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March 10, 2019: The First Sunday of Lent [C]

First Reading Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Second Reading Romans 10:8-13
Gospel Luke 4:1-13

He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm….

There are many different types of freedom. For example, sometimes we want to be free from the influence that another person holds over us. Sometimes we want to be free from a job, or from an agreement we’ve made with someone, or from an assignment that we’ve been handed. But that’s not the type of freedom that Jesus gave up his life to offer us.

Jesus died on the Cross to free us from our own sinfulness. During Lent, we look inside ourselves, and look at how we have enslaved ourselves to sin, destroying the greatest type of human freedom: the power to choose what is best in life.

There is, of course, no human being who does not experience the temptation to sin. Even Jesus experienced temptation, as we hear in today’s Gospel passage. There are many situations in life that present us with temptations. Some of these we don’t have a choice but to endure and persevere through. Some of them, in fact, God uses in order to “school us” in self-discipline.

Other situations, though, we can and should stay away from if they are occasions of sin. But how does a person know whether something—for that individual personally—is a near occasion of sin? Some situations are occasions of sin for practically everyone. But other situations are occasions of sin for some individuals but not others. Regarding this latter group, each person has to know himself pretty well. Each person has to be honest with himself concerning past sins, and current weaknesses.

Everyone who wants to take God’s call to holiness seriously is invited to follow Christ. But since each of us leads a different life—through a particular vocation with unique circumstances—each walks upon a different path through the desert. Nonetheless, each path leads through the same desert, and it is Christ who leads each of us.

There are three stages to the path by which Jesus leads His disciple through the desert. The first stage is the simplest and perhaps easiest: the sacrifice of material things, which we practice in our fasting. Each of us must learn how to resist the temptation to live our lives by “bread alone”. This doesn’t necessarily mean owning nothing—like monks—but it does mean not being attached to them. That is, we must not care if we lose them or have to leave them behind at some point. By detaching ourselves from things, fasting increases our self-control and freedom.

The second stage through the desert is the sacrifice of power and control over others, which is what we practice through almsgiving or other acts of charity. Like Christ, there are many ways in which we are called to exercise power authentically (for example, with money and positions of authority), and we face temptations to abuse that power. At this level of sacrifice, it can take us longer to be honest with ourselves and face up to our sins. But by detaching ourselves from control over others, almsgiving increases our self-control and freedom.

The third stage through the desert is the final stage: the end stage. This stage, which we sometimes simply call “prayer”, is underestimated. Authentic prayer means sacrificing our life to a God who doesn’t always give us the answers we feel we need.

We human beings want to understand the path we are on, and we want to understand the meaning of the crosses that appear in our lives. Like the other two stages through the desert, this is a matter of control. Unfortunately, when we don’t get answers, it’s easy instead to choose sin, because sin seems at least to offer an answer as well as some sort of control. Such an answer will of course be false, and the sort of control that sin offers ends up making life more difficult. But as human beings, we become comfortable with sin and the falsehoods it offers.

Sin sinks roots into our lives. We begin to accept sin as so ordinary a part of our lives that we don’t see it as sin anymore. Not many plants can live in the desert, but those that do have great staying power, and sin is like one of those plants. Once sins take deep root in our lives, it’s easy to believe that those sins are part of us, and that we can’t live without them: that there’s no use in trying to root them out of our lives.

It’s much harder to face the truth that Jesus is calling each of us into this driest and hottest part of the desert. He is calling each of us to radical holiness. He is calling each of us to conform our lives to His Cross: the Cross that the Church will reverence—bow before, kneel before, and kiss—on Good Friday.