The liturgy for this Sunday presents us with the theme of a recurring problem in all our lives, that is, coming to terms with our true identity. In the first reading Moses reminds his people (Dt. 26: 4-10) of the time Abraham was an alien in Egypt and how, despite the afflictions and oppression he and his ancestors suffered there, God lovingly took care of them. Then He orders: make merry over all the good things which the Lord, your God, has given you (v. 10). We might be tempted to ask, Is this not to trivialize the very real problems which confronted them and which sometimes confront us?
However, for the Israelites and for those of us who believe God’s providential goodness will happen again, the responsorial verse provides a voice. The psalmist cries out (though it seems as if with tongue in cheek, just in case!), “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble!” while the second reading gives us a means of survival in difficult times: The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (Rom. 10:8). That is, the source of everything we need is found, not in the external circumstances which impinge upon us, but in our hearts supported by and resonating with the Word of God.
Finally, in the gospel, Luke announces that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit . . . was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. The familiar temptations are enumerated: turning stones into bread, giving homage to Satan in exchange for power, and tempting God by means of a foolhardy action. Before ending his account Luke charts out possible routes we might take in facing our own temptations and trials.
Our temptations, like those of Jesus, are always aimed at getting us to deny who we really are, or making us believe we are something we are not; that is, as the text indicates, by living on the peripheral external appearances of things—bread alone; or by relishing the power and glory afforded by certain positions or offices—our “kingdoms” of operation; or simply by tempting fate in thinking we can do or be more than we can or are, overlooking our limitations. The message Jesus seems to want to give us is that, though these external temptations are very strong, we owe allegiance first of all to the “within” of ourselves.
The “without” or externals are what others may esteem, but to give in to the pressure of measuring our self-worth by what is considered important to others is to be disloyal to ourselves. What others esteem may not necessarily “fit” our true identity. Such an attitude or behavior puts God to the test, for the Divine One tries incessantly, through the small, still voice within, to bring to our conscious awareness all that has been planned for our happiness. Nevertheless, these temptations are relentless, and it is a constant struggle to withstand the satanic attempts of the “without” to govern our lives.
Though Luke’s presentation of temptation is very dramatic, our own temptations tend to be more subtle. Sometimes they come in the form of needs: the need we have to be center stage, to be liked and affirmed by others, to be important in the lives of others, to seem to be caring persons or even to appear to be accomplishing something of worth in the eyes of others. None of these things really express who we are. In fact, it is possible they are hindering us from finding ourselves—that person loved by God at the center of our being.
Sometimes, in order to make the liturgy come more alive for myself, I try to see if it relates in some way with anything I have seen, heard, or personally experienced in life. Reflecting on this particular liturgy, I recalled what Morehead Kennedy said in an interview after his time of captivity as a hostage in Iran: When you’ve been through a death-threatening experience, you are suddenly confronted with your real self. Most of us go through life chasing after a person who never really exists: our IDEA of ourselves. His advice was, Don’t try to chase after an idealized self. Come to terms with the person you really are.
In our liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, we find Jesus doing exactly that when he was tempted. And so it can be with us. Everything we need to be a follower of Jesus is within ourselves. Let us ask Him to help us tap into these riches so that we, too, can come to terms with our real selves. Since we know God wants us to have happy hearts, it follows there are good things in store for us.
Sister Mary E. Penrose is a Sister of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota. She edits readings for the liturgical Hours and writes reflections for the Community. And she is a tutor for the African Sisters attending The College of St. Scholastica. She was editor of a journal, Spirit & Life, for 18 years.