Aligning our thoughts, desires, actions, and feelings with those of Jesus Christ is the only way to worthily correspond to the love God that shows for each one of us.

Gospel of First Sunday of Lent

12 “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. 13 And He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the Gospel’” (Mk 1:12-15).

I – Love Carried to the Extreme Limit

The Creator’s love for each one of us individually is fathomless. It is sometimes staggering to reflect on the manifold benefits we have received from Him.

Although He could have simply remained in his complete and eternal happiness, God desired to create the universe, to show forth his infinite goodness: “He created out of goodness. He needed nothing from that which He made”1 — St. Augustine teaches.

He gave all men and women their being, choosing them one by one from among the infinite rational creatures that He could have created. What is more, He redeemed us from sin, sustains us and blesses us with his gifts, in the most varied circumstances. But most of all, He gives us the opportunity to participate in his divine life on this earth, as a foretaste of the unending happiness that will be our portion in heaven, in the ineffable company of the Blessed Trinity.

God makes a covenant with men

In return for such goodness, human conduct invariably presents a constant: at a certain point, man deviates from the path traced by the Creator; Providence then intervenes to prevent his perdition, providing the necessary means for salvation. Thus, when Adam and Eve committed the first sin, God chastised them with expulsion from Paradise, but at the same time made a covenant with the human race, promising Redemption and the reestablishment of the lost state of grace. 2

But men soon relapsed into sin. Soon after our first parents began populating the earth with their descendents, the Lord saw “that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5). Regretting having created mankind, the Lord would have blotted man from the face of the earth if Noah had not found favour in his eyes (cf. Gn 6:8).

Then, as the first reading of this Sunday narrates (Gn 9:8-15), with the terrible chastisement of the Deluge over, God blessed Noah and his sons, and established with them and his descendents a covenant that “remains in force during the times of the Gentiles, until the universal proclamation of the Gospel.” 3

This covenant would later be renewed with Abraham, in whom “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gn 12:3); through the Law of Moses, on Sinai (cf. Ex 19:5-6); or in the Messianic promise made by David (cf. 2 Sm 8: 16), to give only a sampling of the main episodes of Salvation history.

Panel painting, “The Blessed Trinity” – by Fra Angelico, Convent of St. Mark, Florence (Italy)

Christ, summit of Salvation history

The centuries unfold and humanity reaches a peak of decadence that simultaneously marks the end of the Old Testament and the “fullness of time” of which the Apostle speaks (Gal 4:4). In assuming human nature without ceasing to be God, Jesus is the superabundant fulfillment of the promises to the patriarchs and prophets. Accordingly, the story of salvation culminates with divine perfection.

The Incarnation of the Word is a mystery that eclipses our intellectual capacity. To try to understand it to some degree, let us imagine that an angel proposed to us that we take on an earthworm’s nature, without leaving our human state, in order to save all the earthworms of the world from death. What would we say?

Now, the chasm between a man and an earthworm is unimaginably less than that between God and rational creatures. In the first case, we could say that there is an enormous disproportion; in the second, the even term “disproportion” is inadequate, because the difference is infinite. However, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity assumed human nature to save us, showing a love for us that is simply beyond all measure.

The Holy Church born of a “folly” of love

On the heights of Calvary, the goodness and mercy of the Word Incarnate toward sinners is taken, so to say, to the point of folly (cf. 1 Cor 1:18). In this Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter reminds us,: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1 Pt 3:18-20).

In the Covenant established by God with mankind after the Flood, He promised that He would no longer chastise the entire earth by water (Gn 9:11). However, it could be rightly said that Salvation history culminates in a “deluge of blood,” according to the evocative expression of St. Louis de Montfort. 4 For—as if the scourging, crowning with thorns, and all the sufferings along the way to Calvary were not enough—He permitted a lance to pierce his sacred side on the Cross.

The last drops of blood and lymph in his Most Sacred Heart were poured forth at this moment. And with this was born the Mystical Body, of which Christ is the Head. “On Calvary, He completed his immolation and gave birth, amid the most dreadful physical and moral torments, to the Church that He had so laboriously prepared and instituted. […] Thus, it is the Church that, according to the doctrine of the Fathers, came from the open side of the Saviour and, so to speak, is brought to light by Him.” 5

St. John Chrysostom comments: “This blood and water are symbols of Baptism and the mysteries. From one and the other the Church was born, ‘by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit’ (Ti 3:5), by Baptism and by the mysteries.” 6 The Second Vatican Council affirms that the beginning and growth of the Church are “symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of a crucified Jesus;” 7 and that “from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.” 8

II – The Prologue to the Preaching of the Good News

The Gospel of this first Sunday takes us back to the moment in which Christ was beginning his mission of preaching the Good News. At his emerging from the waters of the Jordan, after being baptized by John, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove and a voice from on high was heard: “Thou art My beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).

