1st Sunday of Lent
Fr. Joseph Levine; February 21, 2021
Readings: Gen 9:8-15; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Pe 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15
The Gospel today starts off with some stunning words: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. It could seem as though the Holy Spirit acts by violence, compelling Jesus against his will; it could seem as though Jesus is not interiorly free, but acts under compulsion, being coerced against his will by the Holy Spirit.
We could resolve the problem by pointing out that both St. Matthew and St. Luke report that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert. (cf. Mt 4:12; Lk 4:1-2) Nevertheless, instead of simply saying that in Mark ‘drove’ means ‘led’, we can ask if the Holy Spirit is indeed revealing something to us through St. Mark’s peculiar expression.
Very often we can find the key to the meaning of one passage in Scripture in another passage. In this case we can find St. Paul writing something similar in regard to himself: The love of Christ compels us. (2 Cor 5:14) The word, variously translated as ‘compel’, ‘control’, or ‘constrain’ is perhaps not quite so strong as ‘drive’, but it is similar. Nevertheless, here it is the ‘love of Christ’ that is doing the ‘compelling’, not the Holy Spirit.
Well, the Holy Spirit is divine love in person, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. St. Paul writes elsewhere, The love of God has been poured forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rm 5:5) For that reason all the works of God’s love are attributed to the Holy Spirit. So also, the Heart of Jesus is moved by the Holy Spirit.
We can readily recognize love as a compelling force, but we need to avoid an error in this regard. The love that comes from the Holy Spirit does not compel the way that a passion compels; the love that comes from the Holy Spirit is indeed supremely free. St. Paul writes: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3:17) So how can Jesus (or we ourselves) be at once compelled and free?
Because spiritual love freely binds itself through the promise and commitment of love. So a husband might say, “I am compelled to be faithful to my wife, because out of love I have freely pledged myself to her.”
So Jesus, upon entering the world, having freely taking to himself a human nature like ours in all things but sin, (cf. He 4:15) out of love for his Father and for our salvation, says, Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will. (cf. He 10:5-7) He feeds upon doing his Father’s will and completing his work. (cf. Jn 4:34) So having freely come into the world, having freely committed himself to the Father’s work, he is driven by the Spirit of divine love, he is compelled by the will of God, to go out into the desert to do battle with Satan. He did battle with Satan for the sake of our salvation, because we had been held captive by him in the bonds of sin, just as many continue today in the bondage of Satan.
Jesus went out into the desert immediately after his baptism, so we too, having committed ourselves freely to God in baptism, having been cleansed from our sin and having promised to be faithful to his law, must freely submit ourselves to the same ‘compulsion of the Holy Spirit’.
That means we must follow Jesus out into the desert of Lent to do battle with sin, with temptation, and with Satan, the author of sin. That is what these forty days of Lent are all about. We must be constrained more by the Holy Spirit than by the obligation imposed by the Church; the Holy Spirit drives us to see in the slight obligations that are imposed, little opportunities, doors of grace that are opened to us, the first steps on a path towards God.
Our Lord went out into the desert as the Holy One of God and vanquished the devil. We go out with him to do our part as repentant sinners. If we do not repent of our sins, we will find ourselves going into the desert of Lent only to be vanquished by the devil. If we truly repent, then we are made strong in Christ and are given the power to come out victorious.
Repentance means that we must honestly recognize our sin and detest our sin because it is an offense against God. Too often we regret our sins because of the inconvenience it causes us, or even because of the harm it does to others, but it seems that we rarely grasp the extent of the offense against the goodness of God. Rarely do we seem to recognize the malice of sin that nails Christ to the Cross.
Now, I have spoken much in recent homilies about the regime of sin that reigns in the world and in the nation today. It is not enough just to repent of my private wrong-doings, I must begin to recognize how by my weakness, my cowardice, my silence, my lack of zeal I have been complicit in the whole regime of sin. I can’t just blame the problems of the world on others or on people in power, or the wrong people in power. No, I must recognize that I myself am part of the problem.
We must be done with half-measures and evil compromises. Detestation of sin is an act of love of God; if we are ‘driven’ by the Holy Spirit, if the love of Christ compels us, we are first of all directed against our own sin.
The Psalmist prays: Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of the summer. I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgression to the Lord’; and thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. (Ps 32:1-5)
That is the spirit of penance with which we must undertake the discipline of Lent. If we start with that spirit, then we will be ready to do battle.
On Ash Wednesday we prayed: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up the battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.”
This prayer mentions two weapons in particular, holy fasting and self-restraint.
