The First Sunday of Lent [A]
Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7 + Rom 5:12,17-19 + Mt 4:1-11
March 5, 2017
“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
“Sacred” is a word that you don’t hear much about anymore. Even less is the word “sacred” understood in the world that surrounds us. As Catholics, we know instinctively that certain persons, places, and things are sacred, but what does that mean? Is “sacred” just another word for “holy”, meaning something that’s blessed, or in some way connected to God? Or is there more to the meaning of the word “sacred”?
Consider a few examples. What would your reaction be if you were to visit a neighbor, and notice that he has his back door propped open with a bible? When you ask your neighbor why he’s doing this, he replies that that particular bible is just the right size to fit under the door: none of the other books in his house would do the trick.
Imagine that the next day you went over to your cousin’s house for supper. She tells you that you’re having chicken soup for dinner. The smell is delicious. But when it’s time to start serving the soup, your cousin takes an old chalice and starts using it to ladle the soup. When you ask why she’s doing that, she says that the handle on her old ladle broke, and she had this chalice laying around because a deceased uncle was a priest and bequeathed it to her.
For a third example, imagine that you stopped by church one day to visit the Blessed Sacrament. You’re kneeling in one of the front pews, when suddenly you hear a small child shouting to someone else at the back of the church. This continues as you finish your prayers, and when you reach the back of church to leave, you find that the child’s father is with the small child, encouraging him to shout inside the church. When you ask the father why he’s doing that, he says that he wants his son to be an auctioneer like his grandpa, and that the acoustics in the church are perfect for learning the family business.
In all of these cases, you would likely be shocked. But if you told your neighbor, your cousin, and the father that what they were doing was wrong, and they said “Why?”, how would you explain why what they did was wrong?
Your answer would simply boil down to explaining what the word “sacred” means. The word “sacred” means “set apart for God”.
Think back to your neighbor using his bible to prop open his door. He said that the bible is “just the right size” for keeping his door open. But a bible is sacred. It is a book containing the Word of God, in order to be read. This book is not to be used as a doorstop, or a paperweight, or anything else other than to be read, even if it seems well suited to other purposes. Any other use is sacrilege, meaning using something sacred for a purpose other than the purpose for which it’s been consecrated.
What about your cousin using her uncle’s chalice to ladle chicken soup? She might argue that the chalice serves well as a ladle. But a chalice is sacred. It has been consecrated for the purpose of bearing the wine that is changed into the Precious Blood of Jesus. The chalice is not to be used as a ladle, or a cup for drinking beer, or any other purpose. Any other use is sacrilege.
So what about the father encouraging his son to shout across a church? He might argue that the church serves that purpose well. But a church is sacred. It was consecrated by the bishop for the sole purpose of prayer and the Sacraments. The church building is not to be used for shouting to others, or for a dance hall, or any other purpose. Any use other than the one for which it was consecrated is sacrilege.
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Now all this might seem perfectly obvious to anyone brought up Catholic. But we don’t live in a world today that understands the meaning of the word “sacred”. Our day and age just doesn’t get the concept of “consecration”. The world that surrounds us does not believe that there is anything called “sacrilege”. The motto of the modern world is “anything goes”.
The difficulty for you who are Catholic Christians is that it’s not just a printed bible, a consecrated chalice, and a church building that are sacred. There’s something else in your lives that’s sacred, which in fact you carry with you no matter where you go, and which is with you 24 hours a day. That is your very self.
Your very self—body, mind, and soul, all united as the person who is you—is sacred. You were consecrated to God and for God at the moment of your baptism. But for what purpose were you “set aside” as sacred? If a bible’s purpose is to let God’s Word be read, and if a chalice’s purpose is to let God’s Precious Blood be consumed, and if a church building’s purpose is to let God be praised in prayer and sacrament, then what is the purpose for which you yourself were consecrated at your baptism?
Today’s Gospel passage shows us that the answer is “to love”. The purpose for which you were consecrated is to love: to love your God and your neighbor. Today’s First Reading is about the corruption of God’s plan for the human family. But the Gospel passage is about Jesus starting to set things back on course: that is, to help us live up to the sacred call we received at our baptism: to focus on the goal of being loving in all of our thoughts, words, and actions.
