Back when Lent was still exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the 3 following days got added on), Lent began today, with this Sunday (as it still does in Milan, Italy, where to this day there is still no Ash Wednesday). In our modern rite, this is the day when those who have responded to the good news of Jesus by becoming candidates for Baptism or full membership in the Catholic Church this coming Easter are presented to our Bishop at our cathedral, to make their own the Church’s faith in Jesus and the Church’s way of becoming his disciple. That faith, that way of becoming a disciple – what St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, called confessing with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in one’s heart that God raised him from the dead – are what Lent has always been about.
And so, every year, we begin our Lent the way Jesus began his mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and popular acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert.
That was where Jesus made his Lent – in the desert, the domain of the devil, whose many titles include liar and father of lies. The devil lied when he equated being Son of God with power to be used for purely personal advancement. He lied again when he tried to divert Jesus from his mission with the kinds of illusions that, in our society especially, pass for success, illusions of being a winner, of being great, thereby anticipating what may ultimately be remembered as one of our contemporary American religion’s most terrible temptations – the temptation to political power. He lied yet again when he equated being Son of God with special effects and popular acclaim, thereby anticipating what may ultimately be remembered as one of our contemporary culture’s most distinctive characteristics – equating celebrity with significance.
The devil’s lies live on in our world today. We know from the sad state of our public life that we don’t have to run off to the desert to be lied to!
The devil’s lies and Jesus’ responses reveal the deeper underlying reality reflected in all the human choices we make – choices that in a real sense both make us who and what we are and reveal us to each other and to ourselves.
Every Lent, the same Spirit that led Jesus into the desert leads us to spend 40 days with him in the same place where it led him, in the desert that threatens and challenges us to choose – to choose not just whether or what to eat, but what we want to make of our life – a life lived in faithfulness to truth or a life lived in thrall to the devil’s lies, to the illusions accompany earthly power, and the delusions that accompany popularity.
When the devil had finished every temptation, we are told, he departed for a time. That time came when Jesus returned to Jerusalem, not to the parapet of the temple, but to the top of the cross, where the devil’s challenge would be confronted again and all his lies finally refuted, when Jesus’ choice of obedience to his Father would finally reveal both who he really is and what true power and glory really are.
Lent is our opportune time to meet up with the real Jesus – undefeated in the desert and victorious on the cross – to learn whether and what kind of difference confessing him with the mouth and believing in him in the heart can really make – for us and for our world.
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 10, 2019.