Lent has become a penitential season, but it was not always this way. Originally, Lent was a season to prepare the new catechumens willing to enter the community. It was designed as a season for growth, both for the candidates and for the community itself. With a new emphasis on the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, some of this meaning has been restored. Yes, we still reflect about our sinfulness, and we do penance… but the goal is growth. Thus, the title for the series we are preaching on Sundays and the theme of our FaithGroups.
This is the image we chose to illustrate the theme: an incipient plant trying to emerge through the rock. This is how our own growth feels, like a slow break-through surrounded by difficulties. We started the pilgrimage of Lent with a call to grow: “Grow, and believe in the Gospel,” and we come to the first Sunday in Lent, always with the gospel of the Temptations, reflecting on how it can inform our growth.
First thing to notice is the opening line of the Gospel: “Led by the Spirit.” The Temptations is a process wished by God for Jesus to experience. After the baptism and before beginning his public ministry, Jesus must experience the encounter with the Tempter, who will show him his areas of temptation. Why? Because Jesus needs to know who he is. All three temptations begin the same way: “If you are the Son of God…” thus becoming temptations of identity. Any growth can only begin by knowing who we are (a.k.a. self-awareness.) Growth can only start by knowing where we are as we start the journey.
The gospel then unfolds the three temptations of Christ. One is clearly about power. Jesus could have fallen into the temptation of becoming a powerful political Messiah. He is tempted also in breaking the commandment not to test God, by living life testing God’s love for him—as we do often when we test God’s love or others’ love for us. Traditionally, we have called the opposite attitude as “Fear of God” (which does not mean being afraid, as you know.) In the third temptation, Jesus could have turned the stone into bread, to use his power to serve himself, to attend to his own need. Certainly, a powerful temptation in our own lives. (I always believed that for a priest, this temptation translates into our tendency to say and do what people want instead of what people need…)
If we want to take on the possibility of growth, we need to know who we are, and reflect on what are the temptations that hinder our own growth. Some temptations are clear, others are much subtler, so much more difficult to identify and correct. I recognize as temptations my pessimism, my negativity, my lack of patience, my need for immediate results…among many others. What about you? What temptations do you feel are at work in your life? Lent is a time to discover them and grapple with them, the way Jesus did in the desert.
Lastly, and unfortunately this did not make it to the homily, there is good news at the end of the gospel. Jesus, it says, was ministered (helped!) by angels. We, too, are not alone in this difficult process: God will send angels to help us; there are plenty, all around us, all the time.
Below is the image we used for the screens in church to illustrate the gospel. I was captivated by its simplicity and beauty. Perhaps it can help you as we continue our Lenten prayer.