THE LORD GOD FORMED MAN OUT OF THE CLAY OF THE EARTH AND BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS THE BREATH OF LIFE AND SO MAN BECAME A LIVING SELF. On this first Sunday of Lent the readings from Scripture carry our attention through the whole sweep of history. Beginning with the creation of human kind, we go on to encounter the fall from grace that St Paul describes in his letter to the Romans and end with the Gospel account of the overcoming of the consequences of sin by the fidelity of Christ, the Savior who emerges victorious from the temptations he submitted to for our sake. These readings then introduce us to the meaning of this sacred season of Lent; more, they point beyond Lent to the purpose and meaning of creation. By that very fact they lead us, with the final words of the Gospel, to the threshold of life eternal with the God who created us and re-creates us in the person of His Son: “You shall worship the Lord your God; him alone shall you adore.”
The message of these three readings, however, does not only present us with a summary of salvation history, significant though this understanding is for our way of viewing the human condition; these texts also trace out by implication a moral and spiritual program for life. The forty days of Lent are so structured in the Church’s liturgy as to introduce us into this Christian manner of living from its beginning through its many vicissitudes of trials and consolations to its final goal, resurrection to new, eternal life with Christ. Lent, in short, is itself a symbol of the whole process of conversion, of the struggle for justice and holiness through self-denial and the works of love and prayer in view of union with the Lord.
St Mark begins his Gospel with the account of St. John “baptizing in the desert and preaching a baptism of conversion (metanoia) for remission of sins." He follows this scene with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John, an act of self-abasement that occasioned a declaration of divine favor by the Father. Immediately after this the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. St Matthew opens his version of the public life of Jesus in the same way but goes on to describe in some detail the nature of these temptations and, like Mark, adds at the end, that angels came to provide for his needs so that what he would not obtain for himself by yielding to the lure of sensual and worldly satisfactions he received as a free gift from heaven.
At some point of development in the course of our life each of us is led by the Spirit, as was Jesus himself, into the desert of our solitude. We are brought, by one means or other—pain, sickness, bereavement, failure, the limits and disappointing rewards of success—to encounter God more directly, in the form of a relatively stark awareness of our individual self that stands alone, outside of every position we occupy, separate from even the most intimate friend. In this experience we discover what it means that, as we heard in today’s first reading, THE LORD GOD FORMED MAN OUT OF THE CLAY OF THE EARTH AND BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS THE BREATH OF LIFE AND SO MAN BECAME A LIVING SELF. I suddenly know by experience that I am essentially a self made for some other Person who, as yet, is not familiar to me. I come to realize that I must make a choice: do I accept to be this new self whose very nature it is to belong to the Living One who transcends all I have hitherto known. This is the discovery of what it means to be a free person, a self that is never fully absorbed or fulfilled by any possession or by any one save God alone. The alternative is to hold on to the self I have always known by turning back to what has become familiar and made me feel secure in the society and relations I have been formed by.
Only the Spirit of God can lead us into this desert place where we are tempted fearfully to hold on to the identity fashioned by our past in this world. In this place we also experience the invitation to choose a fuller life, a purer love who knows us in our depths beyond all we can know or desire of our self. A Love who lives and who offers His life to us if we will but choose it. This is the experience of the desert which Lent holds out to us by urging us to the self-denial of fasting, charity for others and solitary prayer. May this Eucharist and our faith in the inspired words of the Gospel obtain for each of us this grace of knowing and loving God who in his Son remakes us for life in His presence for evermore.