Wednesday, March 1, 2017

1st Sunday of Lent

When you think of the season of Lent, what do you think of?  When you ask this of most Catholics, they will usually say that it’s a season of penance, for giving something up, for prayer and for giving alms.  These are right, of course, but not entirely.  According to the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy promulgated from the Second Vatican Council, “The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery.”  While those who are preparing for Baptism use this season of Lent as a period of “Purification and Enlightenment,” all of us Catholics are called to remember our own Baptisms as a primary focus for Lent in addition to penance.  With that emphasis in mind, let us see how baptism plays into our readings for this first week of Lent:


Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

As would be fitting for the beginning of Lent, our readings also start at the beginning with the creation of man and woman, and their fall from grace.  In a passage from the book of Genesis, we learn first of how the Lord God created Man and placed him in the Garden of Eden.  Then the text skips ahead to the story of the woman and the serpent, and how he entices the woman and the man to eat of the forbidden fruit.  This is the familiar story of man’s fall from grace.  Why is this story important on this particular Sunday?  The Easter Proclamation we hear at the Easter Vigil…the Exsultet, tells us.  In the line where we sing “O necessary sin of Adam.”  Why do we say “necessary?”  Because without it we would not have salvation through Jesus Christ.  This sin of Adam is the not so much man’s fall from grace as it is the beginning of our story of salvation.  A salvation entered into through our own free will, just as our baptism, entered into freely, is the beginning of our own salvation.  And just as baptism cleanses us of sin, it does so with God’s grace, for as our Psalm reminds us, God’s mercy is there for the asking as we sing, “be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” 

Understanding our story of salvation is also key to understanding the importance of Jesus Christ.  This is exactly what St. Paul is explaining in our second reading.  Here Paul gives us a very succinct outline of the story of salvation and the entire purpose of our ministry, first by recalling Adam’s sin, but how it is through Christ that we are redeemed.  While it is an important lesson, it is also an example of Paul’s sometimes very convoluted writing style, spanning some 30 lines within only 4 sentences, so you may wish to take it very slowly and go through it several times so you can better see his point.

Our Gospel from Matthew gives us another “origin story” – the beginning of Jesus ministry as marked by his temptation in the desert.  This is the quintessential Catholic understanding of Lent.  Jesus is lead into the desert to face the devil.  As we hear the narrative unfold, it is interesting to note the wordplay between the Devil and Jesus, and how both of them use Scripture to justify their arguments.  Remember, Matthew is speaking to a primarily Jewish audience, so the verses they are quoting are well known to them.  Also for Matthew this is an opportunity to remind us of the epic nature of this battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.  Jesus is not just another prophet, he is the chosen one, the Son of God, the champion of the forces of light.  But where is the reference to baptism in this story?  Remember what happens just before Jesus goes out into the desert?  He is baptized by John, giving him the strength to face the devil and begin his mission.

Final Thoughts:
You’re never too old to learn something new.  And no matter how far you go in your spiritual journey in the Church you will always find new revelations.  For years I have taught and been taught that Lent is a season of penance.  It was only after attending a workshop this past weekend at the Religious Education Congress that I learned that our Lenten focus on penance is secondary to a focus on our Baptism.  This two-fold character of Lent, it’s dual nature, as clearly defined in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and should not be ignored.  This period of Purification and Enlightenment is not just for those Catechumens going through the Rite of Election… it’s for all of us.  Dr. Jerry Galipeau, who lead the workshop on baptism (and wrote the book on implementing the RCIA) challenged us to use this Lenten season to focus on the theme of baptism as we proceed through the readings and Rites of the season, and in doing so, find a greater depth of understanding.  A chance to come to know, as he said, how our own baptism changes everything.  Come join me on this journey.

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