give into temptation. And so Paul can say that “…just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
And it all began out in the wilderness, when Jesus makes the decision not to be tempted and to begin his work of redemption. And so, through Jesus, we can have our transgressions blotted out, as we prayed in our Psalm response today.
So it is that each year since the 7th century the Western church has Lent – 40 days in which to pray and fast and be like Jesus in an attempt to get closer to our God and know what God is asking of us. What we do to divest ourselves of our totally human inclinations can be called “fasting”. The days of giving up candy for Lent I hope are gone. It has to be more serious than that. We need to try to find something in our lives that is pulling us away from God, and try to do without that. Maybe it is spending too much time surfing the internet, too much time shopping, too much time playing games on the computer – whatever is stopping us from getting in touch with our spiritual selves and making a connection with our God – that would be the true concept of fasting in the wilderness today.
So I ask you to look at these things as the days go by, not to lose sight of them, to try every single day to get a little closer to God through prayer, meditation, good works, charitable deeds, and less catering to our mostly selfish needs. If you do this, you may be tempted, as Jesus was, to take the easier routes, but maybe, like Jesus, you will be able to easier say: Get away, Satan. God and God’s kingdom is more important to me!
And this is the Good News of prayer and fasting I present to you today. May you truly discover God this Lent, and the path God wants you to take.
Bishop Ron Stephens, Auxiliary Bishop of Holy Trinity Diocese Of the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)
Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA
[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 - Teaching the Church Year”]