Sunday, February 21, 2010

Be With Me Lord, When I Am In Trouble.

First Sunday of Lent
Reading I
Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Moses spoke to the people, saying:
 “The priest shall receive the basket from you
and shall set it in front of the altar
of the LORD, your God.
Then you shall declare before the Lord, your God,
‘My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.
But there he became a nation
 great, strong, and numerous.
When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us,
imposing hard labor upon us,
we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers,
and he heard our cry
 and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
He brought us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and outstretched arm,
with terrifying power,
with signs and wonders;
and bringing us into this country,
he gave us this land
flowing with milk and honey.
Therefore, I have now brought you the firstfruits
of the products of the soil
which you, O LORD, have given me.’
And having set them before the Lord, your God,
you shall bow down in his presence.”
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Psalm 91
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I trust.”
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
No evil shall befall you,
nor shall affliction come near your tent,
For to his angels he has given command about you,
that they guard you in all your ways.
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Upon their hands they shall bear you up,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
You shall tread upon the asp and the viper;
you shall trample down the lion and the dragon.
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Because he clings to me, I will deliver him;
I will set him on high
because he acknowledges my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in distress;
I will deliver him and glorify him.
Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
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Reading II
Romans 10:8-13
Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say?
The word is near you,
in your mouth and in your heart
 —that is, the word of faith that we preach—,
 for, 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 one believes with the heart and so is justified,
and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
For the Scripture says,
No one who believes in him will be put to shame.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all,
enriching all who call upon him.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13
Filled with the Holy Spirit,
Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert
for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here,
for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and:
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.
We have now entered the great season of Lent. For those of us who are old enough to remember, Lent in the past was not, in some respects, a time we looked forward to. Fasting and abstinence, not to mention other forms of penance, were in force and it was a serious business. Easter was looked forward to with real anticipation. Our attitudes to Lent tended to be on the gloomy and negative side. Perhaps nowadays we have gone to the other extreme where Lent hardly means anything at all. "You mean Lent has started already. Really, I had no idea! Easter will be on top of us before we know where we are and I haven't bought a thing!"

Yet Lent has always been one of the key periods of the Church year and it would be a great pity if we were to forget its real meaning. In fact, that is what we ask for in the Opening Prayer just before we sit down to listen to the readings: "Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of your Son's death and resurrection and teach us to reflect it in our lives." Really, the whole purpose of Lent is beautifully summarized in that prayer - to understand the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus and to live that out in our own lives.

The period of Lent is six weeks to help us do precisely that. The Church provides Lent almost like an annual retreat, a time for deepening the understanding of our Christian faith, a time for reflection and renewal, a time to make a fresh start.

In the First Reading of today's Mass, Moses speaks to the Israelites at the end of their forty years wandering in the desert and he prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land. That is what the Lenten season is meant to do for us also.

Traditionally on this First Sunday of Lent the Gospel speaks of the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Jesus has just completed his forty days of preparation in the desert and he now faces one more test before he begins his mission. This incident takes place between the baptism of Jesus and the start of his public mission, beginning (in Luke's gospel) at Nazareth.

In the early centuries of the Church, Lent was seen as a time of beginning. It was - and again now is - a time for forming new converts, preparing them for their formal entry into the Church community by baptism and confirmation during the celebration of Jesus' resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Today, in fact, is their day of Election. Our catechumens are entering the last six weeks of preparation for Baptism. Let us pray for them and be in solidarity with them during this time.

For those of us who are already baptized, it can equally be a new beginning. Often we prefer to stay with the known and the familiar, even though it does not give us great satisfaction. We can settle into a routine kind of Christianity that goes on basically unchanged from year to year. It is not very inspiring but we stick with it rather than risk the unknown that radical conversion can bring.

Rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life.

The first temptation (to change stones into bread) and the third (to jump from the top of the Temple) try to turn Jesus away from his role as the Servant-Messiah to become an eye-catching, self-serving superstar. "Follow me because I am the greatest." The second temptation (to worship the devil who can give power and wealth) tries to entice Jesus away from the true direction of all human living - the love and service of God and his creation. He is being lured from setting up a Kingdom of love and service to controlling an empire of minions.