At that moment, Benedict XVI comments, a type of investiture of the Messianic mission for the Son of Man occurred. The royal and priestly dignity was conferred upon Him there for all of history and before all of Israel. From then onward, the life of Jesus is subordinated to the mission for which He became Incarnate. 9

Recollection precedes action

12 “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.”

After the Baptism, the first provision of the Holy Spirit was to lead Jesus into the desert, where He remained for forty days in a regime of penance, isolation, and prayer.

With this, the Divine Master shows the necessity of preparation through prayer and contemplation before embarking on great and holy undertakings, since the interior life is the soul of all missionary activity. This sublime example of the God-Man is a lesson to all those who are consecrated to apostolic works today.

Superabundant strength for those called to follow Him

13 “And He was in the wilderness forty days…”

The first of the synoptic Gospels specifies that “He fasted forty days and forty nights” (Mt 4:2). Jesus’ fast was not “the usual fast of the Jews renewed for forty consecutive days; the Jewish fast was mandatory until sunset, but at nightfall they ate food, […] while Jesus fasted forty days and nights uninterruptedly.” 10

During this time, the Redeemer wished to contemplate the whole of his mission and how the Holy Church would maintain the effects of Redemption until the end of time, through the Sacraments.

An act of the divine will alone would have been adequate to found the Church. However, during his earthly pilgrimage, the Son of Man wanted to accrue a superabundance of strength for all those called to follow Him until the end of time. Therefore, He neither ate nor drank anything during those forty days. He was sustained by an angelic action and a supernatural force which, nevertheless, did not prevent Him from feeling hunger and thirst. This highlights, once again, the extremes of love to which He was willing to go for our salvation.

Detail of “The Temptation in the Desert” – by Fra Angelico,
Convent of St. Mark, Florence (Italy)

The Head gains the victory for the entire Body

13 “…tempted by Satan.”

As God, Christ did not go into the desert to prepare Himself for the battle to come, but rather to initiate it. Far from seeking refuge from evil, He began his public life confronting and vanquishing the attacks of the enemy.

The devil was as yet aware of Jesus’ divinity. Judging Him capable of sinning, he used every ruse to induce him to commit various faults. Did he tempt the Son of God for forty days and forty nights as this verse of St. Mark seems to indicate—an opinion shared by St. Bede? Or did he wait until the end of the fast to tempt Him, as St. Thomas affirms?

The problem seems rather extraneous considering that the Divine Master was taking upon Himself our temptations to overcome them. 11 With the defeat inflicted on the devil in the desert, Christ, Head of the Mystical Body, obtained victory for all his members, as St. Gregory the Great affirms: “It was not unworthy of our Redeemer to wish to be tempted, who came also to be slain; in order that by his temptations He might conquer our temptations, just as by his death He overcame our death.” 12

“Let us not fall into temptation”

Now, according to St. Thomas, this was not the only reason why Christ wished to be tempted; he adds three more: so that no one, no matter how holy,  will feel safe and exempt from temptation; to show us how to overcome temptations; and to instil in us confidence in his mercy. 13

The same Angelic Doctor teaches: “It is noteworthy that Christ does not teach us to ask not to be tempted, but rather to not fall into temptation. For, if man overcomes temptation, he merits the crown.” 14 God allows the devil to act, and allows the evil inclinations of our fallen nature to torment us, so that we may obtain merit.

Regarding this, Father Royo Marin notes: “The advantages in overcoming temptation with the grace and help of God are countless: it humiliates Satan, makes God’s glory shine, purifies our soul, filling us with humility, repentance and confidence in divine assistance; obliges us to always be vigilant and alert, to distrust ourselves, hoping for everything from God, and to mortify our inclinations and caprices; it increases our experience and makes us more circumspect and vigilant in the fight against our enemies.” 15

Just as a runner who refuses to get out of bed cannot be rewarded, and neither can an intellectual who has neither written nor said anything, the same applies to the spiritual life: we need to be tested in this life to receive recompense in eternity.

