First Sunday of Lent - a reflection

Monday, March 7, 2022 - 10:15

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

You must not put the Lord your God to the test” says Jesus as his final put down of the devil in this Sunday’s Gospel. Perhaps this Sunday could be called “Testing Sunday” because we begin every Lent with the Gospel known as the Temptation of Jesus. In his encounter with the devil, the faith and commitment of Jesus to his Father are put to the test. The beginning of Lent is a time when we too need to test our faith. We need to make sure that our faith is properly founded as I was reflecting last Sunday. The readings this Sunday including the psalm give us plenty of opportunity to reflect on this.

Either “tested” or “tempted” can be used to translate the same Greek word. In English, I prefer to say that God tests us (as with Job) while the devil tempts us (as with Eve). Thus “do not put us to the test” would be better than “lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s prayer. 

The experience of Jesus in the desert must reflect our own experiences too. St Augustine writes: “Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial… or strives except against an enemy or temptations. What is true of us was true too of Jesus who like us was completely human. We begin with the experience of Jesus. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is baptised and “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the desert” as the Gospel of Mark says. His forty days there recalls the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert before entering the promised land. Both Matthew and Luke develop this scene in similar ways and as usual the differences between the two accounts is revealing about the message of both Gospels. There are three encounters but the two Gospels have the second and third in reverse order. In Matthew therefore, Jesus’s final comment to the devil is about worshipping God alone. For Luke as I have noted Jesus ends the contest by telling the devil not to put God to the test. Luke adds that the devil left him “until the opportune moment”, the time of Jesus’ Passion. A feature of his Gospel is that many healings are described as exorcisms. The evil spirit or devil is a powerful force in this Gospel, a counter to the more powerful force of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit Looking through this Gospel scene, Jesus receives the Spirit at baptism and so Luke notes that he is full of the Holy Spirit. Luke then inserts his genealogy of Jesus which works back all the way to Adam. Jesus is the new Adam, tempted like all humans. In a way we could say this is Jesus’ retreat. The powerful effect of the Spirit and the voice of the Father declaring him to be Son at his baptism means that Jesus needs time to reflect and absorb the experience. We too may need to do that at times.

At the end of the forty days, Jesus was hungry and weak. So the devil takes his opportunity to tempt the weakened Jesus. To the challenge of turning a stone into a loaf, Jesus’ reply is from the book of Deuteronomy “Man does not live on bread alone”. Surprisingly Luke does not complete the saying: “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”. That would have been fully in accord with this Gospel. The second temptation that follows confirms and emphasises Jesus’ choice to worship or serve God and only God. Again he is quoting from Deuteronomy. That choice of Jesus must be our choice too. The third encounter with the devil is therefore the climax. Jerusalem has a key role in the Gospel of Luke as commentators point out. That though is not to my mind the point here. The emphasis at the end is on Jesus’ rebuke: “do not put the Lord your God to the test”. Noticeable with the trading of Scripture between Jesus and the devil is that while the devil quotes the psalm, Jesus trumps this by quoting the more important book of Deuteronomy. 

Applying the experiences of Jesus to ourselves, we have the Carmelite Rule as a good guide: Because, indeed, a person’s life on earth is a trial and all who wish to live devotedly in Christ suffer persecution, and also since your adversary the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, you are to use every care to put on the armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand the deceits of the enemy.

Our adversary is the devil and his deceits. We live in an age when it is almost unfashionable to make much of the devil. There has been too much emphasis on him in the past and science now provides explanation for so much. Perhaps there lies his deceits today, the devil is subtle and has adapted to hide behind the scientific outlook of our age. We need to be alert to his presence affecting lives in many ways. I could suggest that the devil might be behind the distorted vision of Christianity which is driving the present conflict in Ukraine.

Against that we have to put on the armour of God, the attitudes of God, living in the world in God’s way. Saint Paul encourages us to put on the armour of God at the end of the letter to the Ephesians and he gives a brief guide to what this means, the values of the different parts which form the armour. This was then adapted and developed in the Rule for the needs of the hermits. 

Putting on armour is also a sign of protection. We rely on God who is always our refuge and our strength, who gives us his armour. Psalm 90 (91) which the devil quotes is the responsorial psalm this Sunday, but just a few verses. So it is important to read the whole psalm. This is one of the great psalms by which the Church prays for God’s protection. It is a psalm for night prayer, it is especially a psalm for Lent. At a time when we are considering temptation and the struggles of life, we need the assurance that we can rely on God. By quoting the Psalm, the devil is undermining the true meaning of scripture. Trust in God does not mean jumping off the parapet. The psalm begins with the assurance of God as our refuge, a key word in the psalm. Then there follows as the body of the psalm a long description of the struggles of life. These are traditionally are read as various expressions of the devil. The psalm then concludes with God saying he will show us his salvation.

Finally and very briefly, the comment at the head of the Deuteronomy reading calls this passage “the creed of the chosen people” while the comment about the reading from the letter to the Romans says “the creed of the Christian”. In their different ways, both readings remind us of the importance of our experience of God as individuals and as communities guiding and protecting us down the ages. Jesus died and God raised him from the dead so we confess that Jesus is Lord. 

The readings this Sunday are closely interlinked. They give us a rich supply of reflections as we begin Lent about Jesus and about how we are to follow his example in following him. Then one day as we hear next Sunday, we will share his glory.


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