Sunday, February 21, 2010

1st Sunday of Lent - Year C

Last Tuesday was a special day in cities with large Polish populations—places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit/Hamtramck, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. It was Pazcki (poonch-kee) Day. For the uninitiated, paczki are small jelly-filled donuts that are made and consumed in large quantities on the day before Ash Wednesday. National Bakery in Milwaukee made and sold 145,000 last Tuesday!

Paczki were traditionally made in the home in an effort to use up the lard, flour and other ingredients that would be foresworn as part of the Lenten fast. Perhaps reflecting the Slavic genius for making indulgence penitential at the same time, the traditional paczek filling was prune-flavored. In more recent years, however, it has been joined by raspberry, lemon, blueberry and other varieties.

Whether it’s the celebration of Paczki Day in Milwaukee, Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans or simply Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent has long been a time to indulge (and overindulge) in the things that tempt us—the very things we hope to leave behind in Lent.

The only problem is that our temptations don’t get the message! They stick with us and often even intensify in the midst of our fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Just ask a smoker who has given up cigarettes, a drinker who has sworn off alcohol or a chocolate lover who is abstaining from her favorite desserts and snacks.

Lent is our time of our liturgical year that we find ourselves in the desert. Like Jesus in today’s gospel we are driven there by the Holy Spirit. Like the Lord we are also “tempted by the devil.” Lest we lose heart, we need to see that these temptations are as much evidence of our commitment as of our weakness.

Our gospel passage from Luke 4 comes at a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus, between his baptism in the Jordan by John (Luke 3:21-22) and his prophetic proclamation in the synagogue (as well as his potential martyrdom) at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). Just as his forty days in the desert tested and prepared Jesus for his mission and public ministry, so the Church gives us Lent to be readied to better fulfill our own vocations.

Today’s Scripture readings present us with five different temptations that are a common part of our pilgrimage of discipleship in Christ:
  • The temptation of forgetfulness and ingratitude.
  • The temptation of thoughtless faith.
  • The temptation of instant gratification.
  • The temptation of materialism and idolatry.
  • The temptation of presumption and carelessness.
In our first reading from Deuteronomy 26, Moses warns us against forgetfulness and ingratitude. Nearing the end of their desert wandering and preparing to enter the Promised Land, he feared that the people of Israel would soon forget God and his commandments. Therefore he instituted in their law one of many forms of institutionalized thanksgiving.

In this particular passage, he commanded them to not only bring forth the first fruits of their harvest to God but also to remember or recall the great moments of their salvation history: the providential visit of Jacob, “a wandering Aramean,” to Egypt; the prosperity of the nation even in an alien land and in the midst of oppression; liberation; and now their place in “this land flowing with milk and honey.” Moses knew something about human nature and how easily we can get comfortable and forget our blessings.

Centuries later, St. Paul exhorted the early church in Rome to confess that the salvation God had once promised to the people of Israel had been granted to all through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Confession was important to Paul because it represented a conscious decision to accept this life-changing gift. Most people limit their understanding of confession to a statement of what they have done (wrong). Paul invites us to see it as something more: a proclamation of what God has done and continues to do for us even today.

As followers of Jesus, like Paul, we are called to proclaim the good news; and even more, like Jesus himself we have also been gifted with the Holy Spirit to fulfill our vocations. But if we have been blessed with the gifts we also have to contend with the challenges and temptations:
  • Changing stones into bread—Have we looked for the emotional highs of “exciting” liturgies or high-profile ministries where we get a lot of kudos but neglect times of quiet contemplation and avoid positions of humble service?
  • Seeking worldly power and glory—Have we succumbed to the illusion that what really matters is being rich and famous or are we dedicated to following God’s will, even if it demands sacrifice? 
  • Testing God’s providence and mercy—Have we allowed sinful habits to fester within us without making a real effort to change or worse, despairing that change is even possible?
Temptation is inevitable. Yielding to that temptation is optional. Victory over temptation is possible because salvation is our destiny. The same Spirit that was with Jesus in the desert is with us today. +


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