Today is traditionally called Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day season of Lent (called Quadragesima in Latin). Of course, our contemporary Lent now begins four days earlier on Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the three following days were a later addition to the original Lenten season, which actually still starts counting the 40 days today, ending on the Thursday before Easter. So, if perchance you missed out on Ash Wednesday because of the weather, just think of yourself as following a more ancient Roman calendar – or, if you prefer, the Ambrosian calendar of Milan, where even today Lent still begins on this Sunday.
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!
And so 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 [Mark 1:12-15]. The Judean desert is a harsh and dangerous place – horribly hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, and silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent, among wild beasts, and where he invites us to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desert leads us to spend these 40 days with him among whatever wild beasts threaten and challenge us, as we choose what to make of our lives.
Way back when, as the familiar story 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 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. And - in a much nicer conclusion than we saw in last year’s movie about Noah - 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 from which we just heard [1 Peter 3:18-22], anticipates the complete fulfillment of his mission: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Lent, Pope Francis has reminded us, challenges us to go out of ourselves to acquire what he calls a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God.
Just as God, who is rich in mercy, does not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life [Preface Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation 1] 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. The point is not so much what we do for Lent, as it is how we do Lent.
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, february 21, 2015.