As we begin the season of Lent — knowing that this, of all liturgical seasons, entails a certain amount of time, energy and commitment that takes us out of our comfort zones — how many of us can say we are “filled with the Holy Spirit”?
Yet the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent begins with exactly those words (Lk 4:1).
Jesus — having been baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan, and with the words of God the Father, “You are my beloved Son” (Lk 3:22), ringing in his ears and pounding in his heart — embarks on 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert, a zone in which few find comfort.
Upon completion of his fasting, he is quickly accosted by the devil who offers a series of promises — food, power, everlasting life — if Jesus will but worship the devil.
Who among us, exhausted and hungry, would not be sorely tempted, if not inclined, to accept at least one of these offers?
Jesus, however, will have none of it. He resists each temptation, rebuking the devil at every turn with the word of God. The devil finally slinks away, in search of more gullible and less-resistant subjects — i.e., all of humanity including, we would have to admit, us.
And that brings us to repentance, which in the context of Christian living can be defined as a change of heart, an inner conversion to a new way of life, a life in Christ that rejects worldly temptations, that sets selfish desires aside.
Rejecting temptation — the act of putting God first in our lives, as Jesus did with the devil — is one form of repentance that we are called to practice during Lent (and beyond).
That makes repentance more than simply acknowledging our sins and promising to do better as one might do in the confessional (“I’m sorry, it won’t happen again”).
Repentance is a commitment to being a true follower of Christ who invites us to accept and embrace this new life. For God’s love is a constant presence, as Moses reminds the Israelites in the first reading on the First Sunday of Lent (Dt 26:4-10).
Moses recounts what God has done to free them from slavery in Egypt and to bring them to a land “flowing with milk and honey.” He lets them know that God hears them and loves them despite their weaknesses.
Pointedly, Moses reminds them to give thanks for God’s gifts, a gesture of humility that is essential in any act of repentance.
The responsorial psalm reiterates that hope and promise that God is with us always in times of trouble. “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in distress” (Ps 91:15).
St. Paul continues this theme in the second reading (Rom 10:8-13). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” says Paul, “you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
And then, in the Gospel, Jesus wins the battle of wits and words with the devil by letting him know that God, and no one else, comes first. “You shall worship the Lord, your God,” says Jesus, “and him alone shall you serve.”
These, I would suggest, are encouraging Scriptures, messages of love, hope and promise that should fuel our desire for a closer relationship with Jesus.
Those of us who have been through Lent many times in our lives — and, in challenging times like these, may be less than “filled with the Holy Spirit” — might do well to take notice of those in our midst who are unbaptized, the catechumens who, on the First Sunday of Lent, become the elect.
These are adults and children who are entering their final preparation for receiving the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil.
This process — including the scrutinies, Gospel-based rites for self-searching and repentance — are designed to bring “purification and enlightenment” of hearts and minds, and a deeper knowledge of and relationship with Christ (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Nos. 141-149).
But attaining that relationship is one thing; maintaining it is quite another. Notice the final words of today’s Gospel: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Jesus for a time.”
“For a time.” That has a more ominous ring than much of what Scripture says today. It is certainly a sobering reminder that the devil, in the form of temptation, is ever-lurking in our midst.
And the past two pandemic-filled years have offered a stern test of our capacity to cope with our daily challenges to put others’ needs ahead of our own desires, and of our lifelong quest for conversion of heart in search of life in Christ.
Repentance, then, is an ongoing process, during and beyond Lent. But let us remember that while the devil is ever-lurking, God is ever-present, providing the comfort zone of all comfort zones.
And that is plenty of reason to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
(Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.)