1st Sunday of Lent Deuteronomy 26:4–10; Romans 10:8–13; Luke 4:1–13
Jesus’ desert experience We should strive to imitate Jesus. But we shouldn’t lose heart when we fall short. He knows what it means to be human.
When winter comes to the South Pole, the so-called polar night begins. The sun disappears below the horizon and doesn’t show its face again for four and a half months. Every day is the same: 24 hours of darkness.
Years ago, explorer Richard Byrd spent the winter alone at the South Pole. For four and a half months he lived in total darkness, buried beneath the snow in a tiny room. The temperature in that room often dipped to 50 degrees below zero.
Three times a day, Byrd climbed the stairs to the roof of his room, opened a trapdoor, pushed away the snow, and went out into the cold and darkness to record weather information.
Why did Byrd choose to live by himself during these months of total darkness?
He answers that question in his book Alone. He says he did it because he wanted to get away from everything. He wanted to do some serious thinking. He writes:
“And so it occurred to me . . . that here was the opportunity. . . I should be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by the wind and night and cold, and to no man’s law but my own.’’ After the first month of solitude, Byrd discovered something “good’’ happening. He discovered that you can live much more deeply and profoundly
if you keep life simple and don’t clutter it with a lot of material things.
Byrd emerged from his room a changed man. He ends his book with these words:
“All this happened four years ago. Civilization has not altered my ideas. I live more simply now, and with more peace.’’
Richard Byrd belongs to that long line of persons who have gone off alone for a period of time to take inventory of themselves and their lives.
Moses did it; Elijah did it; John the Baptist did it.
And so it doesn’t surprise us that Jesus did it too. But what does surprise us is what happened when Jesus went off alone to think and to pray. He was tempted by the devil.
This makes us ask ourselves, “Why did God let his Son be tempted by the devil? What purpose was served?’’
Over the centuries, spiritual writers have given many answers to that question. Let’s take a brief look at two of the answers.
First, the temptations in the desert give us an insight into the mind and heart of Jesus that we might otherwise overlook. Take the first temptation. The Gospel tells us that it came about when Jesus was feeling tired and hungry. It would have been so easy for him to use his power to turn stone into bread and take away that hunger. But Jesus refused to use his power for his own benefit and comfort.
This reveals something beautiful about Jesus. It shows us that he was a person who did not let his body dictate to his spirit. He didn’t let his feelings influence his actions. He lived totally by the spirit.
Later we will see this even more graphically in the Garden of Gethsemane. There Jesus was overwhelmed with anguish. Every inch of his body rebelled against the idea of suffering and dying. Matthew says it got so bad that Jesus “threw himself face downward on the ground, and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering from me! Yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ ” Matthew 26:39
Jesus was the kind of person who didn’t let his body dictate to his spirit. He didn’t let his feelings influence his actions.
There’s something attractive about a person like that. We can’t help but admire someone who lives so completely by the spirit.
Surprisingly, we often find this kind of dedication in young people. I’m thinking of a high school boy in Chicago who was on the wrestling team. He was outstanding in his weight division.
In his senior year, however, there was danger he’d outgrow his weight classification. This would put his team at a big disadvantage. So the boy fasted for an entire year. In fact, his fast was so extreme that his parents feared he’d harm his health.
Any young person who loves to stop at McDonald’s or Burger King after a game knows the sacrifice that boy made for his team.
I’m also thinking of the great musician Arturo Toscanini. When he was a young man, he attended the Royal Academy of Music in Parma, Italy.
Because he was from a poor family, he used to sell the meat from his dinners to the other students to buy musical scores. By the time he graduated, he had memorized hundreds of these scores.
Yes, there is something beautiful about a person who lives so completely by the spirit.
There’s something beautiful about a person who’s willing to sacrifice so much for a dream.
Jesus was such a person. He belongs to that special group of people who have ennobled our world by their generous spirit. No sacrifice was too great for them. No challenge was too demanding for them. No dream was too impossible for them.
