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Reflections for the I Sunday of Lent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the first Sunday of Lent . He says that the readings challenge us to enter upon the reforming process of turning away from self, from evil and sin so as to turn toward God and toward others with renewed Faith and fervor.

Homily starter anecdote: # 1:Baptize the entire Ford Motor Plant,” Henry Ford: You might have heard the story of the machinist who worked years ago at the original Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit, Michigan.  Over a period of years, he had “borrowed” from the factory various car parts and tools which he hadn’t bothered to return.  While the management never condoned this practice, nothing was ever done about it.  In time, however the “forgetful” machinist experienced a Christian conversion and was baptized.  More importantly, the man took his Baptism seriously and became a devout believer.  The very morning after his Baptism, the machinist arrived at work with his pickup truck loaded with all the parts and tools he had taken from the Ford Company over the years.  He went to his foreman and explained that he never really meant to steal them and asked to be forgiven.  The foreman was so astonished and impressed by this act that he cabled Henry Ford himself, contacting the auto magnate while he was away visiting a European Ford plant. In his telegram the foreman described the entire event in great detail.  Ford immediately cabled back this striking two-line response: “Dam up the Detroit River.  Baptize the entire Plant!”  Our Scripture for this First Sunday in Lent focuses on the effect our Baptism should have on our lives especially during the Lenten season. (stjohngrandbay.org).

Introduction: The primary purpose of Lent is spiritual preparation for the celebration recalling Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  The Church tries to achieve this goal by leading her children to “repentance.” It is a type of conversion – the reordering of our priorities and the changing of our values, ideals and ambitions - through fasting, prayer and mortification.  Lenten observances are also intended to lead us to our annual solemn renewal of Baptismal vows on Holy Saturday.  Through Baptism, we are called to live justly, to love God with all our being, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to build the kingdom of God by our acts of charity.  That is why the three readings chosen as today’s Scripture refer to Baptism directly or indirectly.  Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading describes how Noah’s family was saved from the waters of the Flood by God’s special providence and how God made His first “friendship covenant’” with mankind. Noah’s rescue from the flood waters symbolizes how we are saved through the waters of Baptism which cleanse us of sin and makes us one with Christ. Today's Responsorial Psalm (Ps 25) is an exquisite penitential prayer, humbly acknowledging human insufficiency and our radical dependence upon God and His mercy and forgiveness. The psalmist lists some of the characteristics of the life of the forgiven penitent: truth, compassion, love, kindness, goodness, uprightness, humility and justice.  In the second reading, Peter shows us how Noah’s episode prefigured Baptism.  In the Gospel, we are told that Jesus faced and defeated the tempter by His forty days of prayer and penance in the desert immediately after His baptism. Today’s readings challenge us to enter upon the reforming process of turning away from self, from evil and sin so as to turn toward God and toward others with renewed Faith and fervor.

First reading, Genesis 9:8-15, explained: According to the Biblical story, God’s covenant with Noah after the Deluge was the first covenant made by God. This one-way covenant declared that God is in a providential relationship with all of natural creation and will be so down through the ages.  The story of the great Deluge in the book of Genesis was also intended to remind people of their present Covenant with the Lord and to reinforce their commitment to it. It tells us how man irrevocably broke the original covenant God had made with Adam and Eve and how the merciful God found Noah and his family with whom to renew the covenant.  The covenant with Noah was very simple.   It consisted mainly of God’s promise to care for the earth and not to destroy it again by a flood. Through the sign of the rainbow, God promised Noah that He would love and care for Noah’s descendants and for the earth that they inhabited. The sign of the covenant with Noah was the rainbow. The rainbow often gives the impression of linking heaven and earth. That is why the rainbow is a sign of the first covenant joining Heaven and earth. The sign of the rainbow may help us to understand better the pivotal place of Jesus in salvation history. Like the rainbow, he is the link between God and humankind, between Heaven and earth. The story of the salvation of Noah and his family from the waters became an inverse symbol of Baptism.  Through the waters of Baptism in which we die to sin, we become incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, the living Christian community.  Through our life in and with our parish and world-wide Christian community, we learn how to live out our commitment to Jesus.  We get support in living that life from the community of which we are a part.  We learn to grow into a people who are whole and complete, in union and harmony with our God, with others and with ourselves.  And that is salvation. It begins here and now and Lent is the time for us to strengthen and renew that process in our own lives.

Second Reading, 1 Peter 3:18-22, explained: Lent is the beginning of the season that culminates in our solemn remembrance of Jesus' suffering, death and Resurrection ("Christ died for sins,"), and in the joyful Baptism of new members. Lent is, thus, the season of self-examination.  All three elements are packed into this second reading from the letter of Peter.  This letter was addressed to the persecuted Christians of the Church and was intended to bolster their Faith. It will do the same for us. Peter reminds us all of our place in the larger history of God's providence in order to help us see our present sufferings in a larger context.  He says an outward sign of the Covenant that God made with his people through Jesus is Baptism. Baptism not only removes Original Sin but is also our birth into Christ - the way we become adopted children of God, heirs of heaven, and temples of the Holy Spirit. Peter points out that the waters of Baptism are an antitype of the waters of the flood. The flood waters destroyed almost all the people except Noah's family. The waters of Baptism on the other hand are the cleansing agent that saves all. Using already traditional formulas of Faith, Peter affirms that in the Paschal Mystery Jesus made it possible for all humankind to enter a right relationship with God (justification) and to live their new life in the Holy Spirit (sanctification).       The odd picture of Christ going "to preach to the spirits in prison" ("He descended into hell" in the Apostles’ Creed), probably refers to the risen Christ making known to imprisoned souls his victory over sin and death.  (The New American Bible-1970 edition).

