February 14 2016 (C) First Sunday of Lent
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection & Dialogue: Message of Lent: The central Christian creed. Religion and Spirituality
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Deuteronomy 26:4-10). The creed of the chosen people. In the Lectionary and by biblical scholars this passage is recognized as “The Creed of the Chosen People”. It will help us understand its message and import better if we read it within its context in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is part of concluding liturgies and exhortations. Israel is already viewed as having come into possession of the land promised to their ancestors and Moses is represented as telling them to remember their past history and how the Lord redeemed them from slavery. Looking forward, as it were, in vision Moses says: “26When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’” 4When the priest takes the basket and sets it down before the altar of the Lord their God, they shall make the beautiful profession of faith read in today’s Mass. They shall remember the ancestor Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob is called “a wandering Aramaean”. The Aramaeans were originally nomads and Jacob wandered homeless and landless like one of them. The creed goes on to tell of their bondage in Egypt and how their God freed them and led them prosperity. They are never to forget their origins, and God’s care for them, and are to profess this in first fruits offered to God.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 90). Be with me, O Lord, in my dustress.
Second Reading (Romans 10:8-13). The creed of the Christian. In the lectionary this reading is headed “The creed of the Christian”. However, the text of this creed is in such obscure language that it needs to be decoded, so to speak, to make sense to present-day Christians, and in fact very probably to generations of believers soon after Paul’s own day. The formulation flows from Paul’s concerns and worries about the refusal of his own Jewish people to accept Christ. He devotes three chapters of this epistle (chapters 9-11) to the problem and the mystery. The present compact Christian creed is best understood when read after the passage immediately preceding (Romans 10:1-7). Speaking of his own beloved Jewish unbelieving people Paul writes: “10Brothers and sisters,* my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. 4For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Paul freely admits that his Jewish people has zeal for God, just as he had himself had before his conversion. But this zeal was centred on the Jewish law. Paul further says that this zeal was not enlightened, by which he means that it did not have true knowledge of God, was not open to God’s active presence in Christ. It was not enlightened because it did not accept Christ, who for Paul and the Christian Church is was the end of the law, in the sense that Christ was the aim towards which the Law, the entire Jewish history, was directed and also that with Christ the Law and what it stood for had ended. Paul cites a partial text from Deuteronomy 30:14: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” and applies it to the Gospel message, to the faith proclaimed by Paul and the Christian Church. Then Paul plays on the two central words, lips and heart: professing the faith by the lips (as in the confession of faith at baptism) and believing in the heart. It is by faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of the Jewish law or of any other tradition, that we are made righteous, made Christians, members of the family of God, enabled to address God as “Father”. Faith makes salvation available to all, irrespective of class, nation, colour or sex.
There are many implications of the essentials of this Christian creed, some of which we shall consider below in the reflections and dialogue with concerns of our own day.
Gospel (Luke 4:1-3). Jesus was led by the Spirit through the wilderness And was tempted there. This Gospel reading on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness is read every year on this first Sunday of Lent (this year in St Luke’s telling) to remind us of the sacred season that is beginning. It is first of all well to understand this reading in the Gospel’s presentation. At his baptism in the Jordan, while Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the Father declared from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”. Then Jesus, filled with Holy Spirit was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. The devil introduces his temptations with the words: “If you are the Son of God”. Jesus was declared Son of God at his baptism, now he is tempted to take advantage of this his status, by working miracles to satisfy his hunger, to accept the devil as lord of the world, and receive status from him, to perform an astounding miraculous jump from the Temple (as one Jewish tradition, apparently expected the promised Messiah to do). At this, the outset of his public career, Jesus makes clear the centrality of prayer and fasting for the success of Christian life. The first Adam, although mortal, succumbed to the temptation to be like God. Jesus, the second Adam, would do the opposite. As the early Christian hymn put it (Philippians 2:6-11): Jesus although in the form of God, did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, becoming in the likeness of mortals. He was tempted as humans are, but did not succumb. Christians should make their own the mind of Christ Jesus.
B. Reflection & Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Message of Lent: The central Christian creed. Religion and Spirituality
Today’s liturgy presents an opportunity to reflect on some central Christian truths. The Jewish creed of the first reading had Israel reflect on God’s goodness in the past. The creed in the second reading is a stark statement that that past has ended with Christ’s coming. In belief and the service of the living God, what counts is life in Christ and the righteousness, the right relationship to God, that it brings. Paul contrasts efforts to establish one’s own righteousness with the righteousness that comes from God. What counts in the new Christian age is the belief in Christ and open confession of his name, a belief which means the acceptance of God’s work in Christ, and the saving activity of Christ for the individual and the Church he has founded.
In relation to the central text of today’s reading “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved”, some commentators of the text note the position of some contemporary Christians who contrast “religion” with a “relationship” with God, or contrast “religion” with “spirituality”, stating that they do not practice “religion”, attend Church and such like practises but have a “relationship” with God, or that they have a spirituality, but do not agree with “religion”. True “spirituality” for believing Christians is the working of the Holy Spirit giving the gift of faith, giving confidence to call on God as “Father”. It includes contact with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church of Christ—what many believers will describe as religion.
After these reflections let us return to the period of Lent and its messages. 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. 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 by abstaining from meat (by use fish or otherwise) at the main meal. And there are many other ways.