This brings us to the second answer regarding Jesus’ temptations in the desert. It’s very brief, but very important. Because Jesus experienced temptation himself, he knows how overwhelming temptation can be. He knows how easy it is to be swept away by temptation.
For this reason, Jesus can be compassionate with us when we are tempted. He understands when we give in to temptation. Because he was tempted like us, Jesus is someone we can turn to in time of temptation and after we have given in to temptation.
And so today’s readings shows us two things about Jesus. First, they show us a Jesus we can admire. They show us a Jesus who is not so remote from us that we can’t try to imitate him. Second, they show us a Jesus who can sympathize with our weakness when we are tempted.
Let’s close with these appropriate words from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses.On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are,but did not sin. Let us be brave, then,and approach God’s throne. . . There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it. Hebrews 4:15–16
Series II 1st Sunday of Lent Deuteronomy 26:4–10; Romans 10:8–13; Luke 4:1–13
The ultimate prize The ultimate prize is our decision to serve God, and our neighbor as ourselves.
Susan Howatch has written a novel called Ultimate Prizes. It concerns a 40-year-old Anglican clergyman named Neville Aysgarth.
Neville has already won the prizes of life that most people strive unsuccessfully all their lives to win. He has a loving spouse, five lovely children, the respect of friends and associates, and a bright future in the Church.
In spite of these prizes, however, Neville is discontented; something is missing. He should be happy, but isn’t. In fact, Neville is downright bored with life.
Then one day Neville meets a wealthy young woman. The experience stirs up in him all the excitement that is missing from his life. But instead of recognizing the situation for what it is a temptation Neville denies the obvious.
Soon the temptation turns into an obsession.
And only when Neville’s obsession carries him to the brink of disaster and despair does he decide to seek spiritual counseling from an old monk named Aidan. It becomes Aidan’s task to help Neville come to grips with his obsession and the destructive behavior that is beginning to flow from it. It becomes Aidan’s job to help Neville win the ultimate prize of life.
It becomes Aidan’s burden to help Neville make the free, conscious decision to serve God, and his brothers and sisters as himself. All of us can relate to that story. It is one that we all recognize.
It is a story as old as Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel.
It is a story that has been replayed over and over across the centuries.
It is the story of every person’s quest for the ultimate prize.
It is the story of every person’s quest: to make the free decision to serve God, and our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
It is the story of every person’s quest for eternal life the life that Jesus came to bring us. “I have come,” said Jesus, “in order that you might have life life in all its fullness.” John 10:10 The discontentment that Neville felt, the boredom that he felt, the incompleteness that he experienced in his life these are things that all of us feel from time to time.
The problem is that we do not understand the ultimate reason for the boredom and incompleteness that we feel. We do not understand that these things are really the human soul crying out for purpose in life the purpose for which God created us.
“Our hearts were made for you, O Lord,’’ said St. Augustine, “and they will not rest until they rest in you.’’
In other words, we do not understand that what the human soul is crying out for is the fullness of life that Jesus came into the world to bring us.
And because we do not understand this, we do exactly what Neville did. We make a terrible mistake.
We try to satisfy the spiritual hunger and the spiritual thirst that we feel in the depths of our soul with material food and material drink.
The great layperson and British theologian Frank Sheed expresses it this way in his spiritual classic Theology and Sanity:
[Every person on earth] is crying for hope or purpose or meaning: and the scientist says, ‘Here is a telephone,’ or ‘Look, television,’ exactly as one tries to distract a baby crying out for its mother by offering it [candy] . . . and making funny faces at it.
“The leaping stream of invention has served extraordinarily well to keep us occupied, to keep us from remembering that which is troubling us.’’ (slightly adapted)
The season of Lent is a time to recognize what we are really hungering and thirsting for.
It is a time to take inventory of our lives and to ask ourselves how we are doing in our quest for the ultimate prize of life.
