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March 5 2017 (A) First Sunday of Lent

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Message of Lent: “Repent and Believe in the Gospel”. Dying to Oneself in order to have life in Christ

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

 First Reading (Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7). The creation and sin of our first parents. The two short passages in this reading are intended to go with what Paul will say in today’s second reading. We are first told of the creation, or formation, of man or human person (in Hebrew adam) from the dust of the soil (in Hebrew adamah), indicating the frailty of human nature. God’s creation, or formation, of man by God is presented pictorially: a dust-man into whom God breathes life. But God has great things in store for this his creation. He created a garden of delights in an area called Eden, a locality not identifiable or intended to be. In later Jewish and Christian tradition Eden would become more or less synonymous with the earthly or heavenly Paradise. Adam is put into this garden by God, to enjoy its fruits, with the exception of the fruit of the one tree, that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. His obedience to God is to be tested. The biblical text also speaks of the creation of Eve, Adam’s partner, in a text omitted in this reading, not to distract from the two points being made on creation and sin of our first parents. The second part of the reading tells of their sin. In keeping with the pictorial nature of the presentation, the tempter is presented as the serpent. Later Jewish and Christian retelling of the story will identify the serpent as Satan. Using human psychology, the tempter brings the woman to believe him that the eating of the forbidden fruit will bring hidden knowledge, and that God was deceiving them. They both eat of the forbidden fruit, and disaster follows. They realise that disaster has occurred. Before their sin, in their integrity, they were both naked, but felt no shame. Now they realise that they are naked, a realization of their sexuality, or of their human frailty. Through their sin, a new age of human frailty and sin had begun.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 50[51]). Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned.

 Second Reading (Romans 5:12-19). However great the number of sins committed, grace was even greater. Reflecting on

the biblical narrative of creation and the fall of humanity about the year 30 BC, the author of the Book of Wisdom (2:23-24) wrote that God made the human race for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. In today’s reading Paul shares with us his reflection on the Genesis narrative with the first Adam, but in the light of the remedy supplied to it by Christ, the Second Adam. Sin, spiritual and physical, entered the world through that primeval disobedience, that attempt to acquire hidden knowledge. Sin is presented as a personified force, pervading the entire human race. All humanity is presented as in some way involved in Adam’s sin. One explanation of this connection of humanity with Adam’s sin is through the doctrine of original sin. Whether that was clearly in Paul’s mind is another matter. But all humanity, every individual, is connected with Adam’s sin through one’s personal sins. Paul’s chief interest, however, is the contrasting of Adam’s disobedience and sin with the remedy brought by Christ. Death personified reigned as a result of on man’s (Adam’s) sin. In contrast Christ will make everyone who receives his grace reign in a new life of righteousness before God. Thus, as the reading ends, as by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience (that is Christ’s) many will be made righteous.

The Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus fasts for forty days and was tempted. This is the first Sunday of Lent in which the Church invites us to reflect during this period on Christian life, with its trials and temptations, with Jesus Christ as our model and source of strength. We are at the beginning of Christ’s public life, immediately after his baptism by John the Baptist. At his baptism, Matthew has informed us, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on him. And a voice, of God the Father, from heaven said: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. This present reading tells us that it was this same Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The desert experience and the temptation were all part of the divine plan. Mention of his period of fasting forty days and forty nights brings to mind Moses’ forty days with the Lord on Mount Sinai and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, on the way to the Promised Land. Israel was tempted in this wilderness and proved unfaithful. Jesus is the new Moses and the new Israel. He will be tempted and will overcome Satan, the tempter. Jesus will be tested and tempted during his public life, tempted by Peter not to undergo the suffering of the cross, to which Jesus’ replied by calling Peter Satan, the tempter, and to get behind him. Peter’s thoughts were human, not in keeping with Jesus’ mission. Satan takes up the voice of the Father at the baptism that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. The substance of his temptation is that Jesus take advantage of his status and work miracles to allay his hunger. He also tempts him to work an outstanding miracle by jumping from the top of the Temple, to astound the crowds, here citing Scripture for his purpose. The most daring temptation of all is promise of universal dominion if Jesus bows down and worships him. To each of these three temptations Jesus replies by a Scripture citation from the Book of Deuteronomy, texts regarding Israel in the wilderness.

