Homily: 1st Sunday of Lent – Cycle B
Here in Indiana, we witness the yearly winter renewal of plants. Trees, in particular, demonstrate this renewal most dramatically. As winter approaches, they celebrate a “carnival” of sorts as their leaves change into flashy colors just before turning brown and falling off. Then, the trees seemingly lay dormant until spring arrives when they will bloom in bright colored flowers before sprouting new leaves in order to absorb the nutritious rays of the sun. This is no mere “putting back on of the old”, however. Rather the spring blooming of the trees is truly a renewal. Now, I’ve not done any research to know whether or not this is true, but I believe that this yearly renewal actually makes them stronger and able to bear more fruit.
As bodily creatures living in time, we too need a yearly time of renewal. As time progresses day after day and month after month, our bodies and spirits get weighed down by the daily living of our lives. Perhaps there are sinful habits we’ve developed over the past year or maybe our prayer lives have become stagnant and fruitless. And so the Church gives us this season of Lent as a “spiritual winter” to help us slough off those things that are weighing us down—like the trees slough off their “seasoned” leaves—and to be renewed in our baptismal promises to live the Christian life.
In this first Sunday of Lent, the readings help us to understand how we can approach this time of renewal. Today we were given a glimpse both of where this journey of Lent will take us and also of how we will get there. In the first reading, Noah emerged after forty days in the ark. He represented humanity cleansed from sin and we see that God made a covenant with this renewed humanity never to destroy it again. In this we see the goal of our Lenten renewal. Our goal is to emerge from this forty day fast cleansed from sin so as to receive again the promise of God that we received in our baptism. (Notice the “passive” tense of the verb—the cleansing being something to which we submit ourselves.)
Then, in the Gospel reading, we heard how Jesus spent forty days in the desert, tempted by Satan, before he begins his ministry to call people to repentance. In this we see the way we are to take to reach our goal. As Jesus spent forty days in the desert, in which he turned away from the comforts of his daily life so as to be prepared to begin to fulfill the mission for which he came, so we, too, are called to spend forty days in which we turn away from some of the comforts of our daily lives (for example, our favorite food or drink or snacks in general, or TV or Facebook or YouTube or Netflix or the internet in general) in order that we also might turn away from those things that separate us from God and from each other (for example, from jealousy, anger, resentment, gossip, etc.).
Now, when we turn away from something, we necessarily turn towards something else and so it is important that, as we turn away from some of the comforts of our daily lives, we pay careful attention to that to which we have turned. The renewal of God’s covenant with humanity that happened after Noah emerged from the ark invites us to look towards the end of this forty days and to ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be at the end of this time?” In other words, “How do I want to be renewed this Lent?” Or, better yet, “How does God want to renew me this Lent?” This is a really important question to answer. Because we can take up all sorts of penitential practices this Lent (some of them heroic, even!)—and, if we do them well in a spirit of humility, we will, in some way, be renewed—but if we don’t have a goal in mind (an end toward which the renewal is aimed at achieving) then the chances that our renewal will bear fruit for God and his kingdom is slim.
Thus, Saint Peter reminds us in our second reading that our baptism was not just a washing that removed dirt from our bodies, but rather that it was “an appeal to God for a clear conscience…” With these words we can then expand our “important question” as we begin Lent and see that we not only have to ask ourselves “How does God want to renew me this Lent?” but also, “and for what am I being renewed?” If you can come up with an answer to these questions, and set yourself towards realizing them, then you will be well on your way to having your best Lent ever.
At this point, it’s important to remember that, whenever we attempt to do something good, we will inevitably encounter difficulty. Just as Jesus was tempted in the desert, so we too can expect to encounter temptations that will tempt us to give up before we reach our goal. This is where the tools of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving come into play. These tools help us to overcome these temptations and to be open to God’s grace, so that we can achieve our goal. And so we see that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not just ends in themselves—that is, something that we do just because it’s Lent (in other words, to use Saint Peter’s example, baptism, solely for the sake of washing away dirt)—but rather, that they are helps towards achieving our Lenten goal, the renewal of our spirits. Thus we must select well how we will pray, fast, and give alms always with an eye towards the renewal that God wants for us.
Nevertheless, although there are many ways that we can approach our time in Lent, one thing that is not an option is not to go through it. The readings today show us this much. Noah had to spend the forty days in the ark in order to receive God’s promise. Jesus had to spend forty days in the desert before he could begin his ministry of announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God. And so we too must go through these forty days of Lent if we truly desire the renewal in God’s promises that he himself desires to give us.
My brothers and sisters, God truly desires that we be renewed this Lent. Let us then commit ourselves to this goal and let us pray for God to show us how to achieve it. Let us listen to him in prayer, discipline our bodies and our spirits by fasting, and respond more readily to our neighbors in need by giving alms, so as to make real the interior renewal of spirit that we each need. When we do so, we will truly be ready to “bloom like the trees” this spring and to celebrate with great joy the resurrection of our Lord.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – February 18th, 2018