Engaging the Gospel – Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel John 2:13-25

At first glance, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple appears to be a straightforward demonstration against the commercialization of the sacred precincts:

Jesus went up to the Temple as the privileged place of encounter with God. For Him, the Temple was the dwelling of His Father, a house of prayer, and He was angered that its outer court had become a place of commerce. He drove merchants out of it because of jealous love for His Father.

–Catechism paragraph 584.

Perhaps while transacting their business in the Temple precincts, the merchants failed to have a “sense of the sacred,” or “respect owed to the mystery of God Himself and to the whole sacred reality [His name] evokes” (2144).

Perhaps some had even fallen into the temptation of making money their god. If so, that is a sin of idolatry, which does not merely involve the false worshiping of pagan gods.

“Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God,” such as “power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.,” and as a result, idolatry “remains a constant temptation to faith” (2113).

Yet the Lord’s action also has a much deeper significance: Jesus “identified Himself with the Temple by presenting Himself as God’s definitive dwelling-place among men” (586).

Soon, worship would no longer be centered around the Temple building, but rather upon the very Body of the Lord, the new Temple.

Benedict XVI develops this insight into the cleansing of the Temple in Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2. God is withdrawing from the Temple of stone, with its worldly trading, and inaugurating a new way of worship, through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ:

The rejection and crucifixion of Jesus means at the same time the end of this Temple. The era of the Temple is over. A new worship is being introduced, in a Temple not built by human hands. This Temple is His Body, the Risen One, who gathers the peoples and unites them in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.

–Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, pp. 21-22

Thus Jesus has zeal for the Cross, what Benedict calls the “zeal of self-giving love,” that we are called to share.

Question for reflection: When have I been tempted to make a “god” out of something?


Engaging the Gospel – Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel – Mark 9:2-10

The Transfiguration is rich in meaning on several levels, beginning with its timing. Christ’s divine glory was made manifest during the Jewish Feast of Sukkoth. Commemorating Israel’s time of wandering in the desert after the Exodus, living in tents (“sukkoth”), this feast had messianic overtones: the Jewish people believed that it foreshadowed the coming age of the Messiah.

Jesus fulfills this hope, as Benedict XVI observes:

Indeed, the Lord has pitched the tent of His body among us and has thus inaugurated the messianic age…Jesus is the holy tent above whom the cloud of God’s presence now stands.

— Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, pp. 315-16.

The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. They represent the Law and the Prophets, which proclaimed the Messiah’s coming. Although Moses and Elijah had encounters with God in the Old Testament, “only on the mountain of the Transfiguration” did they “behold the unveiled face of Him Whom they sought” – in Christ (Catechism paragraph 2583).

Moreover, the Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of the Holy Trinity.

As St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud” (quoted in paragraph 555).

Question for reflection: In what ways do I listen to the Lord?

Engaging the Gospel – First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel – Mark 1:12-15

When Jesus is in the desert, Satan tempts Him, “seeking to compromise His filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks” (Catechism paragraph 538).

The Catechism goes on to explain how the Gospels

indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation…Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of His filial love for the Father.

— paragraph 539.

Benedict XVI offers his insight into this reality:

Part of Jesus’ messianic task is to withstand the great temptations that have led man away from God and continue to do so…it is not only after His death, but already by His death and during His whole life, that Jesus ‘descends into hell,’ as it were, into the domain of our temptations and defeats, in order to take us by the hand and carry us upward.

Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, p. 161.

We clasp Jesus’ hand in a special way during Lent — our encounter with the Lord in the desert, where “Christ vanquished the tempter for us” (Catechism 540). It is therefore a season for us to enter more deeply into interior penance (1434-38).

We practice the penitential disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving for a spiritual purpose: to express our “conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (1434).

As Benedict noted, Lent is “like a long ‘retreat’ in which to re-enter oneself and listen to God’s voice,” a “Season of spiritual renewal” that helps to prepare us for Easter (February 21, 2010).

“Lent is a journey…it reminds us that Christian life is a ‘way’ to take, not so much consistent with a law to observe, as with the very Person of Christ, to encounter, to welcome, to follow” (March 9, 2011).

Question for reflection: In what special ways am I entering into the spirit of Lent?

Accompanying Jesus in the Desert

As disciples, we accompany Jesus in every phase of our lives, following Him wherever He takes us, and never wanting to be separated from Him. So when the Lord goes into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days, we go along with Him.

Far from just a sentimental kind of mimicry, this season of Lent is serious business for our spiritual health. It is a grace-filled opportunity for renewal, a spring cleaning of our souls, to make us ready for the great feast of Easter.

During Lent, we are called to examine our lives, repent, confess our sins, and do penance. As we ask the Lord to help us overcome our weaknesses, He asks us to do our part to strive for self-mastery.

The Church guides us through this process, encouraging us to follow the traditional practices of penance – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. That is why one of the Church’s precepts is to observe the days of fasting and of abstinence from meat. This is not to be legalistic, but rather to help us join Jesus in His fast.

We give up some of our creature comforts, not merely to deprive ourselves, but to free us for something greater. Even tiny ways of self-denial help us to grow in freedom, strengthen us to be faithful in more serious matters, and enable us to climb higher spiritually.

As St. Peter of Alcantara said, “With a pampered and satiated body, the soul is not free to fly high.”

Engaging the Gospel – Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: Gospel – Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration

Last Sunday, we toiled along with Jesus undergoing temptation in the desert; in this Sunday’s Gospel, we are uplifted by His dazzling Transfiguration.