Gospel Exegesis: The context: All the synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus experienced a period of temptation.  Hebrews 4:15 also testifies to Jesus' temptation episode.  While Matthew and Luke give graphic descriptions of Jesus’ temptations in the desert during his forty days of fasting and prayer following his baptism in the River Jordan, Mark just reports that the Spirit led Jesus to the desert and he was tempted by Satan.  The desert was the place where ancient Israel in Moses’ time was tested for 40 years. The 40 days of Jesus’ fasting may also recall the 40-day fasts undertaken by Moses (Dt 9:18) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8). Mark does not mention that Christ fasted for the forty days and nights, but the "desert" seems to imply this.  Nor does Mark specify the various "temptations" as Matthew and Luke do. The temptations described by Matthew and Luke and hinted at by Mark refer probably to the main temptation Jesus faced during his public life, namely, the temptation to become a political messiah of power and fame (according to the Jewish expectation), to use his Divine power for personal comfort, and to avoid suffering and death.  The temptations Jesus faced and defeated help us to understand the conflicts that were in Jesus' own life and which will be found in ours too.  Instead of yielding to the temptations, Jesus said a firm “Yes” to his Father's plan, even when it came to give over his life.    

 Why was Jesus tempted after his baptism? The author of Hebrews used the temptation narrative to show that the Incarnate Son of God wanted to experience human life to the full, except for sin.  Since temptation and how we respond to it are integral parts of our lives, Jesus experienced them also.  The Fathers of the Church explain that Jesus’ temptations are described after his baptism to teach us why we are tempted and show us how we should conquer temptations.  Baptism and Confirmation give us the weapons we need to do battle with Satan.  God never tempts people, and never permits them to be tempted beyond their strength. But He does allow them to be tempted. Why?  Here are the five reasons given by the Fathers: i) so that we can learn by experience that [with God]  we are indeed stronger than the tempter; ii) to prevent us from becoming conceited over having God’s gifts; iii) that the devil may receive proof that we have completely renounced him; iv) that by the struggle we may become even stronger; and v) that we may realize how precious is the grace we have received.

“Repent and believe in the Good News of God’s Kingdom.” Mark here gives us the first public words of Jesus, his Messianic mission’s basic keynote speech, which has four specific messages: "The time is fulfilled.  The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent.  Believe in the Gospel."  This message summarizes the purpose of Jesus’ ministry.  In this statement Jesus is not asking his audience to do or not to do something to shape their future in Heaven.  He is concerned with the here and now. Repentance, (metanoia) is a change of mind and heart, a lifelong process of transformation.  The Good News Jesus announced is that God is already working here among us, so close to us that we can reach out and touch Him in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man.  But we will be able to experience Jesus as Son of God only if we undergo a complete change in our value system and priorities by means of true repentance.  Jesus announces, "the time has come,” meaning that the long-expected "Kingdom of God" is present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

“The Kingdom of God” announced by Jesus and brought to earth by him is not a place, still less Heaven, but the loving power and rule of God, to which we are all invited to submit ourselves.  It has arrived in the person of Jesus, our King and Lord.  The presence of this loving power of a merciful and forgiving God is evident in the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus.  The presence of God’s Kingdom in Jesus is revealed also by the liberation of people from the destructive forces in their lives, by the bringing back of the rejected and the outcast, by the forgiveness and reconciliation given to repentant sinners and finally by the supreme act of self-giving love of Jesus’ passion, death and Resurrection.  “Believing in the Gospel” means a total commitment to the way of life presented in the Gospel and a sharing of its vision of life.

Life messages: 1) Let us make Lent a time of renewal of life by penance and prayer:  Formerly the six weeks of Lent meant a time of severe penance as a way of purifying ourselves from our sinful habits and getting ready to celebrate the Paschal Mystery (the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ), with a renewed commitment to follow Christ.  Now the Church leaves the Lenten practice of penance to the good will and generosity of individual Christians. However, Lent should be a time for personal reflection on where we stand as Christians in accepting the Gospel challenges in thought, word and deed.  It is also a time to assess our relationships with our family, friends, working colleagues and other people we come in contact with, especially those of our parish.  We should examine whether we are able to give any positive contribution to other people's lives and to eradicate the abuses which are part of our society.

2) Let us convert Lent into a time for spiritual growth and Christian maturity bya) participating in the Mass each day or at least a few days in the week;  b) setting aside some part of our day for personal prayer; c) reading some Scripture, alone or, better still, with others;  d) setting aside some money that we might spend on ourselves for meals, entertainment or clothes and giving it to an organization which takes care of the less fortunate in our society;  e) abstaining from smoking or alcohol;  f) receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation in Lent and participating in the “Stations of the Cross” on Fridays;  g) visiting the sick and those in nursing homes and doing some acts of charity, kindness and mercy every day in the Lent.

3) Let us use Lent as a time to fight daily against the evil within us and around us: Repenting and fighting against temptations and evil is a lifetime's task. Jesus did not overcome Satan in the wilderness; he achieved that only in his death. Lent reminds us that we have to take up the fight each day against the evil within us and around us, and never give up. Jesus has given the assurance that the Holy Spirit is with us, empowering us so that final victory will be ours through Jesus Christ. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

15 February 2018, 13:00