This Sunday once served as the ancient beginning of Lent - before the belated addition of Ash Wednesday and the subsequent weekdays. Of course, our contemporary Lent now includes those four earlier days, starting with what has long been one of the most popular days of the year when churches everywhere are filled with people eager to get dirt on their faces and be told they are going to die. But anyone who perchance missed out on Ash Wednesday for whatever reason is free to think of him or herself as just following a more ancient Roman calendar – or, indeed, the Ambrosian calendar of Milan, where even today Lent still begins on this Sunday.
For those inclined to count, the Lenten countdown of 40 days actually begins today. (Hence the traditional title Quadragesima Sunday). The late 20th-century liturgical reformation eliminated some distinctive Lenten practices (folded chasubles, Vespers in the morning, etc.) and standardized what was left so as to begin them all together on Ash Wednesday, rather than just some on Ash Wednesday and the rest today. On the other hand, the same liturgical reformation highlighted this Sunday in a new way with the restored Rite of Election, whereby catechumens and others preparing for the sacraments of initiation at Easter are formally presented to (and symbolically chosen by) the Bishop. The wonderful story is told of how a certain Archbishop, preparing to celebrate his first Rite of Election on this Sunday back in the 1980s, felt inspired when he realized that the reason his great cathedral was filled was that all those people wanted to become Catholic!
For the rest of us every year on this Sunday the Church invites us to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the silence and solitude of the desert. This Sunday’s ancient importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert!
Way back when, as the familiar story [Genesis 2] reminds us, Adam had lived peacefully in harmony with nature, his food provided for him (according to Jewish legend) by angels. So Jesus’ sojourn, among wild beasts while angels ministered to him, Is a reminder that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of all the obstacles we have since put in God’s way.
That, of course, was the point of God’s covenant with Noah [Genesis 9"8-15]. Despite the virtual universality of sin in the world, God in his mercy patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved [1 Peter 3:18-22]. God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his righteous anger and setting his bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth, to guarantee the continuance of human life on this planet.
In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sin, descending himself into the prison of death to free those who had gone before. Jesus’ descent among the dead, described in the 1st letter of Peter, anticipates the complete fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Just as God, who is rich in mercy, does not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life [Preface R1] in his kingdom, so too the Church gives us this special Lenten season every year to take time to renew ourselves - not in a self-centered, self-focused sort of way, but by focusing once again on the big picture, and where we hope to be in that bigger picture.
How to do that?
In a sermon probably preached on this 1st Sunday of Lent in 5th-century North Africa, Saint Augustine challenged his hearers to "fast from quarrels and discord" and to "pardon the offender what has been committed, and give to the person in need." [Sermon 205]