First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2021
St. Anselm Church – Sudbury, MA
Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15 https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/022121.cfm
You can tell the Church has changed its mood. Our color is purple — a color that we use to mark repentance and reconciliation, and preparation. For that’s what Lent is about: Cleaning house, removing what is no longer useful, what’s become an obstacle to your flourishing, to make room for what is truly helpful and lets you live as a child of God.
What would I just as soon be rid of? What’s stifling virtue and light? Is it a grudge? A bad habit? A rut I’ve got into?
The good news is God wants to help you over the obstacles. If only we’d reach back to the One reaching out a helping hand to us.
Today in the gospel we’re going to meet that One whose hand is reaching out to help us — Jesus. He is not unacquainted with struggle and temptation. He faced such things and even more, himself, beginning in the desert where we meet him today. And he triumphed over those fearful lures and pitfalls. With his help, we too will triumph. So today and throughout Lent, may our one intention be to get close to Jesus and stay with him.
Lord Jesus, you came to heal the contrite of heart. Lord have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you came to call sinners to repentance & to become your disciples. Christ have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you intercede for us as the right hand of the Father. Lord have mercy.
This past Wednesday, we marked our foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross. A cross… sign of the suffering of Jesus Christ – who laid down his life for his friends, for us, his beloved. A sign made in ashes:
Ashes are the results of fire, a sign of death or destruction; but also full of nutrients for the soil, the fertilizer of new life and growth. As in Greek mythology, the phoenix rises from the ashes. And for us, Christ rose from death to life. We know Ash Wednesday and these symbols mark the beginning of the season of Lent.
But why do we do this? Ashen reminders of darkness, of Christ’s suffering, or our own mortality? Why not skip ahead, right to the joy of Easter, of Christ rising from the dead, the ultimate sign that death and evil cannot have the final word! For God’s will for us and the world is about restoration, light, justice, peace and wholeness…isn’t it?
Simply put, to skip ahead would be to ignore all the tough parts of life, the tough parts of ourselves, the daily struggles, injustices and cruelty. These are the very things that Jesus fearlessly immersed himself in: because in loving the sinner, the broken hearted, and the oppressed, he brought healing and hope, light where there was darkness.
You and me, if we are to be followers of Jesus, we must not be escapists, turning our eyes only to a heavenly future and forgetting that heaven has come downto change and transform this earth.
Will we walk with Jesus, unafraid to touch the tough parts of reality, and summon heaven to transform them?
This is what we Christians are invited to do in Lent.
Lent is 40 days, a 40 day preparation for Easter. But more than that: a 40 day journey from death to life.
- It mirrors the 40 day journey of Noah, his family and all the animals in the Ark – saved from the evil that had gripped the world, and the waters that would wash away that evil, delivered safely to a world made new.
- Moreover our 40 days of Lent mirror Jesus’ 40 days in the desert: tested and tempted, Jesus emerged to begin his public ministry.
If his time in the Desert is our model for Lent, let’s look at today’s gospel and ask, “What happened to Jesus in the desert?”
Mark’s gospel gives us much less about this period of Jesus’ life than Matthew or Luke. But maybe here, less-is-more.
The SPIRIT drove Jesus into the desert
He was tempted by Satan
He was among wild beasts
And the Angels ministered to him.
The SPIRIT drove Jesus into the desert. Notice that it is the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit, that drove Jesus into the desert. And this was right after he had been baptized by John in the Jordan river. Recall that upon coming out of the river he heard a voice from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. What an affirmation! And yet, immediately that same divine spirit drove him into the desert, where he would spend 40 turbulent and troubling days. There was clearly something important for him to experience there before he could begin his public ministry.
In the desert, Jesus was tempted by Satan and was among wild beasts. Not pleasant company for sure, but I bet you and I can relate to this: Tempted under pressure to betray our dearest values, or who we are, or the people we love? Tempted to lose hope in the face of adversity? Seemingly surrounded by wild beasts: unpredictable or malevolent characters, bad situations, the creeping fear of being attacked…
In a desert like that one can feel very much abandoned to the darkness. To whom do you turn?