The forty days in the desert eating nothing reminds us of Moses doing the very same. At the end Moses received and proclaimed the message of God (the Law) just as Jesus will go on to make his mission statement in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). Also, the replies that Jesus gives to the Evil One are all from Deuteronomy (one of five books attributed to Moses) and his temptations correspond to those which afflicted the Israelites on their desert journey. The difference is that the Israelites succumbed but not Jesus.

All in all Jesus shows himself totally faithful and trusting in God and thus qualified for his role as Messiah. And these temptations are made to sound all the more reasonable because the Messiah was expected to bring bread down from heaven, to subject other kingdoms to Israel and to perform a dazzling sign to prove his credentials.

When we think of temptations, we tend to think of sexual sins, telling lies, losing our tempers, gossiping about people's (imagined) faults, getting angry, feeling resentment and the like. But the really dangerous temptations are to want material wealth for its own sake (the ability to turn anything into money ['bread']), to want status (everyone looks up to me), and power (I can manipulate people and things for my own ends), things which are seen as going with wealth, power and status.

These are dangerous because they reduce other people and even the material world to things that can be used purely for my personal gain. They are dangerous because they create a world and a society in which everyone has to compete to get as much for themselves as they can. In such a rat race world, a minority corners to itself a disproportionate amount of the world's goods while the majority is left without what they need. Above all, such people are dangerous because they can create the prevailing creed of the society in which we live. They believe that undiluted happiness comes with winning millions in the lottery. They believe that the ownership of what they have acquired is absolute. But there is no absolute ownership of anything.

The world, the Kingdom that Jesus came to build, has a different set of values altogether. And it is those values we will be considering all during Lent. Many Christians are chasing the idols of wealth, status and power just as fanatically as their non-Christian brothers and sisters. But, in fact, these are non-Christian, even anti-Christian, ambitions. They are not the way of Jesus, they are not the way of the Kingdom, nor indeed are they the way to a fully human, fully satisfying life for anyone.

This is what today's Gospel is about. This is what Lent means as a time of reflection and a time of re-evaluating the quality and direction of our lives. A time for reconsidering our priorities both as Christians and human beings. A time to re-affirm our conviction of the equal dignity of every single human person.

Says the Second Reading today: "Those who believe in him will have no cause for shame, it makes no difference between Jew and Greek. All belong to the same Lord who is rich enough, however many ask for his help, for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." It is a scandal and a crime then when some of us actively prevent brothers and sisters having access to the material, social and spiritual goods of God's creation.
Finally, before we leave today's Gospel, let us not overlook its final sentence: "The devil left him to return at the appointed time." The battle with evil was not over for Jesus. It will occur again and again at various stages in his life, right up to and especially at those last hours in the garden and on the Cross.

For us, too, the battle against evil never stops. The selfishness, the greed, the anger and hostility, the jealousy and resentment, above all the desire to have rather than to share, to control rather than to serve will continually dog us. We and our children are caught up in the competitive rat race without even knowing it.

Our only success in life can be what we achieve in building not palaces or empires but in building a society that is more loving and just, based on the message of Jesus, a message of truth and integrity, of love and compassion, of freedom and peace.

That is why we need this purifying period of Lent every year. If, in past years, we let it go by largely unnoticed, let this year be a little different. Let it be a second spring in our lives. Let it mean something in our discipleship with Christ.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'To control rather than to serve'

Lent can become an exercise in self-control - sometimes in the service of quite selfish motives (e.g. a slimming diet - which may express a pathological desire for control, as in anorexia nervosa!). Self control is also the essential first step in anyone's pursuit of power.

I was just reading about liberty. True liberty, apparently, is living in accordance with one's nature and vocation. In the desert, Jesus seems truly free in His knowledge of His own nature and vocation. He does not have to exercise self-control to resist Satan.

In the past, I used to like giving up things for Lent to prove to myself that I was still capable of a bit of self control (rather a selfish aim!). Now I think it is more a matter of trying to be who I truly am - to be free.