After the austerity of Ash Wednesday and the meat abstinence of this past Friday, the Church enters into the First Sunday of Lent. There will be several other Sundays, but this first one sets the tone for the entire season. Of all the events in the life of the Lord Jesus, the Church takes us to the desert.
Every year on the First Sunday of Lent, rotating between the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel reading describes the Lord’s retreat to the desert. After his baptism in the Jordan River, the Lord goes to a place of solitude to prepare for his public ministry. He spends time in prayer and fasting. The Lord allows himself to be tempted and for the darkness of wayward pleasure, vanity, and raw power to be exposed.
In these ways, the Lord’s forty days in the desert is the spiritual outline for Lent. By reflecting on this sacred time in Jesus’ life, we are given a direction for our own Lenten observance. As the Lord’s human nature was prepared for his service to the Father, so a good Lent purifies and strengthens us to more faithfully and zealously live out our mission in the world.
What is this mission? What is the Christian believer called to do today?
With our own scars as a community and a credibility that is almost non-existent in light of scandals and cover-ups, we are nonetheless called to go out of our comfort zones. We are led to exemplify justice, peace, mercy, kindness, self-emptying love, and selfless service in a world that oftentimes does not appreciate these and at times will reject them. Ulterior motives are assumed, suspicion is rampant, and fear rules the day. In such a scenario, the light offered by Christians is presumed suspect and dubious.
In addition to the lived witness of believers, Christians are also called to speak words of goodness and truth. The believer lends her voice to the suffering, the unborn, the disadvantaged and forgotten, and announces a message of human dignity, love of neighbor, preferential care for the poor, a respect for the human body and our sexual powers, the nature of marriage, and integrity in all we do.
These deeds and words of the Christian are not completely fulfilled in them in this life. Each of us as human beings, believer and unbeliever, are mutually yoked with this most excellent way of love and each of us struggles to live and actualize them in our own lives. This awareness helps us to remain humble and to speak and live the Gospel with gentleness and kindness. It is precisely this saving work of actions and words in our lives that is highlighted during Lent. It is the challenge of allowing grace to work in our lives that is the heart of the Lenten observance.
During Lent, we are given a microcosm of the entire Christian way of life. We are reminded of the importance of the Gospel and of our part in living and sharing it with the world. This begins in our own hearts, in our families and neighborhoods, in our work places, and in the society around us.
In the desert, the Lord Jesus cast off the fallen spirits that would diminish or distract his service to the Father and to the human family. During Lent we are summoned back to our first love, given a new portion of God’s Spirit, and recommissioned to selflessly live and boldly proclaim the Good News. Will we accept this charge?
Pope Francis reminds us: “Lent is the time to rediscover the direction of life. Because in life’s journey, as in every journey, what really matters is not to lose sight of the goal… The Lord is the goal of our journey in this world. The direction must lead to him. We will never move forward if we are heavily weighed down… We need to free ourselves from the clutches of consumerism and the snares of selfishness, from always wanting more, from never being satisfied, and from a heart closed to the needs of the poor.”
And so, on this First Sunday of Lent, we are invited to the desert. We are offered the grace to be cleansed of darkness, spiritually rejuvenated, and to accept more deeply the commission to live and to share the Good News.