This Sunday, the first of the six which come during Lent, is one of the most solemn throughout the year. In common with the other Sundays of Lent, it has the privilege of taking precedence over all feasts, even that of the patron, titular saint, or dedication of the Church. In the ancient calendars, it is called Invocabit, from the first word of the Introit of the Mass. In the middle ages (more especially in France), it was called Brand Sunday, because the young people, who had misbehaved during the carnival, were obliged to show themselves today at the church with a torch in their hands, as a kind of public satisfaction for their causing disturbance and excess.
Lent solemnly opens today. We have already noticed that the four preceding days were added since the time of St. Gregory the Great, in order to make up the forty days of fasting. But we cannot look upon Ash Wednesday as the solemn opening of the season, for the faithful are not strictly bound to hear Mass on that day. Holy Mother Church, seeing Her children now assembled together, speaks to them, in Her Office of Matins, these eloquent and noble words of St. Leo the Great: "Having to announce to you, dearly beloved, the most sacred and chief fast, how can I more appropriately begin, than with the words of the Apostle, in whom Christ Himself spoke, and by saying to you what has just been read: Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. For although there be no time which is not replete with divine gifts, and we may always, by God's grace, have access to His mercy, yet ought we all to redouble our efforts to make spiritual progress and be animated with extraordinary confidence, now that the anniversary of the day of our redemption is approaching, inviting us to devote ourselves to every good work, that so we may celebrate, with purity of body and mind, the incomparable mystery of Our Lord's Passion.
"It is true that our devotion and reverence towards so great a mystery should be kept up during the whole year, and we ourselves should be at all times, in the eyes of God, the same as we are bound to be at the Easter solemnity. But this is an effort which only few among us have the courage to sustain. The weakness of the flesh induces us to relax our austerities; the various occupations of every-day life take up our thoughts; and thus even the virtuous find their hearts clogged by this world's dust. Hence it is that Our Lord has most providentially given us these forty days, whose holy exercises should be to us a remedy, whereby to regain our purity of soul. The good works and the holy fastings of this season were instituted as an atonement for, and an obliteration of, the sins we commit during the rest of the year.
"Now, therefore, that we are about to enter upon these days, which are so full of mystery, and which were instituted for the holy purpose of purifying both soul and body, let us, dearly beloved, be careful to do as the Apostle bids us, and cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and of the spirit: that thus the combat between the two substances being made less fierce, the soul, which, when she herself is subject to God, ought to be the ruler of the body, will recover her own dignity and position. Let us also avoid giving offense to any man, so that there be none to blame or speak evil things of us. For we deserve the harsh remarks of infidels, and we provoke the tongues of the wicked to blaspheme religion, when we who fast lead unholy lives. For our fast does not consist in the mere abstinence from food; nor is it of much use to deny food to our body, unless we restrain the soul from sin" (Fourth Sermon for Lent).
Each Sunday of Lent offers to our consideration a passage from the Gospel, which is in keeping with the sentiments wherewith the Church would have us be filled. Today She brings before us the temptation of Our Lord in the desert. What light and encouragement there is for us in the this instruction!
We acknowledge ourselves to be sinners; we are engaged, at this very time, in doing penance for the sins we have committed—but how was it that we fell into sin? The devil tempted us; we did not reject the temptation; then we yielded to the suggestion, and the sin was committed. This is the history of our past; and such it would, also, be for the future, were we not to profit by the lesson given us today by our Redeemer.
When the Apostle speaks of the wonderful mercy shown us by our Divine Savior, Who vouchsafed to make Himself like to us in all things save sin, he justly lays stress on His temptations (Heb. 4: 15). He, Who is very God, humbled Himself even so low as this, to prove how tenderly He compassionated us. Here then, we have the Saint of saints allowing the wicked spirit to approach Him, in order that we might learn, from His example, how we are to gain victory under temptation.
