FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
The Lenten season is an opportune moment to renew and purify our faith as response and personal adhesion to the saving plan of God, which has reached its culmination in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Faith has to be living, solid, coherent, rooted in history, despoiled of dualisms and incoherencies. This first Sunday, the biblical readings center on the theme of confession of faith as recognition of God’s action in history (first reading), as proclamation of the victory of Christ over death, principle of all hope (second reading) and as fidelity to the Word of God and to the plan of the kingdom (gospel). Lent is a call to conversion, an invitation to rectify our own plans and our moral decisions in the light of the Word of God.
The first reading (Dt 26,4-10) takes up a fragment of the ancient “Creed of Israel”, conserved in a text from the book of Deuteronomy that places the reform of the king Josiah en the 7th century BC. This treats of an authentic profession of faith that reflects the religious journey and experience of the people of the Bible throughout the ages. In the book of Deuteronomy this appears placed in the context of the spring festival of the first fruits (vv. 4,10) and structured around three articles of faith: vocation of the patriarchs (Jacob, “wondering Aramean”), the gift of liberation after the bitter experience of Egypt, and the gift of the earth that “flows with milk and hones” (vv. 5-9). A fundamental characteristic of biblical faith can be deduced from this structure: it is a faith that is fundamentally historical. The God of the Bible has revealed himself in the midst of the happenings of the history of an insignificant people in its origins (“wondering”) and that besides lived oppressed and impoverished in Egypt, submitted to “hard slavery”. The cry of pain of this people reached God, invoked as “God of our fathers”, who “saw their misery, anguish and oppression”, liberated them from slavery with “strong hand and powerful arm” and led them to a “land that flows with milk and honey”.
When the people of the Bible want to express their faith, they narrate a history, - concretely, the history of their liberation from the yoke of the Pharaoh -, with the clear proposition of illuminating from this optic all of their history as people and the foundation of their religious experience. For this reason, according to the Bible, the formula of perfect faith is the proclamation of the liberation actions of God in favor of his people, the highest prayer is the hymn and the praise that celebrate the great works of God, and the most genuine form of morality is the daily compromise to fight against all slavery that may be opposed to the liberating plan of God in favor of men and women.
The second reading (Rm 10,8-13) is a splendid “Christian creed”, that is found probably in the very beginnings of Christianity and that Paul takes up in the Letter to the Romans. The central event of the Church’s faith is proclaimed here, “the word, that is the faith we proclaim” (v. 8): the Paschal mystery of Christ. In the text Easter is expressed with two synonymous “theological schemes”: the scheme of exaltation (“Jesus is Lord”) and the scheme of resurrection (“God raised him from the dead”). With two diverse languages is expressed the same paschal message. In the first scheme, Easter is the event that reveals the mystery of divinity and of glory hidden in the “servant” Jesus, to whom the believer recognizes as “Lord” and “Savior”. In the second scheme, the Resurrection of Jesus underlines with greater strength the continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ: God has raised Jesus, confirming his word and his history as the culmination of salvation’s history, and inaugurating in him the absolute renovation of all of creation, that in his Son is redeemed and sanctified.
The paschal faith proclaimed by the Church is open to all, Jews and Greeks, but has to believed with “the heart”, that is to say, accepted in the very depth of the person as foundation of one’s very existence, and at the same time proclaimed with “the mouth”, in other words, witnessed to and professed exteriorly with one’s life. It is through this global profession of faith that salvation is born: “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Rm 10,9), thus “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rm 10,13).
The gospel (Lk 4,1-13) relates to us a mysterious dimension but real in the life and ministry of Jesus: temptation. In reality, temptation is not instigation to evil, nor makes up in itself sin, but rather makes up an indispensable moment in the life of every man and woman, through which one’s very identity and opinions are submitted to testing. Temptation belongs to the human journey. The evangelical text also is, in a certain way, a proclamation of faith: to the unbreakable trust of Christ in the Word of God, with which he elaborates all of his responses to the devil, the faith of the Church is unified that recognizes in Jesus the Messiah of God.
The account of the temptations in Luke appears intimately united to the presentation that he evangelist has made of Jesus at the end of the 3rd chapter, which concludes with the mention of “Adam” (Lk 3,38). The fact that Jesus is a descendent of Adam makes us bring to mind the temptation of the Garden of Eden in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, prototype of every temptation, including that of Jesus. Different than Adam’s, Jesus overcomes the test demonstrating his obedient and filial adhesion to God in an unbreakable way. The scene of the temptations also has its importance: Jesus is in the desert, where he has been led by the Spirit (V. 1). The desert recalls the journey of the purification of Israel, constantly tempted to return to Egypt and doubting many times the goodness of God. The desert is a place of temptation, of self-understanding of one’s identity, but also a space to affirm the fidelity of God as only absolute. Jesus spends forty days there (v. 2), a period of time that recalls the forty years of Israel journeying in the desert, the forty days of Moses on Mt. Sinai before receiving the ten commandments (Ex 34,28) and the forty days of Elijah’s journey toward Mt. Horeb to his meeting with God. It is a decisive time, a period of testing and of preparation. Jesus fasts, depriving himself of necessary food, expressing so his trust and his obedience in and to God, as only giver of all goods (Dt 8,1-3). The gospel speaks of an external agent of temptation and calls him “devil”, in Greek diabolos, that is to say, he that divides and separates. The devil represents all reality that invites man and woman to take a journey that will draw them away from the ways of the Lord and of his saving plan.
The “three” temptations of Jesus are really one: the temptation to abandon being the humble and obedient Messiah in favor of men and women and taking on a journey of glory, of power, of human self-sufficiency. The perverse invitation to transform stone into bread corresponds to the seduction of economic Messiahship, that reduces to mere satisfaction from the material necessities of the people, serving oneself off the poorest for one’s own interest (cf. Jn 6,14-15); the second temptation, when Jesus is led to a high point to see all of the kingdoms over which he would have dominion, corresponding to political Messiahship, that reduces to a fight by earth power in this world, dominating and conquering one’s enemies. Jesus takes up the Scriptures to conquer this dramatic moment. To the first temptation he responds affirming his total fidelity to: “Man does not live by bread alone” (Dt 8,3); to the second, proclaiming the unique and absolute sovereignty of God: “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone” (Dt 6,13).
The supreme Messianic testing is the third, that has as a scene precisely Jerusalem, the city to which is oriented all of Luke’s gospel and the very journey of Jesus (Lk 9,51 ff; Lk 23,35-43). To Jesus is suggested that he throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, that is to say, that he carries forward a spectacular Messiahship, make of extraordinary acts that will bring him fame and personal glory. This is the true “ultimate temptation” of Jesus: to reject his ultimate destiny, that is to say, the arrival of salvation thorough the extreme poverty of the cross. Jesus will renounce this so to his perfect confidence-obedience to the Father. Nevertheless, Jesus respecting the sovereign liberty of God and his saving plan, pronounces the definitive “yes” to the Father and abandons himself totally this his destiny. For Luke, the terror of death is the maximum temptation that Jesus will overcome, as will be confirmed in the account of his passion. The text, in effect, says that “the devil left him, to return at the appointed time” (v. 13), the moment of suffering and of anguish in the passion, that Luke will call “the hour of the power of darkness” (Lk 22,53), when “Satan had entered Judas Iscariot” (Lk 22,3). Jesus maintains himself firm proclaiming his absolute fidelity and unbreakable trust in the ways of the Father: “You must not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk 4,12).
Jesus comes to be changed so into a light filled emblem of Biblical faith, that is to say, model of full and total adhesion to God and his will. The temptations of Jesus recapitulate the history of Adam and the history of Israel that instead of maintaining themselves faithful to God rebelled. The account, nevertheless, alludes also to the future of the Christian community. This text does not pretend only to inform the reader about the testing suffered by Jesus, but rather is a page of catechesis that invites us to be attentive to not fall into the actual temptations of power, of materialism, and of religion built on the base of spectacular miracles and sterile feelings. The gospel of today exhorts us to a strong faith, based on the Word of God and expressed in obedience and trust to the ways of God in our lives.