First Sunday of Lent
In a movie going back several decades, Pat O’Brien plays the role of a dock-workers priest on the east coast, defending the workers against exploitation by the dock boss. A strong man was called in by the boss to demonstrate where the power lay in this confrontation, by his picking up a thick steel bar on the desk and bending it out of shape. In response O’Brien picks up the same bar, and straightens it out. This is called rectifying the situation, and this is what Lent is all about: rectification, or justice, as Pope Benedict describes Lent.
Each of today’s scriptures addresses this rectification process, in one way or another. For example, the Deuteronomy reading presents Moses recalling some of their history to the Jewish people, starting with the "downside" earlier on, when they were captive to the Egyptians, undergoing maltreatment and oppression. But he then recites the better days when the Jews cried out to the Lord for help, Who brought them out of Egypt with strong hand and outstretched arm.
In our second reading, Paul addresses the Jewish component among the early converts to Christianity in Rome, incredulous that the salvation they so fervently want doesn’t come from keeping the law but from faith that God raised Jesus from the dead and, what is more, that even non-Jews, i.e., gentiles, can gain the same salvation provided they share the same faith. Thereby Paul attends to their concerns and anxieties.
Luke’s gospel account recalls the forty day ordeal Jesus spent in the desert, alone, and subject to the three temptations insidiously slipped before Him by the devil: food to allay His hunger, power over the kingdoms of the world to enhance His stature, bravado before the law of gravity to satisfy His pride, to each of which Jesus countered with His own versions of food, fealty and faithfulness, vanquishing His arch-enemy.
Lent is our opportunity to come to terms with our vulnerabilities, lying just beneath the surface of our complacencies, our comforts, our sense of accomplishment. We suffer weaknesses, inadequacies and distortions like the Jews of old before the Egyptians or the law or like the weakened Jesus confronted by the wily Evil One. Lent is not designed to leave us on the desk of life like a bent bar, but to alert us to our need of help-a Moses, a Paul, a Jesus (a Pat O’Brien?), so that we can be justified, as Pope Benedict would say, that is, rectified, and straightened out. If we spend Lent recognizing our needs, we will reap, at its conclusion, convictions that help is at hand in the One Who died and rose into power and glory. He can rectify our situation regardless of its ill-shaped condition.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.