Nothing pleases our enemy as much as discouragement

Temptation, therefore, should not sadden us since it indicates that the time of heroism and joy is at hand: it is the opportunity for us to prove our love for God. Christ gave the example! During these forty days of prayer and sufferings in the desert, He merited the necessary graces for our perseverance, including the specific graces needed to worthily fulfil the Lenten practices preparing us for Easter. And even if we succumb to some temptation, He obtained the strength for us to rise again and continue along the path of sanctification.

So, when we are tempted we must not permit any discouragement, because Christ, Head of the Mystical Body of which we are members has already resisted and overcome.

In tempting us, the devil primarily plots to discourage us, knowing that if he succeeds in this he has us in his grasp. Courage keeps us in the hands of God and Our Lady.

“What pleases the enemy is not so much our faults as the despondency and the loss of confidence in divine mercy into which they immerse us.” 16 And St. Francis de Sales cautions: “The distrust you feel toward yourself is good, if it serves as the basis for your confidence in God; but if it leads you to any form of discouragement, anxiety, sadness and melancholy, I implore you to reject it as the temptation of all temptations, and never allow your soul to give way to discussion and arguments in favour of the anxiety and despondency to which you feel inclined.” 17

The beasts of the desert and the animals of Paradise

13 “And He was with the wild beasts….”

Basing themselves on the Fathers of the Church, commentators such as Fillion and Maldonado, or St. Thomas himself, believe that St. Mark made this affirmation to highlight—with the vigour characteristic of a disciple of St. Peter—the wilderness aspect of the region to which Jesus had withdrawn, and to accentuate the complete solitude in which He spent those forty days and forty nights. 18 St. John Chrysostom comments that St. Mark wrote this “to show of what nature was the wilderness, for it was impassable by man and full of wild beasts.” 19 However these words can also be understood more deeply.

In that time, there were many hyenas, jackals, leopards and wild boars in the environs of the Jordan River, according to the above-mentioned Fillion, and others. 20 While in Paradise all animals were subject to Adam, in that desert they attacked men, terrifying them, and putting them to flight.

Did the Divine Master not wish to endure even this weakness of fallen humanity? If He wanted to experience the fear provoked by the presence of wild beasts, it is certain that He conquered it majestically, obtaining for us added strength to overcome life’s adversities, crises, and difficulties.

Stained glass representing the “Temptations of Christ” – Gloucester Cathedral, England

Served as God by the ministry of Angels

13 “…and the angels ministered to Him.”

The presence of the angels is also mysterious and very significant.

Did they withdraw from their Lord until the end of the temptations, as the narration of the other synoptic Gospels leads us to believe? Or did they continue serving and sustaining his earthly life during these forty days and forty nights in which He ate and drank nothing?

In our opinion, nothing prevents us from imagining the heavenly court descending to the desert and returning to heaven during this entire period, in order to assist the human nature of their Creator. In fact, St. Bede’s commentary, reproduced in the Catena Aurea by St. Thomas, supports this: “Consider also that Christ dwells among the wild beasts as man, but, as God, uses the ministry of Angels.” 21

“Repent and believe in the Gospel”

14 “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, saying, 15 ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the Gospel.’”

After this sublime preparation, the historic moment had arrived for the Saviour’s appearance on the stage of Israel’s public life. With his retreat over, and having vanquished the temptations, He fervently commits Himself to the fulfillment of his mission. There only remains the sign mentioned by Divine Wisdom to begin the preaching of the Good News: the imprisonment of John the Baptist.

With this, nightfall begins for the Old Testament. However, before night even arrives, the dawn of a new and more radiant era breaks, illuminated by the true Sun of Salvation. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the Gospel.” With these words the Divine Master began hs preaching, evoking the words with which the Precursor proclaimed his arrival (cf. Mt 3:1-2).

In this Sunday’s liturgy, the Church wants to transmit a message: God loves us and wishes to pardon us. He is ready to reconcile with us, to make an unbreakable covenant. However, we need to rekindle our Faith and amend our lives, as Jesus exhorts: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

III – How Should We Correspond to This Love?

Regarding this conversion, we must avoid a dangerous error.

In our spiritual life, we often lack the conviction of the need to be saints. We seek to simply be “correct,” forgetting the repeated call of the Second Vatican Council: “The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of his disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life: ‘Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48).” 22

St. Alphonsus Marie Liguori teaches that “those who uphold that God does not demand that we all be saints commit a very grave error, as St. Paul affirms: ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thes 4:3). He wants us all to be saints, each one according to his state in life: religious as religious, laity as laity, priests as priests, married people as married people, business people as business people, the soldier as a soldier, just as for every other state of life.” 23

Grow in love and understanding

To fulfill this obligation, the Church, as a mother, guides us with this Sunday’s liturgy. The path is outlined in the prayer of the day: “Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.”

