So, did everybody make it to church for ashes last Wednesday? I’ll bet almost all of us did - and lots of others besides. Ash Wednesday is a great example of the Church’s liturgical genius, that it can take something so unattractive – but so true – as our inevitable return to dust, and ritualize it so popularly every Lent.
Now back when Lent was still exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the 3 following days got added on), Lent began today, with this Sunday (as it still does, incidentally, in Milan, Italy, where to this day there is still no Ash Wednesday). That is why this Sunday is the day when those who have responded to the good news of Jesus Christ by becoming candidates for Baptism or for full membership in the Catholic Church at Easter are presented to our Bishop at our cathedral - to be formally enrolled as candidates to join with us in the full life of the Catholic Church, making their own the Church’s faith in Jesus and the Church’s way of becoming his disciple. That faith and that way of becoming a disciple – what St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome [Romans 10:8-13], called confessing with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in one’s heart that God raised him from the dead – are what Lent has always been about.
And so, every year, we begin our Lent the way Jesus began his mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and popular acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert [Luke 4:1-13].
The Judean desert is a harsh and forbidding place – hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent – in the desert, the domain of the devil. There, Jesus fasted from food, and so it was in that physically challenged state called hunger – a state with which too many people in the world are still all too familiar – it was in that physically challenged state of hunger that Jesus met face-to-face with the devil, who challenged Jesus in ways we can all understand: “If you are who you claim to be, then do something…”
This time it was actually Satan himself speaking, but he could just as easily have masqueraded as a faithful follower. After all, in God’s ears, how many of our own prayers must often sound like that? “If you really are who you claim to be, then do something – preferably something for me, something that I want.”
Not for nothing, then, do the devil’s many titles include liar and father of lies. He lied when he equated being Son of God with power to be used for purely personal advancement. He lied again when he tried to divert Jesus from his mission with the kinds of illusions that, in our society especially, pass for success – illusions of being a winner, of being great. He lied yet again when he equated being Son of God with special effects and popular acclaim, thereby anticipating what may ultimately be remembered as one of our contemporary culture’s most distinctive characteristics – equating celebrity with significance.
The devil’s lies and Jesus’ responses reveal the deeper underlying reality reflected in all the human choices we make – choices that in a real sense both make us who and what we are and reveal us to each other and to ourselves.
Imitating Jesus, we do well to fast during Lent - a fasting that takes us out of ourselves, focusing us outward not inward. In the words of Saint Peter Chrysologus, a 5th-century Bishop and Doctor of the Church: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. … So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself. …When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. … When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others” [Sermon 43].
Saint Peter Chrysologus’ sermon seems especially pointed in this Holy Year of Mercy, which invites us to a renewed appreciation of God’s abundant mercy toward us and a more generous sharing of that mercy with the whole world.
Every Lent, the same Spirit that led Jesus into the desert leads us to spend 40 days with him in the same place where it led him, in the desert that threatens and challenges us to choose – to choose not just whether or what to eat, but what we want to make of our lives. When the devil had finished every temptation, we are told, he departed for a time. That time came when Jesus returned to Jerusalem, not to the parapet of the temple, but to the top of the cross, where the devil’s challenge would be confronted again and all his lies finally refuted, when Jesus’ choice of obedience to his Father would finally reveal both who he really is and what true power and glory really are.
Lent is our opportune time to meet up with the real Jesus – undefeated in the desert and victorious on the cross – to learn whether and what kind of difference confessing him with the mouth and believing in him in the heart can really make – for us and for our world.
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 14, 2016.