Satan has had his eye upon Jesus; he is troubled at beholding such matchless virtue. The wonderful circumstances of His birth; the shepherds called by angels to His crib, and the Magi guided by the star; the Infant's escape from Herod's plot; the testimony rendered to this new Prophet by John the Baptist: all these things, which seem so out of keeping with the thirty years spent in obscurity at Nazareth, are a mystery to the infernal serpent, and fill him with apprehension. The ineffable mystery of the Incarnation has been accomplished unknown to him; he never once suspects that the humble Virgin, Mary, is She who was foretold by the prophet Isaias, as having to bring forth the Emmanuel (Is. 7: 14); but he is aware that the time has come, that the last week spoken of to Daniel has begun its course, and that the very pagans are looking towards Judea for a deliverer. He is afraid of this Jesus; he resolves to speak with Him, and elicit from Him some expression which will show him whether He be or not the Son of God; he will tempt Him to some imperfection, or sin, which, should He commit it, will prove that the object of so much fear is, after all, but a mortal man.
The enemy of God and men is, of course, disappointed. He approaches Jesus; but all his efforts turn only to his own confusion. Our Redeemer, with all the self-possession and easy majesty of a God-Man, repels the attacks of Satan; but He reveals not His heavenly origin. The wicked spirit retires without having made any discovery beyond this—that Jesus is a prophet, faithful to God. Later on, when he sees the Son of God treated with contempt, calumniated and persecuted; when he finds that his own attempts to have Him put to death are so successful; his pride and his blindness will be at their height; and not till Jesus expires on the Cross, will he learn that his victim was not merely Man, but Man and God. Then will he discover how all his plots against Jesus have but served to manifest, in all their beauty, the mercy and justice of God: His mercy, because He saved mankind; and His justice, because He broke the power of Hell forever.
These were the designs of Divine Providence in permitting the wicked spirit to defile, by his presence, the retreat of Jesus, to speak to Him, and to lay his hands upon Him. But let us attentively consider the triple temptation in all its circumstances; for our Redeemer suffered it only in order that He might instruct and encourage us.
We have three enemies to fight against; our soul has three dangers; for, as the beloved disciple says, all that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life! (1 John 2: 16) By the concupiscence of the flesh, is meant the love of sensual things, which covets whatever is agreeable to the flesh, and, when not curbed, draws the soul into unlawful pleasures. Concupiscence of the eyes expresses the love of the goods of this world, such as riches and possessions; these dazzle the eye, and then seduce the heart. Pride of life is that confidence in ourselves, which leads us to be vain and presumptuous, and makes us forget that all we have, our life and every good gift, we have from God.
Every one of our sins comes from one of these three sources; every one of our temptations aims at making us accept the concupiscence of the flesh, or the concupiscence of the eyes, or the pride of life. Our Savior, then, Who willed to be our Model in all things, deigned to subject Himself to these three temptations.
First of all Satan tempts Him in what regards the flesh: he suggests to Him to satisfy the cravings of hunger by working a miracle, and changing the stones into bread. If Jesus were to consent, and show an eagerness in giving this indulgence to His Body, the tempter will conclude that He is a frail mortal, subject to concupiscence like other men. When he tempts us, who have inherited evil concupiscence from Adam, his suggestions go further that this: he endeavors to defile the soul by the body. But the sovereign holiness of the Incarnate Word could never permit Satan to use upon Him the power which he has received of tempting man in his outward senses. The lesson, therefore, which the Son of God here gives us, is one of temperance; but we know that, for us, temperance is the mother of purity, and that intemperance excites our senses to rebel.
The second temptation is to pride: "Cast Thyself down; the angels shall bear Thee up in their hands." The enemy is anxious to see if the favors of Heaven have produced in Jesus' soul that haughtiness, that ungrateful self-confidence, which makes the creature arrogate God’s gifts to itself, and forget its Benefactor. Here, also, he is foiled; our Redeemer’s humility confounds the pride of the rebel angel.
He then makes a last effort: he hopes to gain over by ambition Him Who has given such proofs of temperance and humility. He shows Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and says to Him: "All these will I give Thee, if falling down, Thou wilt adore me." Jesus rejects the wretched offer, and drives from Him the seducer, the prince of this world (John 14: 30); hereby teaching us that we must despise the riches of this world, as often as our keeping or getting them is to be on the condition of our violating the law of God and thereby paying homage to Satan.