The season of Lent is a time to look at our lives and to ask ourselves how well we are doing in our quest to make the free, conscious decision to serve God, and our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
This is the message contained in today’s readings, especially the gospel.
Like Jesus, we must reject the temptation to serve only ourselves.
Like Jesus, we must make the ultimate decision to choose the ultimate prize of life: the decision to serve God, and our rothers and sisters as ourselves. Series III 1st Sunday of Lent Deuteronomy 26:4–10, Romans 10:8–13, Luke 4:1–13
Our High Priest Jesus was like us in all things but sin.
J esus . . . was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted. Luke 4:1–2
Joan Mills never knew her father. He died when she was still very young.
The only connection she had with him was a box of his belongings in a corner of the attic in her house.
One day Joan felt moved to open the box and explore what was inside it.
Almost immediately, she spotted a notebook. She took it out and opened it. It was a journal her father had kept during his first year at Boston U.
Three items in the journal touched her deeply.
The first item told how, by midwinter of his freshman year, he had worn out his only pair of shoes.
That same winter, his room was bitter cold, especially at night. But instead of buying an extra blanket, he bought books. The second item that moved Joan was his poverty. Because he lacked money, he had to cut back on food. To quiet the hunger pains in his stomach, he drank mug after mug of water.
The third item was especially revealing. He wrote how wonderful it was to be able to spend an entire day reading the works of some of the world’s greatest poets. He ended by saying, “I have not yet eaten today.”
Joan was moved to tears by what she read.
She was especially moved by the sacrifice and suffering that her father had accepted so cheerfully.
There’s something beautiful about a person like Joan’s father. He belongs to that group of greathearted people whose spirit reminds us so much of Jesus.
No sacrifice is too demanding for them. No suffering is too challenging to them. No dream is too impossible for them to pursue.
As I read and reflected on the inspiring story of Joan’s father, I was struck by the strong similarity between what he wrote in his journal and what is written about Jesus in today’s Gospel.
Jesus was all alone in a desert with bitter cold nights. He suffered from hunger pangs, with little water to soothe them. He experienced temptation at the hands of the devil.
He readily underwent all this to prepare himself for his ministry.
Today’s Gospel reveals that Jesus is not some heavenly being floating high up in the sky, immune from sickness and suffering.
Rather, he is someone who plunged himself into the midst of our own sickness and suffering.
In the words of Saint Paul:
He always had the nature of God, but he did not . . . try to remain equal with God.
Instead . . . , of his own free will he gave up all he had. . . .
He . . . appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to . . . death on the cross. Philippians 2:6–8
Jesus became like us so completely and so humbly that he even experienced temptation, just as we do.
Because he experienced temptation, Jesus knows how powerful it can be. He knows how easy it is to be swept away by temptation in a moment of weakness and passion.
For this reason, Jesus can sympathize with us, in our moments of temptation, because he also experienced such moments.
Consider an example to illustrate the difference this makes.
In 1982, in the midst of Poland’s fight against Communism, many young people who resisted it so valiantly began to lose heart and grow discouraged.
Cardinal Glemp of Warsaw exhorted them to resist the temptation to give up.
He told them that he could sympathize with how they felt. In his own youth, he too suffered at the hands of authorities who tried to break his morale.
In a similar way, Jesus knows how sin can tend to break our morale. He knows how it can discourage us and make us want to give up.
And so today’s readings teach two important points about Jesus that we must never lose sight of.
First, he is someone to whom we can relate.
He became one of us. He took upon himself our humanity and all that goes with being human.
He did not pretend to be human; he became human in every way except sin.
Second, because he became human, Jesus suffered as we do. He became cold, thirsty, and hungry.
Therefore, he is someone we can turn to for inspiration and encouragement just as Joan Mills was inspired and encouraged by the dedication of her father. Let us close with these inspiring and encouraging words from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy with our weaknesses.
On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin.
Let us be brave, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace.
There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it. Hebrews 4:15–16