Don Franco Follo
First Sunday of Lent – Year A – February 26, 2023
Gen 2,7-9; 3.1 to 7; Ps 51; Rm 5.12 to 19; Mt 4,1-11
At the beginning of Lent, the priest lays the ashes on those who go to Mass. This rite of ashes laid on the head or on the forehead of the faithful has a triple meaning. The first recalls the fragility and weakness of man who was molded by soil dust. The second indicates that the ashes on the forehead or on the head of a Christian are the external sign of those who repent of their evil acts and decide to make a renewed journey towards the Lord. The third indicates that our being is the result of a burning Encounter. Christian is the one who, after having gone through the burning fire of the Savior’s Love, is ash but ash that purifies and fertilizes the world, ash that emanates the warmth of the Creator.
Lent, therefore, is not only sorrow for our sins and ascetic effort to sharpen the possibilities of the soul, but it is a renewed discovery that “we have freely received and freely we give”.
“Lent in a unique way helps us to understand that our life is redeemed in Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus renews our life and makes us sharers in the divine life that introduces us to the intimacy of God and makes us experience his love for us “(St. John Paul II).
Lent is a way that leads to a safe destination: the Easter of Resurrection, Christ’s victory over death.
Lent it is also “a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God “with all their hearts” (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord. Jesus is the faithful friend who never abandons us. Even when we sin, he patiently awaits our return; by that patient expectation, he shows us his readiness to forgive “(Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2017)
1) From mercy to mercy
It is important to remember that the perfection of being Christian is not accomplished if we say “We left everything” but if we say to Christ “We left everything and followed You.” The Church teaches us to follow this statement making us, every year, go through Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week. In this way our hearts are purified, and the joy of Easter appears not to people blinded by the encrustations of sin but to people open to Him, our life, that we can see because “the pure in heart see God” (Mt 5,8).
The ancient Jews left the slavery of Egypt, and it took them forty years to get to the Promised Land. We -every year- move through the Lenten journey, so that victory over ourselves may consist in leaving the Egypt of our sin to live only in the love of Christ and for Christ. Aided by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, during Lent we have a special experience of the divine mercy that “cancels, washes and purify” (Ps 50,3-4) us sinners and transforms us into a new creature that has spirit, tongue, lips and heart transfigured (Ps 50, 14-19). It is with a heart as pure as that of the children that at Easter we will be able to understand the Entrance Antiphon of Mercy Sunday: “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation”. This first Sunday, which was called In Albis Sunday, is now called Mercy Sunday. This was decided by St. John Paul II inspired by Saint Faustina Kowalska who wrote: “Even if our sins were as black as the night, divine mercy is stronger than our misery. Only one thing is needed: that sin opens at least a little bit the door of your heart … God will do the rest … Everything starts in the mercy of God and in His mercy ends. ”
2) Lent: time of mercy and conversion.
Lent is the special time of mercy that lasts forty days and that the Church asks of be lived as a spiritual journey of conversion to prepare for Easter. It consists basically in following Jesus heading straight for the Cross, the height of his mission of salvation and the key that opens to the Resurrection.
Lent is mercy received and shared not only because we do the recommended works for this period, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but because with these works, we ground ourselves in God converting to him with a contrite heart and a humbled body. In fact, if it is true that it is man’s stony heart that wants evil, it is equally true that the body often helps to commit it. On the other hand, we human beings are made of one and the other, and need to unify them in the homage we render to God. The body will have either the joys of eternity or the torments of hell. Therefore, there is no full Christian life nor valid atonement if the body does not bind to the soul.
Moreover, it must be remembered that the principle of true repentance resides in the heart. The Gospel teaches this with the narrations of the prodigal son, the woman sinner, Zacchaeus, the publican, and St. Peter. It is necessary for the heart to abandon sin forever, to have a very deep sorrow for it, to hate it, and to flee the occasions to sin.
To indicate this provision of the heart the Bible uses a word that has entered Christian language and that describes very well the state of the person sincerely repented: Conversion. During Lent, we are invited to exercise repentance of the heart and regard it as the essential foundation of all the characteristic acts of this holy season. However, it would always be an illusory conversion if it would not add the homage of the body to the internal feelings that conversion inspires. The Savior, on the mountain, does not only weep over our sins: He atones for them with the suffering of his own body. The Church, His infallible interpreter, warns us that the repentance of our hearts will not be accepted if it is not united to the observance of fast and abstinence.