            The purpose of the temptation reading is to remind us that Jesus is fully one of us. At the outset of his mission he experienced what it would take to act as God’s Son, truly human. His mission, and that of all his followers in the Church, would be victory over the temptations of Satan and forces contrary to Jesus through prayer and self-denial. This for Jesus, and the Church from earliest times, included fasting, not to force God’s hand, but to unite us with Christ and the Christian mystery. The question is raised today whether we should forget Lenten fast and Lenten exercises. Civil society may discuss this in its own way. Christians would do well to have some personal form of self-denial, in union with Christ, for instance of Fridays, whether abstaining from meat or in some other way.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Message of Lent: “Repent and Believe in the Gospel”. Dying to Oneself in order to have life in Christ. Lent is not a time for mere externals, sackcloth and ashes. It is a period of forty days in which to reflect on the Christian mystery, on Christian life in Christ, on the dignity and dangers to the human person and on God’s message through Christ regarding all these truths. All this is done with reference to Christ, the New Man, the New Adam. During his forty days in the wilderness Jesus must have reflected on these truths, and the temptations against accepting his Father’s understanding of the human person and God’s response to this through Christ’s own life, his self-emptying, death and resurrection. An ancient hymn, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, says that although in the form of God, Jesus did not think equality with God as something to be used for human advantage. Instead he humbled himself and willed instead to be found, and recognized, in human form. The reference is probably not to Jesus’ divine form, divine nature. The hymn, rather, is probably making a contrast between Christ and the First Adam in the garden. Eve was told by the serpent, the tempter, that if she and Adam asserted their autonomy by eating from the forbidden fruit, disobeying God’s command, they would become like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:1-5). Adam, in human form, succumbed to the temptation to take on divine form, with disastrous consequences. Christ would have similar temptations but resisted, and became and an example for his followers, and a source of their salvation.

            The drama of the first Adam and Christ, the second Adam, has been played out down through history, a drama still being enacted in our own day. Christianity and much of modern life have contrasting views of the human person and what fulfilment of human desires is. There is a tendency in a widespread modern worldview to regard the human person, and humanity, as one dimensional, autonomous, with a requirement to live and develop one’s own personal and social life without any input from outside, from God or Church. This is quite the opposite of the New Testament and biblical teaching. Central to this is that God is love, that God loves the world, and has sent his Son to bring this message of love to humanity. Christ came so that believers in him, and humanity, have life and have it abundantly (see John 10:10). Christ is the source of life, but also its model. But Jesus also clearly tells us that finding the life he brings entails dying to self in a number of things; life in him entails taking up one’s cross and following him (Mathew 9:35-47). Jesus stresses the values of the human person. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and forfeit the integrity of one’s own person? What can be given in return for one’s self? (see Matthew 16:26). In its reflection on the role of the Church in the Modern World (paragraphs 40-44) Vatican II has treated of this question very sensitively: on the mutual relationship of Church and world (no. 40), what the Church offers to individuals (no. 41), what the Church offers to society (no. 42), what the Church offers to human activity through its members (no. 43). The text is available on the internet. It merits reading and reflection.

            Lent is a call to turn away from false values and turn to the Gospel message. The period calls for reflection and devotion. Faith is nourished by devotion, personal and collective, whether in parish or family. Devotion need not be ostentatious. It can be personal and quiet, for instance reflecting on Fridays on Jesus’ call to follow him, and in honour of his Passion abstaining from meat (by use fish or otherwise) at the main meal. And there are many other ways.