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First Sunday of Lent

March 1, 2020
First Sunday of Lent
[22] Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 / Psalm 51 / Romans 5:12-19 / Matthew 4:1-11

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The Deception of the Serpent & the Truth of Christ

Having been created, the Scriptures relate the testing and fall of mankind in the primordial garden.  The serpent, which we know to be the devil, asks Eve about the divine command against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It is thus clarified that she knows full well what God has sanctioned.  She will not act from ignorance but rather from a lack of trust and from defiance.  The serpent lies to her and she is willing to believe the lie.  She takes the forbidden fruit and gives it to her husband.  Sin, suffering and death enter the world of men. That unfortunately is still the way of it, despite the redemptive work of Christ.  God communicates his saving truth through Scripture, the Church and natural law.  But some do not care.  They seek to make their own brand of truth.  Harkening back to Genesis, there is a rejection of marriage as between a man and woman and many embrace a culture of death that devalues the human person and dismisses the sanctity of life.  The devil numbs consciences and has us separate ourselves from God so that we might defy him.  We supplant his truth with the lies we tell ourselves.  Jesus enters the world to counteract this defiance with his fidelity.  He confronts the deception as the one who heralds the truth.  Many search for this truth and others turn their backs to it.  Jesus says to Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37-38).

Signs of Life

Our Lord enters the world to restore that which was lost.  Unfortunately, while our bondage to the devil is broken, some refuse to leave their cages.  Just as God breathed life into his creation, Jesus would breathe redemption and eternal life upon us.  Along with breath, the first People of God naturally associate a number of other traits with life, notably food and blood. The Gospel verse brings to the surface the themes of saving food and the utterance of God:

“One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”    

The Sign of Food

Note in the Gospel what happens when Jesus restores a person to life. Our Lord will commend that the person be given something to eat.  This is the case of the little girl about whom the Lord says is only asleep.  More significantly, after the resurrection he is tending a fire to cook fish caught by the apostles.  He invites them to breakfast.  Eating is a natural sign of life.  We must eat to live.  This truth is noted in the Lord’s Prayer with the reference to “our daily bread.”  This element takes a far deeper meaning in terms of the Last Supper where Jesus tells his apostles to take and eat the sacrament or transformed bread of his body.  Eating and food signifies life.  Our Lord grants this a spiritual dynamic, in other words, our share in eternal life.

The Sign of Blood

Another natural association made with life is blood.  If a person is injured and loses too much blood he dies.  It does not take a rocket scientist to figure this out.  Thus, blood equals life.  It is because of this that the Jews have rules about being made unclean through the spilling, consuming or even the touching of blood.  All life belongs to God. The unlawful spilling of blood with either violence against others or pagan sacrifice usurps from God what belongs to him as the author of life.  The loss of blood means death.  Again, in reference to the Last Supper, Jesus takes the chalice and says for all to drink of this cup of his blood.  Our Lord literally is granting a share of his life.  Similarly, we receive in Holy Communion, the resurrected Lord.

The Sign of Breath

Today’s first reading from Genesis brings us to another elemental sign of life, breathing:

“The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” 

The Greek word (pneuma) for breath is the same as that used for “spirit” or “wind.”  God is literally breathing his spirit or life into the creatures he has made. The catechism speaks about how God as creator sustains our life from moment to moment.  The Jews understood this in terms of breath.  God breathes his life into us.  Every breath we take is literally a participation in the divine breathing or life.  Once more, the natural association is clear.  The first indicator of life is when a baby cries and takes his first breaths.  The most immediate indicator of death is when a person stops breathing.

As well as the gift of life, the act of speaking is also closely associated with breathing.  When God breathes upon us we are touched by his Word, both in creation and later with re-creation in Christ.  Breath also allows us to speak and we are commissioned to proclaim the Good News of Christ.  We announce in the responsorial,

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” 

Our breath and life has a purpose or meaning.  Jesus, who is God come down from heaven, conquers death by his saving Cross.  Appearing to his apostles, he says:  “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:21-23). Here I often think about the first part of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Word.  Later is the Liturgy of the Eucharist where priests are taught that their breath during consecration should touch the bread and wine.  That is why it sometimes looks like the priest is talking into the cup.  The divine breath or Spirit gives efficacy to the Eucharist and other sacraments. We trace our life and our hope for eternal life to the Spirit of God.  Reconciled to God, the divine presence is received and abides with us.  Looking again at today’s psalm,

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

The divine spirit or breath animates us.

