First Sunday of LentMy dear People of God,
We read in the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent that Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). As we strive to imitate Our Lord Jesus Christ by entering ourselves into a forty days of desert fasting and praying, I wish to continue my reflection on the important Sacrament of Penance by which we experience the saving grace of reconciliation, God’s forgiveness. In my previous two Lenten pastoral letters, I stressed the reality of this Sacrament, which is rooted in the intent of Jesus Christ to continue the ministry of the forgiveness of sin. Simply expressed, we encounter in the Sacrament of Penance the overflowing bounty of God’s forgiveness made manifest in Jesus Christ. It is Saint Paul who reminds us: “Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Timothy 1:14-15). Thus, as Saint Paul will also note, just as he has been reconciled through Christ, now God has “given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18-19).
In this letter I wish to reflect first on the encounter of Jesus with the devil in the desert. Then I will follow with a few reflections on how Jesus meets sinners in the Gospels. And, finally, I will draw some conclusions that hopefully will assist in an appreciation for the bountiful mercy God extends to us sinners.
The devil presents Jesus Christ with three temptations. The first temptation, to change stones into bread, plays upon the hunger of Jesus who “ate nothing during those days” (Luke 4:2). The second, to receive the power and glory “of all the kingdoms of the world” (Luke 4:5) if only Jesus will worship the devil, offers Jesus the opportunity of having a world audience to hear His message. The third, to leap from the parapet of the temple only to be gathered up by angels, is enticing because it would be a spectacular sign that would attract the immediate attention of the people to Jesus. In short, each temptation is a denial of the cross. Jesus ultimately came to do the Father’s will and that meant suffering and death. There is no resurrection without them. For Jesus to have succumbed to any of these temptations would have meant a negation of His mission to suffer, die and rise.
The modern world finds the message of the cross hard to accept. It wants the glory without the sacrifices. When on a number of occasions Jesus predicted His suffering, death and resurrection, even His disciples were scandalized. Saint Peter himself would say, “No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22), to which Jesus responds with a sharp retort. “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). If the mission of every disciple is to lose his life (Matthew 10:39), if being a true disciple requires that I carry my own cross daily (Luke 14:27), if to follow Jesus one must imitate the grain of wheat that must die to bear fruit (John 12:24), then the cross must be part of our lives just as surely as the resurrection. I think this is the insight to which Saint Paul testifies so eloquently in the conclusion of his Letter to the Galatians: “May I never boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
To turn stones into bread when hungry or to have nations worship at any price or to attract the crowds with a public display of glory would have been easy. They would also have ended the public ministry of Christ where we meet the mercy of God offered to the sinner. In His life and work, Jesus meets numerous sinners in the Gospels, but I would call your attention to two individuals.
At a well in Samaria, Jesus meets a woman on her way to draw water. In the midst of this daily routine, Jesus slowly attracts her to what He has to say. He does so by speaking of “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Jesus moves the woman from the known to the unknown and finally moves her to a profession of faith when He reveals her present immoral life. “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18), Jesus says to her, and she responds, “I can see that you are a prophet” (John 19). Indeed, by her own admission, the identifying mark of the Messiah will be that “he will tell us everything” (John 4:25). When the woman goes to the town and testifies to what she has experienced, as proof, she says, “He told me everything I have done” (John 4:39). This testimony leads the townspeople to go to Jesus themselves and believe. “We know that this is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:43).
Honesty and truth lead to conversion. Jesus draws the truth out of the woman, so that she can encounter a lasting truth in Him. It is this truth that we as Catholics encounter in the Sacrament of Penance. We call it the integrity of the sacrament. We hide nothing. We bring to the Lord ourselves. We admit our guilt, honestly and truthfully. As it were, we hold up a mirror to our lives, or, better yet, God holds that mirror to our face, and we say with the Samaritan woman, “He told me everything I have done.” God’s grace has called us to conversion, just as simply as if we had gone to get a drink of water. Yet there is something dynamic here, and it happens every time we encounter Jesus Christ at the well of mercy in the Sacrament of Penance.
My thoughts turn now to a second individual in the Gospel of St. John (John 8). The scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. There is no doubt that she has committed adultery. The penalty is death by stoning. They want to test Jesus and ask Him what He would do. Their intent in doing this is disingenuous. They know of the compassion and mercy of Jesus, and they want to trap Jesus contradicting the law. Instead, Jesus shifts attention away from the woman and onto the crowd. Jewish law prescribed that the first to throw stones must be those who witnessed the crime (Deuteronomy 17:7). Jesus says to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). The first to throw the stone must not only be a witness but also sinless. Jesus has reminded them that judgment ultimately belongs to God, a truth taught by a higher law throughout the Scriptures. As the crowd begins to disperse, beginning with the older and more experienced sinners first, the woman is left alone. She has escaped the penalty but not the call to repentance. “Go,” Jesus says to her, “and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11).
In every encounter with the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Penance, there is an admonition to sin no more. We state the desire to do exactly that when we pray the Act of Contrition. “I firmly intend with the help of your grace to sin no more and to avoid the occasions of sin.” Sin exists. Jesus never tells the woman she is “okay,” letting her off the hook, as we would say. It is folly to think that sin does not exist and that it does not have serious consequences. What we meet in this Gospel is God’s patience calling us to a change of heart, a new life. In the Sacrament of Penance we meet a merciful Father who is willing to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times, a Father who is as prodigal with His mercy as the son he forgives is prodigal squandering his inheritance. This mercy in turn is to become ours, so that we forgive as we have been forgiven. The ongoing encounter with this mercy calls us to an ongoing repentance. Lord, as I have been forgiven, help me to forgive. I cannot help but think that in extending mercy to the woman caught in adultery, our Lord also has in mind the repentance of the man with whom she shared this offense. Sin is deceptive and enslaving. Mercy is expansive and liberating.
This observation brings me to the devil in the desert. As human beings, we would think that the devil would have more advantage at the beginning of the desert experience rather than at the end. Instead the devil comes when the forty days “were over” (Luke 4:2). I am reminded of the observation of that great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila: “When the devil sees that the soul’s character and habits are such that it is ready to make further progress: all the powers of hell will combine to drive it back again.” The devil cannot tolerate progress. We must also be aware that as the “Father of Lies,” the devil twists the truth, as with the temptations in the desert, and that the devil’s greatest temptation is to despair. The devil would like nothing better than to have us think that we are not worthy of forgiveness.
Here, I must repeat the consoling words of Saint Paul: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:57). And every time I hear my confessor say to me in the Sacrament of Penance, as our Lord said to numerous sinners in the Gospel, “Your sins are forgiven,” I know that victory.
As the Scriptures remind us, God humbled himself by becoming man for our salvation. In doing so, Jesus left us an example to be followed. In the Sacrament of Penance, we follow His lead by humbly admitting our sins and asking forgiveness.
My final words are those of Pope Benedict XVI in his Lenten Message for the Year 2010.
Humility is required to accept that I need Another to free me
from ‘what is mine,’ to give me gratuitously ‘what is His.’ This
happens especially in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the
Eucharist. Thanks to Christ’s action, we may enter into the
‘greatest’ justice, which is that of love (cf. Romans 13,8-10), the
justice that recognizes itself in every case more a debtor than a
creditor, because it has received more than could ever have been
I extend to you my blessings and prayers for a blessed Lent that will lead to an even more glorious Easter, as I remain
Devotedly yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles