First Sunday of Lent (2016)
By Fr. Leroy Clementich, CSC
Well, good friends, the great celebrations of the Christmas cycle are scarcely behind us and already Lent begins to appear on the horizon. Not a moment too soon, therefore, to reflect on this special season.
So, before it settles in upon us, a few thoughts: In his great medieval play, Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot, the British poet wrote thus: “The last temptation is the greatest treason to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Let us assume right off, therefore, that Christians truly do want to do the right deed, for the right reason, this deed we call Lent. The more important question, of course, must always be “the reason,” how should we identify the right reason for doing what we do?
First of all, a few assumptions we have all labored under for most of our Christian lives. Traditionally, we have assumed that Lent must deal with our human sinfulness, universal and individual. True enough, we are all acutely aware that something has gone amiss among us. We feel it in our deepest sensibilities; something must be righted, therefore, some good order must be restored to our lives.
Given that conviction, we choose certain human practices that we learned long ago, will restore the good order that is part of our original created nature. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three most familiar to most Christians.
Secondly, the word temptation often arises often in Lenten literature. It is written in the gospels, for instance, that Jesus went to a deserted place where he was accosted by three demon-like temptations.
The assumption, therefore, might be that Lent would be that very period when we might well go into battle to fight off those ancient attractions, whatever they might be. The question arises, however, what happens during the rest of the year when the fire of Lent has dimmed? Will something enduring rise up out of those Lenten ashes, those battle practices that will keep us on track for the rest of the year? Again, T.S. Eliot’s question arises: is the battle against temptation the right reason for doing Lent?
Another assumption that has arisen in the minds of Christians regarding the traditional Lenten exercises is that forty days of hard, work, spiritual calisthenics, will put our life back in order for the long haul. Is it all that simple, however? Can forty days of hard spiritual exercise make a long-lasting impact upon our spiritual life? Is that what we are truly searching for as we enter the great forty days of renewal?
Let me say at this point that all of these above-mentioned assumptions and practices truly have a certain element of truth to them. Christians, for centuries, have been practicing them, often with much “success”, I should assume.
I am convinced, however, that there is one line in sacred scripture that underlies Lent itself and any so-called “practices” Christians may choose. The words come from Luke’s gospel: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit into the desert…” The text further notes that Jesus spent 40 days in that lonely, quiet and deserted place. (40, in Jewish reasoning meaning a perfect number, a time of fulfillment). Nothing in the scriptural texts tells us what Jesus did while in the desert. We can only assume that he did absolutely nothing, nothing other than think about what his baptism in the Jordan had meant, to think about what his life and future should look like, what he should do with this call out of heaven that he heard. In other words, we can assume that Jesus, perhaps for the first time, just sat on a rock and came in touch with his self and his future, not deciding what he should do next but who he should be.
So finally, let me suggest that all our traditional Lenten usages are truly worthwhile, but they make no absolute predictions regarding a changed life. The only thing that will do that is our determination to go out into our own desert, our own quiet place and prepare to meet ourselves, perhaps for the first time. Yes, we will eventually need to leave that deserted place but, like Jesus, when we do, our life will begin to look clearer to us, indeed, the sense we have of our life then will last for a long time, yes, even well into the long summer weeks of Ordinary Time…or even longer.
The scriptures: Deuteronomy 26: 4-10 • Romans 10” 8-13 • Luke 4: 1-13
USCCB Bible Daily Readings: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time