February 19, 2024

1st Sunday of Lent, 2/18/24

Abbot Placid Solari

Mass readings can be found here.

It’s reported that one of the old desert monks of ages ago, when asked how he lived his life—what his practice was—responded simply, “I fall and I get up. I fall and I get up.” His point was that we risk concentrating far too much on the falls. Getting up is what’s really important. All that is necessary is that we get up one more time than we fall. New beginnings are always possible. That, I believe, is one of the messages to us from the liturgy as we begin our preparation for Easter on this first Sunday of our Lenten season.

Each of our instructions this morning from the Scriptures speaks to us of a beginning. In the first reading from the Book of Genesis, God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants and with all the living creatures which survived the great flood on the Ark, promising never again to send a flood that will destroy all living creatures.

We think of the story of Noah oftentimes as merely a story of destruction brought on by that great flood. The real point of the story, however, is the saving of North, his family and all the animals so that God can make a new beginning.

Why did God provide for Noah out of everyone else? Because, according to the story, Noah alone was good among the descendants of Adam and Eve. And God’s very nature does not allow him to destroy the good along with the bad. God has life and wants an abundance of life. Jesus himself tells us that he has come that we may have life and may have it to the full. Thus, our first reading tells us of God making a new beginning on earth so that humanity will continue through the descendants of a good man.

The stories of the Bible, however, are not merely reports of things which supposedly happened a long time ago that we remember merely for curiosity’s sake. The story of Noah and of God saving him and beginning again with the creation he had made is a story for our instruction today. We learn from it that evil brings destruction, something we already know.

But we are also taught by scripture today that God does not abandon those who seek him, but rather provides for their welfare and for their future—and prepares to save them from death through the resurrection of Jesus, which we’ve gathered here today to celebrate. Jesus reveals to his disciples a future of boundless life, where death and evil have been destroyed forever.

Our second reading today from the first letter of Peter presents the story of Noah as a prefiguring of our baptism by which we have each of us received a new beginning as children of God. We are reminded that Christ suffered once for all and rose from the dead. The text goes on to remind us that baptism is not a removal of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. It is an appeal that we must make again and again throughout our lives.

This reading reminds us that what seems to be the final and absolute end, namely, death, is the final and absolute new beginning because of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead and our participation in that through our baptism. That is the good news.

Finally, in the Mark’s Gospel today, we hear the first proclamation of that good news.

Today’s gospel begins by reminding us that following his baptism by John, Jesus was driven out into the desert by the Spirit and was tempted by Satan. Then, following that time of temptation and following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus begins his public ministry. In today’s Gospel, we hear the very first beautiful words of Jesus’ preaching:

This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.

Here at last is the final new beginning of God’s plan to restore the fallen human race to the paradise for which he created us, and to restore us even more wondrously than in that first creation. This reading from the Gospel and indeed all the readings from the Bible today are for our instruction, and they point us towards new beginnings.

Sometimes it’s difficult for us to believe in new beginnings because we somehow tend to convince ourselves that a new beginning is supposed to be easy, a sort of one time affair, after which things just flow on nicely and peacefully. But our own experience of life tells us that’s not the way it is. We live in time. We’re subject to change. We too easily grow discouraged, however, by our falling into the same traps, struggling with the same issues of sinfulness. The fact that we struggle with the same sins and failings again and again doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not serious about our faith. It simply reminds us that we are in fact human beings, not angelic beings.

There is an instruction of Jesus in John’s gospel that should be consoling for us all. He tells us there: “Nor does the father judge anyone, but he has given our judgment to his Son, and he gave him power to exercise judgment because he is the Son of Man.”

On the one hand, by the image of Son of Man, he is telling us that he, Jesus, is the one God has sent to exercise final judgment and inaugurate God’s reign once and for all. On the other hand, the image of the Son of Man tells us that Jesus fully assumed our human nature and is a human being like each of us. The Father has given Jesus the authority to judge, because in Jesus, God has known our weakness, our failings, our change upon us. As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us,

“We do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”

This is, I believe, the reason why the Gospels have preserved the story of Jesus temptation in the desert for us. Notice that it is immediately after his baptism by John that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert where he is tempted. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his so-called public life. This is the ministry for which he had been sent by the Father: the preaching of the coming of God’s reign and the validating of that preaching by the signs he gives. But before he begins, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tempted. Why?

Why did the Spirit lead Jesus into the desert before he opened his mouth to begin the preaching of the Kingdom of God? Because if Jesus was to be our Savior, he had to experience those temptations which lead to sin and death and from which we and every human being need to be saved. And he had to overcome them. For this reason, the Spirit led him into the desert.

Furthermore, we ought not read the story as though it were the only occasion Jesus had to struggle against temptation and the human nature he had assumed for our salvation. Today’s Gospel presents this temptation as emblematic of all our own temptations: the temptation to focus on the gratification of our bodily desires, the temptation to be attracted and to seek attention or adulation, the temptation to power and wealth—all likely temptations Jesus had to face in various forms throughout the rest of his public life until he arrived at the Cross.

We, therefore, need not to be overwhelmed by the fact that we suffer relentless temptations. Instead of giving in or giving up, we are to turn to him, who has similarly been tested in every way, and simply ask for his help. Jesus resisted temptation by prayer, by bodily discipline, and by turning to the Scriptures. He intends that we use the very same weapons.

If we fail, then we are at once confidently to approach the throne of grace, to receive mercy, and to find grace for help. Confession, therefore, should be a normal part of our Christian life, and especially of our Lenten observance. If the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted, then temptation can also be a means for our improvement and our salvation. Contending with temptation does not have to lead automatically to a fall. We can resist and we can overcome.

But we need not expect it be quick and easy, especially in virtue of our confirmation. We can call on the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that led Jesus into the desert in preparation for his mission to assist us. It’s quite simple. We can simply say, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”

We are privileged today to hear once again the beautiful words of Jesus first preached. “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

His own temptations are an instruction to us. Repenting and believing in the Gospel will neither be quick nor easy. We should not, on that account, become discouraged.

That’s often the way the devil works, for example, in our own Lenten observances. It’s probably not unlikely that at some point we will stumble in those and the devil will tempt us to just give it up. “It’s too hard. I can’t do it.” But what we need to do is get up and make a new beginning.

Jesus has told us today to repent. We should not be so naive as to think that we will accomplish the conquest of all our vices in this short Lent. But let us choose those vices that we know are most harmful. And let us, with God’s help, begin to reform. Perhaps that is the point. We will need time. We will need time and again to confidently approach the throne of grace, to receive mercy, and to find grace for timely help.

And we will find help, for we’re not intended to do this by ourselves. And let us, as we begin this Lent, keep in mind to the answer that desert monk of long ago. And remember that we need only to get up one more time than we fall.

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