First Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2011
Reflections by Fr. Michael Himes
In reflecting on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, I suggested that Lent is a forty-day communal retreat for all the members of the church to consider the baptismal promises in preparation for renewing our Baptism at the vigil on Holy Saturday night and all the Masses on Easter Sunday. It may seem odd then that the gospel passage read at Mass on the first Sunday of Lent is an account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil at the conclusion of a forty-day fast in the desert. That might seem to have very little to do with Baptism. Indeed, it might appear that the primary reason that the church invites us to consider the story of the tempting of Jesus on the first Sunday of Lent is to encourage us at the start of our forty-day period of prayer and fasting by reminding us that Jesus began his mission by a similar retreat. But while I am grateful for any and all encouragement as I begin Lent, I think that there is a very important reason why we are faced with this gospel story at the start of our preparation for renewing our Baptism. Before we affirm our commitment in the three baptismal promises at Easter, we will be asked three times to reject the power, the allure, and the falsity of evil represented by the devil. And so at the start of Lent we are invited to reflect on a story in which Jesus three times refuses the devil’s temptation.
At least in the versions of the story in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels Jesus is tempted three times. In the much shorter and less dramatic account in Mark’s gospel (Mk. 1:12-13) we are simply told that he retreated to the desert for forty days where he was tempted by the devil after which angels tended to him. Matthew’s and Luke’s versions recount three temptations, although not in the same order (Luke inverts the second and third of Matthew’s story). This year we read Matthew’s version on the first Sunday of Lent which, I must confess, seems to me the more dramatic order than Luke’s, although I think Luke has the best ending to the story.
It is often said by opera lovers that the devil gets all the best tunes in any opera in which he is a character. That may be true of opera but it is definitely not the case in scripture. Essentially evil gets one good line in the whole bible and repeats it with a few variations again and again. It appears for the first time in the passage from Genesis that is the first reading of the Mass: Eat this and be like God (Gn. 3:5). Apart from the fact that we have been told two chapters earlier that we have been created in the image and likeness of God (Gn. 1:26), the implication is that being a creature is something to be regretted, that being God is good but being finite is a state to be deplored and rejected. That is the constant temptation that confronts us throughout the scriptures: Don’t be a creature; be God. Don’t be finite and dependent; control your own existence, assign your own meaning and purpose to your life, be the center of your own being. The temptations that Jesus faces in the gospel passage are variations of this same theme. “Human beings must go hungry in the desert. You don’t have to do that. Use your power, snap your fingers and turn stones into bread. Don’t be a creature; be God.” “Creatures have to treat other creatures with dignity and respect their freedom. You can overwhelm them with your power. Leap from the top of the temple and demonstrate your might to all Jerusalem. Don’t be a creature; be God.” “The world lies before you. No need for you to live as a finite being among other finite beings. As God, the world is yours. Take it.”
When Jesus rejects these temptations, Matthew’s gospel concludes the story by telling us that angels came and ministered to him, an image found in Mark’s very short account as well. But Luke’s version of the story ends on a much more ambivalent note. No angels appear. Instead, rather ominously, we are told that the devil left him until there would be a better opportunity (Lk. 4:13). Much later in that gospel an angel does come to minister to Jesus, the indication in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels that the temptations are over—in the garden on the Mount of Olives after his agonized prayer for deliverance the night before his death (Lk. 22:43). That is the more opportune moment for temptation, the point at which we are most tempted to reject the goodness of finite existence, when we come face to face with the fact that, as creatures, we die.
The temptation to reject our own finiteness is always before us. It is the only good card that evil can play. We will be asked to affirm the goodness of our creaturely being in the face of our own deaths publicly once again when we renew our baptismal vows in a few weeks.
Alumni Responses to First Sunday's Reflection
guest — Thank you for the opportunity to consider a very familiar gospel in a new, more thoughtful way. Why Jesus didn’t just demonstrate that he was God by doing something spectacular that all people could see is something that I have wondered about. If he was God, why didn't he make it easy for all of us to know about it? As God, he could have demonstrated absolute power. That this was a temptation is a new consideration for me. Thanks again.
Marie — Thank you—a lovely idea. I liked the notion of linking Lent with our Baptism. I also liked the idea of thinking of Jesus's 40 days in the desert as a retreat and of linking our retreat with his. The temptation to reject our creature-hood and our finiteness also spoke to me. Many thanks.
guest — I had found much to pray and think about in the Ash Wednesday reflection. This continues with this Sunday's reflection. Thank you so much Fr. Himes for sharing these reflections with us.
Sister Mary Peter Martin, IREPM 2003 — Thanks for Father Himes’ reflections on Lent and its baptismal theme. I look forward to the rest of the season's offerings from Father.
Lee Danesco, BC Parent — I have never liked the readings about the temptations of Jesus, because until now I have never heard them placed so appropriately in salvation history. Thanks Fr. Himes for the simplicity and arrow straight reflection. A choice between being creature or attempting to be God—that pretty much sums it up.