The gospel tells us: The angels ministered to him. Jesus was not alone. He could face Satan and the wild beasts because God’s love was there in the middle of it to help him. But Jesus also was looking for those angels, seeking their help, accepting however it was that they showed up and ministered to him.
We have to look!
He didn’t say, “I can do this alone” nor did he give up and give in.
So in these 40 days in the desert, Jesus confronted, in a deeply personal way, the reality of our human life, the precariousness we can feel, the difficulty of seeing God’s face when darkness captures our attention – our own darkness or the darkness around us. This gave Jesus the confidence – maybe even the deep calling in his heart – to begin a public ministry that was entirely about casting out this darkness from the lives of all people.
Jesus’ ministered from inside the lives of the people;
NOT from above or outside of them.
His ministry was about solidarity and self-sacrifice,
NOT solutions from on high.
Jesus cast out darkness with the power of divine love,
If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ, if we want to walk with Jesus as instruments of divine love too, we also need to face those darknesses in ourselves and in our reality, and experience the angels seeing us through to the light.
We need our time in the desert.
We need this Lent.
Over millennia, Christians and indeed most religions, have recognized the need for periodic reflection, introspection, struggle with our own demons, and appealing to God with brutal honesty and complete dependence on God’s love and mercy.
These are times of stripping away those things that make us less than humble, less than loving, less than trusting – and truly, less than free – to return wholeheartedly to the God who beholds us in a loving, longing gaze, always. And so we do this in Lent.
The Church recommends three disciplines that help us both individually and together to make Lent for us what the desert was for Jesus: Fasting, prayer and charity.
In FASTING – from food or from something that we particularly like – we make a small sacrifice, something we notice, something we miss. What it is may be not so important, but its lack opens up a space in our minds, our awareness, our hearts – a space we invite God to fill.
In PRAYER – we seek intimate time with God. Heart to heart, honest conversation. Deepening of a relationship that is at the core of who we are as human beings, a relationship we can rely on, and discover unconditional love. A relationship that challenges us to put aside the sinful ways that weigh us down, and to grow into better, kinder and more generous people: to become joyful disciples of Jesus. [Throughout the gospels Jesus went off by himself or with his disciples to pray. There are so many opportunities for prayer here – the Lent Retreat, Taizé prayer this Thursday, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each Wednesday…choose some way to deepen your prayer this Lent. ]
CHARITY – is the outflowing of our relationship with God. When we know who we are and whose we are – that is beloved children of God – how can we not share our talents, resources, time, — our hearts – with those in need? [Helping people with what they need, materially, food, a kind word or care — these are what Jesus spent much of his time doing. Remember the counsel of St. Francis: it is giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned… We are collecting food for our local food banks currently. Bring your donations to the entrance of the church at mass, or drop it off in the rectory vestibule at other times. Consider joining our St. Anselm’s group of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.]
To remind you of your Lenten practice, your commitment, I’ve got smooth stones for you to keep in your pocket throughout Lent. Each time you reach into your pocket and feel it you will be reminded of your commitment — to some kind of prayer, charity or fasting. If you did not get one on Ash Wednesday the greeters will give you one today on your way out. If you’re viewing online you can take one from the basket in the rectory vestibule at your convenience. Make sure everyone in your household gets one if they want it!
So let us go on this journey into Lent…unafraid! To face the tough parts of reality. To name for what they are those things in ourselves that need healing, or forgiveness, and change. And to summon heaven to come down and help us, strengthen us, see us through from darkness to light.
Then we hope to arrive at Easter…
…humble and honest before God and each other
… deeply in love with Jesus, who loves us to the point of death on a cross.
…joyful and generous companions of Jesus in his ministry to heal and redeem
…hopeful because we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. As we die so to we shall be raised.