No matter what the year in the liturgical cycle, the Gospel for this Sunday is always the narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Some reflections from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (There were no public Masses, therefore homilies, from these days each year, but there are Angelus reflections. On the second, third or fourth Sunday of Lent, the Pope would normally go out to a Roman parish or a youth detention center, so there will be homilies from those Sundays.)
The image of the desert is a very eloquent metaphor of the human condition. The Book of Exodus recounts the experience of the People of Israel who, after leaving Egypt, wandered through the desert of Sinai for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land.
During that long journey, the Jews experienced the full force and persistence of the tempter, who urged them to lose trust in the Lord and to turn back; but at the same time, thanks to Moses’ mediation, they learned to listen to God’s voice calling them to become his holy People.
In meditating on this biblical passage, we understand that to live life to the full in freedom we must overcome the test that this freedom entails, that is, temptation. Only if he is freed from the slavery of falsehood and sin can the human person, through the obedience of faith that opens him to the truth, find the full meaning of his life and attain peace, love and joy.
During these days of Lent, let us not distance our hearts from this mystery of profound humanity and lofty spirituality. Looking at Christ, we feel at the same time looked at by him. He whom we have pierced with our faults never tires of pouring out upon the world an inexhaustible torrent of merciful love.
It means not off-loading the problem of evil on to others, on to society or on to God but rather recognizing one’s own responsibility and assuming it with awareness. In this regard Jesus’ invitation to each one of us Christians to take up our “cross” and follow him with humility and trust (cf. Mt 16: 24) is particularly pressing. Although the “cross” may be heavy it is not synonymous with misfortune, with disgrace, to be avoided on all accounts; rather it is an opportunity to follow Jesus and thereby to acquire strength in the fight against sin and evil. Thus, entering Lent means renewing the personal and community decision to face evil together with Christ. The way of the Cross is in fact the only way that leads to the victory of love over hatred, of sharing over selfishness, of peace over violence. Seen in this light, Lent is truly an opportunity for a strong ascetic and spiritual commitment based on Christ’s grace.
2009: (Same Gospel as this year)
Today is the First Sunday of Lent and the Gospel, in the sober and concise style of St Mark, introduces us into the atmosphere of this liturgical season: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1: 12). In the Holy Land the Judean desert, which lies to the west of the River Jordan and the Oasis of Jericho, rises over stony valleys to reach an altitude of about 1,000 metres at Jerusalem. After receiving Baptism from John, Jesus entered that lonely place, led by the Holy Spirit himself who had settled upon him, consecrating him and revealing him as the Son of God. In the desert, a place of trial as the experience of the People of Israel shows, the dramatic reality of the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ who had stripped himself of the form of God (cf. Phil 2: 6-7), appears most vividly. He who never sinned and cannot sin submits to being tested and can therefore sympathize with our weaknesses (cf. Heb 4: 15). He lets himself be tempted by Satan, the enemy, who has been opposed to God’s saving plan for humankind from the outset.
In the succinct account, angels, luminous and mysterious figures, appear almost fleetingly before this dark, tenebrous figure who dares to tempt the Lord. Angels, the Gospel says, “ministered” to Jesus (Mk 1: 13); they are the antithesis of Satan. “Angel” means “messenger”. Throughout the Old Testament we find these figures who help and guide human beings on God’s behalf. It suffices to remember the Book of Tobit, in which the figure of the Angel Raphael appears and assists the protagonist in every vicissitude. The reassuring presence of the angel of the Lord accompanies the People of Israel in all of their experiences, good and bad. On the threshold of the New Testament, Gabriel is dispatched to announce to Zechariah and to Mary the joyful events at the beginning of our salvation; and an angel we are not told his name warns Joseph, guiding him in that moment of uncertainty. A choir of angels brings the shepherds the good news of the Saviour’s birth; and it was also to be angels who announced the joyful news of his Resurrection to the women. At the end of time, angels will accompany Jesus when he comes in his glory (cf. Mt 25: 31). Angels minister to Jesus, who is certainly superior to them. This dignity of his is clearly, if discreetly, proclaimed here in the Gospel. Indeed, even in the situation of extreme poverty and humility, when he is tempted by Satan he remains the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord.
Christ came into the world to set us free from sin and from the ambiguous fascination of planning our life leaving God out. He did not do so with loud proclamations but rather by fighting the Tempter himself, until the Cross.
The Devil opposed this definitive and universal plan of salvation with all his might, as is shown in particular in the Gospel of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness which is proclaimed every year on the First Sunday of Lent. In fact, entering this liturgical season means continuously taking Christ’s side against sin, facing — both as individuals and as Church — the spiritual fight against the spirit of evil each time
2012 (Again, like this year, Mark was the Gospel)
St Mark’s concise narrative lacks the details we read in the other two Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The wilderness referred to has various meanings. It can indicate the state of abandonment and loneliness, the “place” of human weakness, devoid of support and safety, where temptation grows stronger.
However, it can also indicate a place of refuge and shelter — as it was for the People of Israel who had escaped from slavery in Egypt — where it is possible to experience God’s presence in a special way. Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:13). St Leo the Great comments that “The Lord wanted to suffer the attack of the tempter in order to defend us with his help and to instruct us with his example (Tractatus XXXIX,3 De ieiunio quadragesimae: CCL 138/A, Turnholti 1973, 214-215).
What can this episode teach us? As we read in the book The Imitation of Christ, “There is no man wholly free from temptations so long as he lives… but by endurance and true humility we are made stronger than all our enemies” (Liber I, C. XIII, Vatican City 1982, 37), endurance and the humility of following the Lord every day, learning not to build our lives outside him or as though he did not exist, but in him and with him, for he is the source of true life.
The temptation to remove God, to arrange things within us and in the world by ourselves, relying on our own abilities, has always been present in human history.
Jesus proclaims that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15), he announces that in him something new happens: God turns to the human being in an unexpected way, with a unique, tangible closeness, full of love; God is incarnate and enters the human world to take sin upon himself, to conquer evil and usher men and women into the world of God.