Homily – 1st Sunday of Lent

Friends, in preparing for today, I came upon a homily that I shared with you six years ago and it lays out rather succinctly, through the help of Scripture scholar, Diane Bergant, the whole of Lent this year through the readings that the Church gives us for this holy season. Being that I will be gone the next two weekends, I thought this a good one to share again with a few updates.

We begin then with the traditional thought that Lent has been a time to reflect on our sinfulness, our unworthiness before God and as a time to mortify ourselves—to do penance in reparation for our sins.   We all, as Catholics, have this sense of “unworthiness” in our blood—we call it “fondly,” “Catholic guilt.” But, as with any message, there can be over-kill, that is why in our masses at All Are One and in many women priest led liturgies, before communion, rather than using the old prayer that, “we would be made worthy,” our prayer is more in thanksgiving that, “we are worthy in Jesus.”  If we were to lay out the readings for Lent on a graph looking at the themes presented, we would get a picture that does indeed lift up the fact of our sinfulness but that is only done so as to reflect on the graciousness of God who put the “earth creatures” in the garden, complete with beauty and sustenance, blew life into their nostrils—all so that they could experience the gift of life in the garden of paradise.

The reading from Genesis doesn’t speak of any falling from grace, any repentance that is required of them; in fact the reading stops at the point where they realize that the result of their choice to possess wisdom like unto God is not all that they had imagined it to be.

The remainder of the first readings for the Sundays of Lent follow a similar vein—sinfulness of the people as in the 3rd Sunday when we will read of Moses and the people in the wilderness—their lack of faith in God as they cry for food and water, totally forgetting that God had brought them out of Egypt so probably would not have done that to let them die in the desert;  in the 5th Sunday in the reading from Ezekiel, when even though the people had been unfaithful, “God will open up their graves and send the Spirit so that they can live.”  The sinfulness of the people is always overshadowed by the gracious goodness and care of God for them as evidenced in making this people a chosen people as related on the 2nd Sunday, through the calling of Abram to go to a new land, raising up David as their king as we will hear on the 4th Sunday and then on Palm Sunday through the prophet Isaiah, we read of God’s most profound gift of graciousness, Jesus—the one who would become one of us in order to show us how to live and love and die and rise.

I believe this graciousness and ultimate love of God for us is best expressed through Psalm 51 today where the writer asks for compassionate love in regard to what is needed. The Hebrew word used to describe this love comes from the root word for “womb.” So, we would translate it as “womb love.”  We recall the intimate language from Isaiah last week in comparing God’s love for us to a mother with her newborn, feeding at her breast.  The psalmist is asking for this same kind of love that a mother would give to the child of her womb and is expecting to get it!  This expectation comes from such love received from God in the past. This is the love that ultimately Paul is speaking of when he writes to the Romans in today’s epistle about God’s great love and compassion for them in sending Jesus.

The remainder of the psalm responses for the Sundays in Lent speak of a combination of themes that are all interrelated—God’s mercy, God’s trustworthiness, God’s tender care, all beautifully expressed in the 5th week in the 23rd psalm.  As we move toward Holy Week, again the focus shifts from lamenting over our own plight to focus entirely on Jesus who will carry all the sorrow, pain and grief upon himself.

I find in my life, that there are times when I so desperately wish that I could take away someone’s sadness, their pain, allowing them to know life in its fullness—and I would guess this is true for many of you as you relate to family members and friends. Sometimes people are held back due to their own choices as with our human ancestors in the Genesis reading today, but other times, “life happens,” as we say, to people, not through their own choices. I take great comfort and hope in knowing that I can turn to Jesus to help carry the pain and sadness that is too much for me to carry alone.  I can also with great assurance, direct people who feel so overwhelmed, to this God-Man-Jesus, who loves them so much.

The epistle readings for the six Sundays of Lent follow the same pattern as the first readings and psalm responses—we are directed not to focus on ourselves, but to keep our focus on God who will show us the way to go—especially in Jesus.   These epistle readings assure us that our sinfulness is never greater, nor more powerful than God’s grace.  They will let us know that if we keep our eyes on Jesus we will see and walk in the light of the Spirit who lives within each of us. And then on Palm Sunday, our full attention will be squarely on Jesus who humbled himself as we will read in Philippians 2 on that day—“he was divine…but became as all humans are.”

In the Gospels for Lent, we will see clearly what an extraordinary person Jesus is.  With today’s selection, we see him fasting 40 days and nights to prepare himself for the temptations that will come at the end of the 40 days.  Disciplining ourselves would appear to be important if even Jesus needs to do it!  Whether it is food, material goods, self-righteousness, pride, drugs, power and control—name your own addiction that needs to be put in balance; the ability to discipline ourselves against the subtle temptations of life that inhibit us from being our best selves, seems to be something worth looking at.  As we saw with the earth creatures, temptations are often not what they seem as far as what they ultimately bring into our lives.

Next week we have the gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus which is truly an awesome event—one to encourage our belief.  Then on the 3rd Sunday there is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and his revelation to her that he is the Messiah. Then on the 4th Sunday, we read of the curing of the blind man and the revelation to him by Jesus that he is the Son of Man, a term generally meaning, God.  Finally, there is Jesus’ astounding rising of Lazarus from the dead on the 5th Sunday.

All of this together makes what happens on Palm Sunday in the reading from the Passion so much more astounding! Knowing and truly believing that Jesus is God which he has proven time and again through his life and deeds, we see that Jesus wasn’t overpowered and had his life taken from him—but that he gave it freely—all of it—from the moment of conception to his death on the cross—he chose to be one of us—to walk our journey. He certainly had the power to stop it as is evidenced by the actions and deeds recorded in Scripture which we will share throughout these Lenten Sundays. He took on the life of any human person, showed us how to live it, and gave it up in total sacrifice. In the dying then, the God-head alive in him could rise as each of us will rise one day.

So my friends, without denying our sinfulness, Lent really invites us to keep our eyes on Jesus and on God’s graciousness. We can do that in part by remembering that we are dust as we will be marked with ashes today—not for the purpose of groveling in it, but simply to see ourselves in relationship to God, one who is all powerful, all merciful, all just—gracious beyond belief, and who loved us so much as to become one of us to show us the way, the truth and the life.