Reflection: First Sunday of Lent

Reading 1. Genesis 9: 8-15
Reading II. 1 Peter 3: 18-22
Gospel. Mark 1: 12-15 (Temptation in the Desert)

The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert has traditionally been used as the gospel for the first Sunday in Lent. Nevertheless, it might seem odd that today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis is about Noah and the Flood. What does Noah have to do with the Temptation of Jesus in the desert by Satan?

St. Peter provides the answer in today’s second reading. He says that the Flood prefigures or relates to Baptism. Just as the Ark saved Noah and his small family, St. Peter reminds the Christian community that Baptism saves us now. Moreover, he says that the cleansing waters of Baptism are not a “mere removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” The cleansing of our hearts and souls is also associated with the season of Lent. It is the real reason for Lent.

In today’s gospel, St. Mark only has the following to say about the Temptation:

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
And he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.

In Mark’s Gospel, the forty days in the desert followed immediately after the Baptism of Jesus when the Spirit descended upon him at the river Jordan. Following his own Baptism, Jesus sees the need to prepare for his mission with prayer and fasting. It will not be easy and he will have to struggle against temptation.

Mark’s Gospel does not go into detail about the kinds of temptation faced by Jesus. For that, we have to turn to the account in the gospel of Matthew who says that the devil presented Jesus with three different temptations. Lucky for us that we are such small fry or such easy marks that the devil doesn’t have to personally bother with us. Our temptations are not so dramatic. C. S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian authors of the last century, wrote a book entitled The Screwtape Letters in which he described how a petty bureaucrat from hell tried to tempt a young man with the mundane, ordinary temptations that we all experience in our lives.

Nevertheless, the Devil tempted Jesus in ways that we all can understand. Please note that despite all attempts today to glamorize the Devil, our tradition has always believed that he is a liar. In fact, just like all tempters he cannot help but lie or otherwise distort the Truth. Even when he quotes Scripture, he twists the meaning. Our Lord is the Truth; the Devil represents the complete absence of Truth.

The first temptation deals with our basic human needs. Of course, it’s not just about food and hunger. It’s about all the things that we think that we must have to sustain our standard of living. Maybe we don’t all want to be millionaires, but we all know how the frantic search for the things of this world can destroy our basic human relationships. As Jesus said, “One does not live on bread alone.”

In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem looking down over the parapet 450 feet straight down to the Kidron valley and urges Him to “throw yourself down.” Maybe we don’t think that it’s serious when temptation stares us in the face, but sometimes when it does, we are on the brink of the precipice with the rest of our life on the line. The words of Jesus should be a guide to us all. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”

The third temptation deals with the search for “power and glory.” Lying again, the Devil claimed that all the kingdoms in the world had been given to him and that he will give them to Jesus “if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” Every day in the newspapers we read about some politician, CEO, athlete, or entertainer who is in trouble with the law. Most of us are not such big shots but we know of the power struggles that go on in our own families, our schoolyards, our workplaces and even in our churches.

At the Jordan, John the Baptist said that he must diminish so that the Lord could increase. It is just the opposite with the search for “power and glory.” Once again, Jesus quoted from the Book of Deuteronomy; “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.” Of course, the best way to worship is available to us at Mass each and every day during Lent. Let’s try to take a half hour out of our hectic schedules during the week to humble ourselves before the Lord.

Our Lord’s words show us the way to true happiness. We were created to live in a beautiful paradise but when sin entered the world, pain and sorrow and even death were the result. Lent gives us an opportunity to get back on track. It gives us an opportunity to examine our lives and see how far we have succumbed to the temptations that constantly face us. There is hope if we follow the example of Jesus. In Saint Peter’s letter we read:

Christ suffered for sins once,
The righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
That he might lead you to God.