3) Lent pilgrimage toward and with Christ, source of mercy.
Lent is a privileged time by which the Church leads us towards Him who is the source of mercy. It is a pilgrimage in which He Himself accompanies us through the desert of our poverty, sustaining us along the journey to the great joy of Easter. This journey is not without tests, and it is for this reason that on the First Sunday of Easter the liturgy makes us meditate on the temptations faced by Christ in the desert.
Like Moses and the people of Israel, also Jesus spent some time in the desert to prove his loyalty and to give a solid foundation to his actions.
However, while the people of Israel in the desert could not resist fatigue and temptation and failed to be faithful to God, Jesus triumphs over the three temptations: that of bread (How to speak of God to those who have plenty? How to talk of God to those who are hungry?), that of prestige (prestige of science, of money, of irreproachable moral conduct, of good impression, of name and of honor), and that of power (where two people meet, a relationship of power arises).
These are tests masked with a promise that wants to remove the Son from the Father. Three times the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the son of God, make …” and three times He replies: “My Father.” Faithful to the love for the Father, Christ resists the three forms of the same temptation: the one of a life constructed independently, that of the first Adam (” You will be like God, knowing good and evil …”) and of a life of confidence and of obedience to God, that of the second Adam. Jesus says: “Thou shalt worship the Lord and worship Him alone”, and at Gethsemane He will say: “Not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
Let us imitate Jesus in this love for the Father, and this path will become a journey behind Him, the Redeemer. In this sequel it helps to consider the example of some characters of the Gospel that St. Gregory of Nazianzus describes in the following way:
“If you are Simon of Cyrene, take the cross and follow Christ.
If you are a thief who will be hang on the cross, namely will be punished, just act as the good thief, and honestly acknowledge God who is waiting for you. He was included among the wrongdoers for you and for your sins, and you should become right and just for him.
If you are Joseph of Arimathea, ask the man who crucified him to give you His body, that is, wear this body and, in doing so, make your own the atonement of eh world.
If you are Nicodemus, the night worshiper of God, bury His body and anoint it with the ritual ointment, that is, surround Him with your worship.
And if you are one of the women called Mary, scatter your tears in the morning. Be the first one to go and see the overturned stone, go to meet the angels, and the very Jesus. This is what it means to become partakers of Christ’s Passover, living well the time of Lent. ”
If I wanted to continue this list with people not present in the Gospel, but living the Gospel, I might add: “If you are a consecrated virgin, be like one of the wise virgins awaiting the bridegroom with abundance of oil (indicating loyalty and perseverance) so that the lamp of love does not die down.” The virgin who is consecrated to the Redeemer puts herself definitively on the path of conversion, the constant union with Christ the Bridegroom. With consecration, the belonging to Christ that had begun in Baptism takes on an appearance of absoluteness and of undivided love because the heart of the consecrated virgin is now unable to be taken by any other love. Christ is the real treasure, tucked away, the precious pearl for which the one who finds it sells all that he or she has and buys it (see Mt 13: 44- 46). To God who says: “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, I have called you by name: you are mine” (see Is 43: 1), the consecrated virgin answers: “Here I am” and her life becomes as fruitful as the one of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ and of all humanity.
Before the Patristic Reading I’d like to propose this prayer for Lent
“Make me, O Lord my God, obedient without rebellion, poor without despondency, chaste without decay, patient without murmuring, humble without pretense, cheerful without mirth, mature without heaviness, agile without lightness, fearful of Thee without despair, truthful without duplicity, operator of good without presumption, able to correct others without harshness and to rise them by word and by example without hypocrisy.
(St. Thomas Aquinas)
Saint John Chrysostom ( 344/354 – 407)
Homily XIII. Matthew Chapter 4, Verse 1
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted of the devil.”
Then When? After the descent of the Spirit, after the voice that was borne from above, and said, “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And what was marvellous, it was of the Holy Spirit; for this, he here saith, led Him up. For since with a view to our instruction He both did and underwent all things; He endures also to be led up thither, and to wrestle against the devil: in order that each of those who are baptized, if after his baptism he have to endure greater temptations may not be troubled as if the result were unexpected, but may continue to endure all nobly, as though it were happening in the natural course of things.