Pope Benedict XVI has commented on this abrupt transition from the depths to the heights:

Considered together, these episodes anticipate the Paschal Mystery: Jesus’ struggle with the tempter preludes the great final duel of the Passion, while the light of his transfigured Body anticipates the glory of the Resurrection.

On the one hand, we see Jesus, fully man, sharing with us even temptation; on the other, we contemplate him as the Son of God who divinizes our humanity.

Thus, we could say that these two Sundays serve as pillars on which to build the entire structure of Lent until Easter, and indeed, the entire structure of Christian life, which consists essentially in paschal dynamism: from death to life.

Angelus of February 17, 2008.

Blessed John Paul II commented on another kind of dynamism inherent in this passage – though we experience joy on the mountaintop, and glimpse our future glory in the radiant Christ, we don’t have the luxury of staying there:

We, pilgrims on earth, are granted to rejoice in the company of the transfigured Lord when we immerse ourselves in the things of above through prayer and the celebration of the divine mysteries.

But, like the disciples, we too must descend from Tabor into daily life where human events challenge our faith.

On the mountain we saw; on the paths of life we are asked tirelessly to proclaim the Gospel which illuminates the steps of believers.

Homily of August 6, 1999.

Question: When have I had a “mountaintop experience” in my spiritual life?

Lent as our Spring Training

Lent is a privileged season for spiritual renewal – our time for spring cleaning within our souls, or literally, our spring training.

Aside from deepening our prayer life, we are called to embrace fasting and almsgiving.

These forms of self-denial are called ascetical practices, from the Greek askesis, meaning training for athletic contests.

The root word helps us to understand the “why” behind our Lenten observances. We do not give more of our time or resources simply for the sake of doing something extra, nor do we “give up” things just to feel the pinch of missing them.

Rather, we are letting go of ourselves, and our attachments, in an intentional way because we are working toward something, and Someone. We are striving to grow closer to the Lord by concretely repenting for our sins, and by participating in Jesus’ own self-denial.

One of the great figures of the 20th century Liturgical Movement, Pius Parsch, describes the true meaning of Lent:

…the mystery is re-enacted in each person’s heart: in your soul Christ is wrestling with the devil; or better, by the very fact that you are a member of the mystical Christ, you are involved in this fight….

Therefore we must re-live our Savior’s Passion in Lent…as disciples we must die with Christ in order to rise with Him as new men on Easter.

Parsch sees our supernatural life in God as the key to Lent:

I view Lent, indeed the whole Easter cycle, from the approach of a life filled with God. The Christmas cycle was dominated by the idea of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that was expected during Advent and established at Christmas and Epiphany. Dominating the Easter cycle, however, is the theme of supernatural life engendered, renewed, and perfected.

Fasting is a means toward the goal of a “more flourishing inner life” —

We must remember that we are members of Christ’s Body; by sin we defiled this Body, but now we will help to purify it.

Parsch emphasizes that our life in Christ is the whole point of our self-denial, or else it becomes meaningless:

The essential lesson contained in the Gospel discourse is that the fast should be a deep inward matter of the soul devoid of all selfishness or ulterior motivation….

Fasting of itself, therefore, is of no value; only when linked with the sacrifice of Jesus does it become useful and meritorious….

First we follow Him as the penitent par excellence into the desert of self-denial to fast with Him for forty days. Our fast will be spiritually fruitful if we keep it in unity with Him, if it is an extension of His fasting.

–The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume II

Jesus Proclaims the Kingdom of God

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 535-553:

  • Jesus’ public life begins with His baptism at the hands of His precursor, St. John the Baptist; the baptism is another “epiphany,” or manifestation, of Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah who will bring about His Kingdom.
  • Although sinless, Jesus chooses to identify Himself with the repentant sinners who flocked to baptism; thus the baptism foreshadows the Cross, when Jesus, the “Lamb of God,” takes away the sins of the world.
  • Before embarking upon His ministry, Jesus withdraws to the desert for a 40-day period of fasting; the Church enters into this mystery during the season of Lent.
  • The coming of God’s Kingdom means the destruction of the devil’s dominion; hence the devil tries to turn Jesus away from the Father, and to thwart His mission, by tempting our Lord in the desert; but Jesus defeats his every stratagem.
  • Jesus now goes forth to preach the “good news” of the coming of the Kingdom; this phrase was rendered from Greek into Latin as evangelium, and later translated into the Anglo-Saxon language as Godspell, evolving into our term “Gospel.”
  •  Jesus backed up His words with mighty miracles that inspired belief in Him; His physical healings fulfill prophecy, and ultimately point toward spiritual healing: He came to save us from the greatest evil of all, sin.
  • Jesus gathers people to Himself, thus establishing the Church, the seed and beginning of the Kingdom; He chooses 12 Apostles, associates them in His mission, and gives them authority, with St. Peter foremost – the first bishops.
  • Jesus emphasizes that everyone is called to enter the Kingdom; He makes a point of reaching out to those marginalized as sinners and inviting them to repentance.
  • In a very special way, the Kingdom belongs to the poor, lowly, humble of heart, those who know that they need God.
  •  Jesus often illustrated His teaching by means of parables, memorable stories with a twist; these describe God’s Kingdom, the choice we face whether to accept it, and the radical commitment of discipleship.

Live Your Faith

Rather than viewing the Gospels strictly as mini-biographies of Jesus, we should instead use our imagination to put ourselves into the stories.

Which people resonate the most with me? What would it be like to watch Jesus preach or perform a miracle?

This method, popularized by St. Ignatius Loyola, opens up the Scriptures in a creative way, brings them vividly to life, and helps us to experience Christ.