The times are evil; the times are so evil that we must really begin to take repentance seriously, and with it fasting and self-denial. There is a passage in Mark, sanctified by long use in the Church, though contemporary scholars have discounted the word ‘fasting’ as an unwarranted addition: This kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. (Mk 9:29)
We must go beyond merely giving up one little thing for Lent and calling it good. We need to make Lent a time of real purification.
I will make a number of suggestions, but I would not suggest that anyone take on all of this at once. If you are not used to fasting and self-denial, take it one step at a time, progressively intensifying the discipline as Lent advances. That is better than trying to start off in one fell swoop and giving up after a few days.
So, the first thing is always to turn away from mortal sin and cut off the occasions of sin (those things that cause you to fall) from your life.
Next fasting from food is fundamental. The desire for food is our most fundamental animal desire; when we are ruled by our desire for physical nourishment and the pleasures that accompany it, we are not free to hunger for the heavenly bread that Christ wishes to give us.
Consider that the old Eucharistic fast required that a person abstain from both food and drink from midnight before receiving communion. That was a powerful statement that taught us that the true Bread, the Bread we most need is the Body of Christ; after that the Bread we most need is the word of God. Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Mt 4:4)
Today, the actual Church requirements for fasting are minimal: one hour without eating before actually receiving communion and two fast days during the course of the year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This ‘fast’ allows one complete meal, no meat, and two small meals that together must not equal the full meal. Then the other Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence from meat.
We need to go beyond the minimum. We need to deny ourselves to the point of feeling hunger, though not to the point of being incapable of fulfilling our duties or becoming irritable and upset with others. Quite the contrary, fasting should serve to free us for prayer and the practice of the works of mercy. Fasting, prayer, and works of mercy go together.
St. Peter Chrysologus wrote: “Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. … let prayer, mercy, and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defense, a threefold united prayer in our favor.” (Sermo 43, cited in Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II, pp. 231,232)
A first step for the beginner is to stop eating between meals, to stop overeating, to stop indulging the foods that delight us. The second step is to start adding days of abstinence or days of fasting, learning slowly to increase the severity.
St. Basil the Great wrote: “The more you deny the flesh, the more you render the soul radiant with spiritual health.” (2nd Homily on Fasting)
There is one Lenten Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer that has us give thanks to God because “through bodily fasting you restrain our faults, raise up our minds, and bestow both virtue and its rewards.”
We must also practice self-denial and self-restraint. These are two areas in which we can start small and slowly intensify the practice during the course of Lent.
For self-denial, we can think of all the little ways during the course of a day that we indulge our self-will. Then we can begin to make little acts of self-denial, ‘little sacrifices’ for love of Jesus.
By self-restraint, I think of something more than self-denial, something that has become particularly necessary in our technological world, a world of seeming unlimited possibilities, but at the same time, as I pointed out last Sunday, a world that has lost touch with reality. Even when we meet with our very real physical limitations, we can readily escape into ‘cyberspace’ or ‘virtual reality.’ We live in a world in which human imagination has run wild. This means that to hold fast to reality and follow Christ we really need freely to put a limit on ourselves. We need to learn to say, “I can do this, but I choose not to.”
“I can get a new laptop or smartphone, but I choose not to.” “I choose not to get the latest and the newest.” “I choose not to keep up.” “I choose not to use social media.” “I choose not to shop and buy new clothes, shoes, and handbags.” “I choose to turn away from the world of things, the world of convenience, the world of appearance, but I choose to turn towards the world of the persons that God has set it my life.” “I choose to focus on my family, my friends, my local community.” “I choose not to rely on those gadgets that do everything for me, even my thinking. Instead, I choose to learn those skills that are worthwhile and make me to be of service to my neighbor.” “Why, I can even use the resources available on the internet to learn the things that will make me more independent of the internet!”
I once was reading an article in a magazine in which the author affirmed, as self-evident, “Of course, no one in their right mind would want to return to the material standard of living we had in the 1950s.” This led me to think that the author was not quite in his right mind. If we are in our right mind, we will desire a much simpler way of life than is daily being proposed to us in our insane techno-culture. If we are to move in that direction, we will need to begin saying, “No” to what is being offered us and learning to limit ourselves. This requires self-restraint.
Different people have different capacities; my main point has been that, especially in the evil times in which we are living, we need to start taking Lent more seriously as a time of spiritual renewal and spiritual warfare, not just for ourselves, but for the well-being of the Church and the world. One thing we can all do: learn to hate sin, accept sufferings for love of God, and be diligent in fulfilling the duties of our state of life.
Lent is a time to remove from our lives everything that separates us from Christ, everything that keeps us from giving ourselves freely and completely to the Holy Spirit, such that we truly live by the holy compulsion of Christ’s love.