Yea, for therefore thou didst take up arms, not to be idle, but to fight. For this cause neither doth God hinder the temptations as they come on, first to teach thee that thou art become much stronger; next, that thou mayest continue modest neither be exalted even by the greatness of thy gifts, the temptations having power to repress thee; moreover, in order that that wicked demon, who is for a while doubtful about thy desertion of him, by the touchstone of temptations may be well assured that thou hast utterly forsaken and fallen from him; fourthly, that thou mayest in this way be made stronger, and better tempered than any steel; fifthly, that thou mayest obtain a clear demonstration of the treasures entrusted to thee.
For the devil would not have assailed thee, unless he had seen thee brought to greater honor. Hence, for example, from the beginning, he attacked Adam, because he saw him in the enjoyment of great dignity. For this reason he arrayed himself against Job, because he saw him crowned and proclaimed by the God of all.
How then saith He, “Pray that ye enter not into temptation.”1 For this cause he doth not show thee Jesus simply going up, but “led up” according to the principle of the Economy;2 signifying obscurely by this, that we ought not of ourselves to leap upon it, but being dragged thereto, to stand manfully.
And see whither the Spirit led Him up, when He had taken Him; not into a city and forum, but into a wilderness. That is, He being minded to attract the devil, gives him a handle not only by His hunger, but also by the place. For then most especially doth the devil assail, when he sees men left alone, and by themselves. Thus did he also set upon the woman in the beginning, having caught her alone, and found her apart from her husband. Just as when he sees us with others and banded together, he is not equally confident, and makes no attack. Wherefore we have the greatest need on this very account to be flocking together continually, that we may not be open to the devil’s attacks.
2. Having then found Him in the wilderness, and in a pathless wilderness (for that the wilderness was such, Mark hath declared, saying, that He “was with the wild beasts”3 ), behold with how much craft he draws near, and wickedness; and for what sort of opportunity he watches. For not in his fast, but in his hunger he approaches Him; to instruct thee how great a good fasting is, and how it is a most powerful shield against the devil, and that after the font,4 men should give themselves up, not to luxury and drunkenness, and a full table, but to fasting. For, for this cause even He fasted, not as needing it Himself, but to instruct us. Thus, since our sins before the font5 were brought in by serving the belly: much as if any one who had made a sick man whole were to forbid his doing those things, from which the distemper arose; so we see here likewise that He Himself after the font brought in fasting. For indeed both Adam by the incontinence of the belly was cast out of paradise; and the flood in Noah’s time, this produced; and this brought down the thunders on Sodom. For although there was also a charge of whoredom, nevertheless from this grew the root of each of those punishments; which Ezekiel also signified when he said, “But this was the iniquity of Sodom, that she waxed wanton in pride and in fullness of bread, and in abundance of luxury.”6 Thus the Jews also perpetrated the greatest wickedness, being driven upon transgression by their drunkenness and delicacy.7
On this account then even He too fasts forty days, pointing out to us the medicines of our salvation; yet proceeds no further, lest on the other hand, through the exceeding greatness of the miracle the truth of His Economy8 should be discredited. For as it is, this cannot be, seeing that both Moses and Elias, anticipating Him, could advance to so great a length of time, strengthened by the power of God. And if He had proceeded farther, from this among other things His assumption of our flesh would have seemed incredible to many.
Having then fasted forty days and as many nights,
“He was afterwards an hungered;9 “affording him a point to lay hold of and approach, that by actual conflict He might show how to prevail and be victorious. Just so do wrestlets also: when teaching their pupils how to prevail and overcome, they voluntarily in the lists engage with others, to afford these in the persons of their antagonists the means of seeing and learning the mode of conquest. Which same thing then also took place. For it being His will to draw him on so far, He both made His hunger known to him, and awaited his approach, and as He waited for him, so He dashed him to earth, once, twice, and three times, with such ease as became Him. The name of In Albis Sunday (implying deponendis; in the Ambrosian Rite is called In Albis Sunday depositis; literally: “Sunday when the white robes are laid”) is related to the baptismal rite. The newly baptized receive and wear a robe white, a sign of divine life; adults baptized in the solemn Easter Vigil wear it throughout the Octave of the Easter week until the following Sunday when they lay down their white robes.  This Sunday was proclaimed the Feast of Divine Mercy by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000. The cult of Divine Mercy is linked to the figure of Saint Faustina Kowalska, the Polish mystic canonized in Holy Year of 2000, and to whom John Paul II was very devoted, as seen from his encyclical Dives in Misericordia written in 1980 and dedicated precisely to Divine Mercy.