Saturday, February 24, 2007

1st Sunday in Lent (C)
It Only Works If You Believe…

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Sisters and brothers, do you like stories? I think many people do, especially children. Stories are powerful. Stories can entertain us. They can make us laugh and they can make us cry. But there is an even greater power in stories. Stories actually have the power to save us.

Some of you may know that on Tuesday morning a senior priest in my community died. Fr. Desmond Reid, SJ would have been eighty-six in May. He had been serving in our parish of St. Ignatius for more than thirty years. Thirty years of celebrating the Eucharist, of preaching and hearing confessions, of marrying couples and baptizing their children, of counseling the troubled and giving alms to the poor. So you can imagine how the parishioners must have felt when they learnt that he had died. During his wake and funeral there were many sad faces and tear-filled eyes. People were grieving his loss. Indeed, many of us are probably still grieving. Of course, it’s natural and even healthy to grieve. But there’s also a danger of being so overwhelmed by sadness that we let our grief crush our hope. There’s a danger of giving in to discouragement and despair.

In the face of this terrible danger, quite naturally and quite spontaneously, those grieving the loss of Fr. Reid began to tell stories. Stories were told of his final hours in Mount Alvernia Hospital. Stories were told of the things that Fr. Reid had done over the years. Heart-wrenching stories were even written in the Remembrance Book that was prepared for the occasion. They were all stories that spoke of what Fr. Reid meant to the people who came to bid him farewell. And something happened as people exchanged these stories. In a way, it was as though Fr. Reid was still alive. The stories gave us the power to bear our sadness and our grief. They helped to save us from falling into despair. This was so especially because we did not only tell stories of Fr. Reid. Rather, we also reminded one another that his story was really part of another much bigger story – the Story of God’s love for his people in Jesus Christ. During the wake and the funeral, we also remembered especially the Story of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who suffered, died and was buried, yet rose again in triumph, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. And even as we continue to grieve the loss of Fr. Reid, the memory of this great Story gives us consolation and hope. It saves us from despair. Even now we continue to draw strength from it. Such is the power of the Story. But, of course, it only works if you believe.

Isn’t something similar happening in our readings for this first Sunday of Lent? As you know, Lent is a time of preparation, a time when we prepare to renew our baptismal vows at Easter. It is a time when we remember how the Christian life is a battle between good and evil. And it is a time when we acknowledge how weak we are, and how often we are defeated in this fight against the devil and the powers of darkness. But, even as we do this, there is a danger that we might be overwhelmed by our own weakness and sinfulness. There is a danger that we will give in to despair and fall forever into darkness.

That is why we need to learn from the people in the first reading. Here we find Moses teaching the people to come together regularly to tell a story. This is not just any story. This is a story of power and of victory. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of how, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, the Lord brought them out of slavery in Egypt to a land where milk and honey flow. And not only do the people continue to tell and to re-tell this story, but they also express their wholehearted belief in its power by offering to God the first-fruits of the produce of the soil that God had given them. In this way they gain the strength that they need from God to continue to face their enemies. Because, as we said earlier, the story only works if you believe.

And isn’t it the same for us? Even as we prepare to face and to do battle with the darkness – with all the sinful tendencies – that we find within and around us, even as we tremble at the thought of our own weakness in the face of evil, we come together today and remind one another of a story of great power. We heard part of this story summarized for us in the gospel.

Here we find Jesus doing battle with the devil. After fasting for forty days, Jesus is in a physically weakened state. We are told that he was hungry. And along comes the devil, tempting Jesus to satisfy his hunger with various things. First it’s bread: tell this stone to turn into a loaf. Then it’s earthly power and glory: I will give you all the power and glory of these kingdoms. And finally, the devil even tempts Jesus to fill his hunger by showing off his powers for the people to see. He brings Jesus to the parapet of the Temple and says, throw yourself down. But, in each of these temptations, Jesus triumphs. He is victorious because, physically weak though he may be, he is spiritually strong. His time of fasting and self-denial has helped him to see very clearly that his hunger can only be satisfied in one way. Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus is focused completely on God alone. And this focus will remain even when it leads him up Mount Calvary and beyond.

As we begin our Lenten battle, this is the Story from which we draw strength. This is the Story that can save us from the darkness that threatens to engulf us. This is the Story that can help us to prepare well to renew our baptismal promises at Easter. This is the Story that can help us to see more clearly the darkness in our own lives, the temptations to fill our hungry hearts with things that are less than God. This is the Story that will give us strength to reject the darkness and to cling to God alone.

But as we heard in the second reading the Story can save only if your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. So, like the people in the first reading who offered the first-fruits of the soil to God, during this period of Lent, we will offer God our prayers, our fasting and our almsgiving. By our self-denial, we hope to allow God to strengthen our belief in the Story. We hope that, weak and struggling though we may be, God will increase our faith so that, like the Israelites, we may experience anew God’s saving power.

Sisters and brothers, the Story of Christ has a great power to save us. But it only works if we believe. Do you?

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