“Sacred Heart of Jesus” – Chiquinquirá Cathedral, Colombia

Yes, we must “grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ,” because as true God and true Man He is the archetype of the entire universe, as St. Paul states: “For in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col 1:16).

However, is knowledge enough? No. St. John of the Cross says: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” 24 The deeper understanding of doctrine should serve primarily to increase our charity, so that a better understanding of the adorable Person of Our Lord will enable us to be more faithful to his love.

God awaits our conversion

However, we will not achieve this without the help of grace. Of himself, man lacks the strength to align all his thoughts, desires, actions and feelings with those of Our Lord. For the conversion to which Jesus invites us in this Sunday’s liturgy to take effect, we need to fold our hands in prayer and say, with the prophet: “Bring me back that I may be restored, for Thou art the Lord my God” (Jer 31:18).

This desire for amendment of life during this period of Lenten penance should be imbued with confidence. Christ’s triumph in the desert obtained superabundant graces for his entire Mystical Body to conquer the devil’s temptations. Our strength is in Jesus, and as long as we do not separate ourselves from the Head, Satan can do nothing against us.

However, if we examine our conscience, and some faults crop up, let us not lose hope. “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pt 3:18). He won the definitive victory over our faults. All we have to do is acknowledge our failings and ask for pardon.

How can we repay such kindness?

By ardently asking the Blessed Virgin for the grace of an authentic conversion, which means an enthusiastic and awe-filled understanding of the ineffable love that her Divine Son has for each one of us which will bring us to lead a holy life, on the way to heaven. 

 

Notes

1 ST. AUGUSTINE. Enarrationes in Psalmos. Ps.134, c. 10.
2 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Dei Verbum, n. 3.
3 CCC 58.
4 ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT. True Devotion to Mary. 2.ed. Tours: Alfred Mame, 1931, p. 58.
5 TANQUEREY, Adolphe. La vie de Jésus dans l’Église. Tournai: Desclée, 1933, p. 59-61.
6 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Las Catequesis Bautismales. 2.ed. Madrid: Ciudad Nueva, 2007,

p. 149-150.

7 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Lumen Gentium, n. 3.
8 Idem, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 5.
9 Cf. BENEDICT XVI. Jesus de NazaréDo Batismo no Jordão à Transfiguração. São Paulo: Planeta, 2007, p.37. Regarding this same episode, the Angelic Doctor affirms: “But when He attained to the perfect age, when the time came for Him to teach, to work miracles, and to draw men to Himself then did it behove his Godhead to be attested from on high by the Father’s testimony, so that his teaching might become the more credible” (St. thomas aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q.39, a.8, ad.3).
10 RICCIOTTI, Giuseppe. Vita di Gesù Cristo. 14.ed. Città Vaticano: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1941, p. 313.
11 Concerning this, see ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., III, q.41, a.1.
12 ST. GREGORY THE GREAT. In Evang. l.1, homil.16 ML 761135, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., III, q.41, a.1, resp.
13 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., III, q.41 a.1, resp.
14 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. In Orationem Dominicam, art.6.
15 ROYO MARÍN, OP, Antonio. Nada te turbe, nada te espante. 3.ed. Madrid: Palabra, 1982, p. 56-57.
16 TISSOT, Joseph. A arte de aproveitar as próprias faltas. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1925, p. 38-39.
17 ST. FRANCIS DE SALES. Oeuvres Complètes. Lettres spirituelles. 2.ed. Paris: Louis Vivès, 1862, t.XI, p. 425-426.
18 FILLION, Louis-Claude. La Sainte Bible commentée. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912, t.VII, p.195. MALDONADO, SJ, Juan de. Comentarios a los cuatro Evangelios – San Marcos y San Lucas. Madrid: BAC, v.II, 1951, p.41. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica, III, q.41, a.3, ad.2.
19 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Aurea – Expositio in Marcum. c.1, l.5.
20 Cf. FILLION, op. cit., ibidem.
21 ST. BEDE, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Áurea – Expositio in Marcum. c.1, l.5.
22 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Lumen Gentium, n.40.
23 ST. ALPHONSUS MARIE LIGUORI. Obras Ascéticas. Madrid: BAC, 1952, v.I, p. 392.
24 ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS. Vida y obras de San Juan de la Cruz. Madrid: BAC, 1950, p. 1.288.{Titulo}“Repent and Believe in the Gospel”

 

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