The First Sunday of Lent [A]
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 + Romans 5:12,17-19 + Matthew 4:1-11
“The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
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The first time that I travelled to Europe, I decided to visit two particular sites: the Oxford residence of St. John Henry Newman, and the cell where St. Thomas More was imprisoned before his beheading.
I knew that it would be a long time before I’d have the chance to visit England again. So I was determined to take a lot of photographs. I recalled my boyhood lessons in 4-H photography classes. There are really only a few basic types of pictures, which include the panorama, the group photo, and the portrait.
The panorama helps the viewer’s eyes look out towards a horizon, to imagine a scene that goes on and on. In the group photo, there are several persons, either doing something together or simply posing together. The viewer’s eyes look around from one person to the next, and put them together to form one scene.
But the portrait is different. The portrait focuses the eyes of the viewer. There is simply one person to look at. If there are other things in the picture, they can easily distract the viewer’s focus. But a good portrait draws an onlooker’s eyes toward the person who is at its center.
The panorama and the group picture are not so difficult to take. You have to spend some time finding a good panorama or group picture, but they are easier to create than the portrait. To create a portrait, a photographer has to focus his attention on the subject, and somehow has to capture the spirit of that person as an individual.
The season of Lent invites us to focus our eyes upon Jesus Christ. We are invited to focus not just on the dramatic events which make up this season—such as His temptation in the desert, His trial and Crucifixion—but on the person of Jesus Himself. If we focus on Who He is, than we understand why He did the things He did. But this is actually harder than it seems.
As we heard in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, Jesus wants us to use this time for extra prayer, sacrifices, and acts of charity. But none of these will have meaning unless they help us focus on the person of Christ Jesus. After all, as the Gospel made clear on Wednesday, good things can become bad actions is a person’s motive is bad: for example, giving to the poor simply in order to get a tax write-off does not impress God very much, and doesn’t strengthen one’s soul very much.
Looking squarely at Christ is our way of turning from sin and turning toward God. It helps us put things in order. It helps us reverse the course that leads us from pride, to sin, to death. This is why God thousands of years ago gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. There’s a reason why the First is first: the First commandment that God speaks to us is the most important: “I am the Lord, your God. You shall not have strange gods before me.” The First Commandment helps reverse the course of the first sin: the Original Sin that we hear again in our First Reading today.
We might be tempted to take the easy way out: to think of God’s First Commandment as referring only to those who bow down before golden calves, or in some manner worship the devil. We should recognize, though, that the devil is much more subtle than we give him credit for. The devil seeks to work his way into our lives through anything that he thinks we might not just like, but through anything that he thinks that we will be unable to detach ourselves from.
The word “detachment” sums up the Season of Lent. It’s not that every Christian must live like a monk and have no possessions. But we are not to be attached to them. We should be able to let them go if they are taken from us. Because in the end, whether through disaster or death, everything will be taken from us except for our soul. Everything that’s not important will remain here on earth. Everything that is important, if it’s rooted in God, will be part of our life with God and the communion of His saints forever. Focusing on Jesus during Lent will help us to see the difference.