The Fidelity of the New Adam Heals the Breach of the Old

The responsorial psalm relates our sinful condition.  We cannot save ourselves.  Only God can forgive us and wipe away our guilt.  The second reading from Romans could suffice as today’s homily.  Through the sin of Adam, sin and death enters the world. All are sinners needing redemption. Grace and justification come through the new Adam, Jesus Christ.  Where the disobedience of our first parents made us sinners, the fidelity of Christ and the cooperation of Mary, make possible our share in holiness and right standing before the Father.

The First Temptation

The old Adam was tempted with Eve in a garden.  The new Adam (Jesus) is tempted by the devil in a desert. Our first parents had the refreshment and fruits from all the trees of the garden but one.  Our Lord fasts for forty days and nights.  He has every right to be parched and hungry.  The first temptation is to turn stones to bread.  Our Lord quotes Scripture back to the devil and makes reference to the breath of God that seeded life into humanity and gave them his ordinances:

“One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

Notice that the devil tells Jesus to turn stones into bread.  Left to his own devices, the devil can only offer deception and empty promises.  As the evil one the devil is not creative.  He can corrupt the good but he can offer nothing substantial in place of what God offers.  While there is nothing hedonistic in Christ’s personal hunger; he remains hungry because of our desire for inordinate pleasure and false goods.  Indeed, from politics to pornography, the slaves of the devil are in bondage to pleasure as an overriding good and treat pain as the greatest evil to avoid.  Jesus remains steadfast and the setting is prepared for his passion and Cross.  His resolve will also be echoed when he tells us to take up our crosses and to follow him.

The Second Temptation

The devil says again and again, “If you are the Son of God.”  Has the incarnation fooled the devil about the full identity of Christ?  Some of the early fathers thought as much and they viewed the moment of Christ’s redemptive death on the Cross as a great reversal.  The moment that the devil takes to be his victory is actually his resounding defeat.  The second temptation is to test our Lord’s dedication to his Father’s will. Jesus will not be swayed from his mission and fidelity to the Father.  We will see this again with the Lord during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, ‘My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!’” (Matthew 26:42).  While the Lord could do all things and does not have to suffer and die, he chooses to do so for love of us.  His witness against this temptation of throwing himself down is again for us who are quick to focus on ourselves and not upon God.  We create false caricatures of Christ to rationalize our rebellion and selfishness.  Too many have taken up the devil’s repudiation of the divine— “You can’t tell me what to do— not the Bible, not the Church and not even nature!”  Today everything is up for grabs, from gender to general right and wrong.  This spiritual narcissism rots the soul and closes one off from God and neighbor.  It should not surprise us that a quarter of the American population now defines itself as atheist.  “Thy will be done” is now widely replaced with “my will be done.”

The Third Temptation

The third temptation has the devil offering what he thinks he owns— the kingdoms of the world.  The devil has saved the worse possible sin for last:

“All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” 

The devil will give Jesus nothing.  He will take from his hand what the devil has purloined and then dismiss him, “Get away Satan!”  Ours is a jealous God.  Jesus is faithful to the Father for all the times we have been unfaithful.  One does not compromise with evil.  This temptation is crucial for modern men and women because the idolatry we most face is not necessarily from false religion but from a preoccupation with materialism.  This is why Jesus told the rich man that if he desired perfection he had to give away what he owned and follow him.  We must not love the “here-and-now” so much that we forget the supreme importance of the “hereafter.”  We are to build up heavenly treasure.  What this world offers is fleeting.

Jesus experiences real temptations.  However, as a divine person he is never liable to falling into sin.  Yes, this means the game is fixed.  The victory of Christ is assured from the very beginning.  He is the new Adam who heals the breach caused by the old Adam.  He gives humanity a new trajectory in holiness to follow.  And yet, we still have a terrible freedom as individuals, to follow the Lord out of the cages of sin or to crawl back into them, favoring bondage to freedom.  As believers, we celebrate our liberation in Christ!

Concluding Thoughts

Many of us are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ fantasy story entitled The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Aslan the lion is a figure for Christ and the White Witch (the devil) has imposed a perpetual winter upon the land of Narnia.  A group of human children enter Narnia and one of them, Edmund, is seduced to betray them.  He represents a fallen world needing redemption.  Aslan trades his life for the traitor and is sacrificed on the Stone Table.  Meanwhile, the White Witch turns her victims into lifeless statues.  Aslan comes back to life and breathes upon the statues so as to restore them to life.  May Jesus who is the true LION OF JUDAH breathe upon us to soften our hardened hearts and to grant us his mercy and life!

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