More specifically, today’s Gospel passage is about temptation: about the different ways in which we’re tempted not to be loving. The conflict here between Jesus and Satan is profound, and can be a great help to you during this holy season of Lent. However, to understand what the Gospel passage says about temptation, I’ve called in a guest preacher, by the name of St. Francis de Sales. He’s going to help us on this First Sunday of Lent to focus more intently on the sacred call that each of us has to be loving.
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If you’ll pardon for a moment putting the cart before the horse, St. Francis mentions that “many prefer the end of today’s Gospel to its beginning.” After all, when “Our Lord had overcome His enemy and rejected his temptations, angels came and brought Him heavenly food.” All of us would like to join Christ at this point in His earthly life, but we shall never “be invited to His heavenly banquet… if we [do not share in] His labors and sufferings”.
“These forty days [that Jesus spent in the desert] symbolize the [entire] life of the Christian”. So we should “desire these consolations from the angels only at the end of our lives”, and not expect a banquet of spiritual comforts every waking day. Instead, in the here and now, we should “busy ourselves in steadfast resistance to the frontal attacks of our [moral and spiritual] enemies. For whether we desire it or not[,] we shall be tempted.” This is one of the most important lessons of this First Sunday of Lent.
We might agree with St. Francis in a vague, general sort of way when he says that “whether we desire it or not[,] we shall be tempted.” But many Christians—especially those who are perfectionists—fall into the trap of thinking that if they just “set up” their lives in the right way, they can keep temptation at arm’s length. This is the trap of thinking that all temptation is “out there” in the fallen world. This trap overlooks the simple truth that “in here”—within my fallen soul—it’s very easy for temptations to originate. It’s there, within the fallen soul, that we need Christ.
St. Francis especially tries to lay to rest the false idea that the more dedicated we are to God, the less we will experience temptation. He directly refutes this idea, explaining that just the opposite is to be expected. He explains: “it is an infallible truth that no one is exempt from temptation [once] he has truly resolved to serve God.” This is so obvious in today’s Gospel that it’s easy to overlook: the divine Son of God was tempted by the devil at the beginning of His three years of public service. The devil sought out Jesus at this point because Jesus was beginning His earthly mission, putting behind Him thirty years of living with His family in the home at Nazareth. So if the Son of God was tempted by the devil, you shouldn’t be surprised if you are also.
More specifically, though, remember the point St. Francis makes that once a person truly resolves to serve God, he ought more surely to expect temptation. So if you take up this season of Lent with strong resolve, expect pushback from those who don’t want you to become more like God. With this in mind, there are two more points from St. Francis de Sales about what it means for a Christian to experience temptation.
First, he points out “that although no one can be exempt from temptation, still[,] no one should seek it[,] or go of his own accord to the place where it may be found”: that place called “the near occasion of sin”. That’s why St. Matthew the Evangelist shows “that Our Lord was led into the desert by the [Holy] Spirit to be tempted; it was not then by His [human] choice”. Rather, Jesus “was led by the obedience He owed to His heavenly Father.”
Second, given the plain fact that every Christian will face temptation, it’s “a very necessary practice to prepare our soul for temptation.” This is one of the most important works of the Christian spiritual life: to prepare oneself to battle against temptation. The way St. Francis puts it is this: “we ought to be so disposed and to provide ourselves with the weapons necessary to fight valiantly in order to carry off the victory, since the crown is only for the combatants and conquerors.”
In saying this, he’s simply echoing the language of Saint Paul the Apostle, who frequently throughout his letters describes the Christian virtues using metaphors of military gear. It’s only modern thinkers who cast aside such language as archaic, or worse, even contrary to the sort of spirituality they prefer, full of sugarplums and chirping birds. Such modern thinkers take for granted that even the blessings of modern life come only through hard sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears; or as the bumper sticker puts it: “freedom isn’t free”. Freedom comes at a price, even if you’re not the one who had to pay it.
The same is true in the spiritual life: Christ paid the ultimate price so that you could have salvation. But unlike the modern American, who never has to be drafted in order to enjoy the freedoms of our country, every Christian does have to participate in the battle against temptations, especially when he’s serious about serving the Lord. This was reflected in the Collect—the opening prayer—that the priest prayed at the start of Holy Mass on Ash Wednesday. Listen again to its words, and ask Jesus for the grace to fight temptation, in order to be faithful to your sacred call to be loving in all things: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting / this campaign of Christian service, / so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, / we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”
 St. Francis de Sales, The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Lent (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 1987), 31.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 17.