But let us observe how it is that our Divine Model, our Redeemer, overcomes the tempter. Does He hearken to his words? Does He allow the temptation time, and give it strength by delay? We did so, when we were tempted; and we fell. But Our Lord immediately meets each temptation with the shield of God's Word. He says: "It is written: Not on bread alone doth man live. It is written: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. It is written: The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve." This, then, must be our practice for the time to come. Eve brought perdition on herself, and on the whole human race, because she listened to the serpent. He that dallies with temptation is sure to fall. We are now in a season of extraordinary grace; our hearts are on the watch, dangerous occasions are removed, everything that savors of worldliness is laid aside; our souls, purified by prayer, fasting, and almsdeeds, are to rise with Christ to a new life; but shall we persevere? All depends upon how we behave under temptation. Here, at the very opening of Lent, the Church gives us this passage of the holy Gospel, that we may have not only precept but example. If we be attentive and faithful, the lesson She gives us will produce its fruit; and when we come to the Easter solemnity, we shall have those sure pledges of perseverance: vigilance, self-diffidence, prayer, and the never-failing help of divine grace.
The Greek Church, in spite of her principle of never admitting a feast during Lent, celebrates today one of her greatest solemnities. It is called Orthodoxia, and was instituted in memory of the restoration of sacred images in Constantinople and the eastern empire, in the year 842, when the Empress Theodora (image at left), aided by the holy patriarch Methodius, put a stop to the Iconoclast persecution, and restored to the churches the holy images which the fury of the heretics had taken away.
The Station for the Mass at Rome is the patriarchal basilica of St. John Lateran. It was but right that a Sunday of such solemnity as this should be celebrated in the church which is the mother and mistress of all churches, not only of the holy city itself, but of the whole world. It is here that the public penitents would be reconciled on Maundy Thursday; it is here also, in the Baptistry of Constantine, that the catechumens would receive Baptism on the night of the Easter Vigil. No other basilica could have had such a claim for the Station of a day like this; for it is there that the Lenten Fast had been so often proclaimed by Saints Leo and Gregory.
The Introit, Gradual, Tract, Offertory and Communion are all taken from Psalm 90. We have elsewhere spoken of the appropriateness of this beautiful psalm to the spirit of the Church during the season of Lent. It bids the Christian soul to confide in the divine aid. She is now devoting her whole energies to prayer; she is engaged in battle with her own and God’s enemies. She has need of support. Let her not be afraid, God tells her; she is under His protection as well as that of the holy angels. It was this passage that Satan attempted to abuse in his second temptation:
He shall cry to Me and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days. He that dwelleth in the aid of the Most High, shall abide under the protection of the God of Heaven... God hath given His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. In their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone...
In the Collect, the Church prays for Her children, that their fast may not only purify them, but also obtain for them that divine assistance, which will secure their salvation by enabling them to abound in good works:
O God, Who dost purify Thy Church by the yearly observance of Lent: grant to Thy family that what we try to obtain of Thee by abstinence, we may secure by good works. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ...
There follows a Lesson from the sixth chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians:
Brethren: We entreat you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says, "In an acceptable time I have heard thee, and in the day of salvation I have helped thee." Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation! We give no offense to anyone, that our ministry may not be blamed. On the contrary, let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God's ministers, in much patience; in tribulations, in hardships, in distresses; in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults; in labors, in sleepless night, in fastings; in innocence, in knowledge, in long-sufferings; in kindness, in the Holy Ghost, in unaffected love; in the word of truth, in the power of God; with the armor of justice on the right had and on the left; in honor and dishonor, in evil report and good report; as deceivers and yet truthful, as unknown and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as chastised but not killed; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing yet possessing all things.
These words of the Apostle give us a very different idea of the Christian life from that which our own tepidity suggests. We dare not say that he is wrong and we are right; but we put a strange interpretation upon his words, and we tell both ourselves and those around us that the advice he here gives is not to be taken literally nowadays, and that it was written for those special difficulties of the first age of the Church, when the faithful stood in need of unusual detachment and almost heroism, because they were always in danger of persecution and death. This interpretation is full of that discretion which meets with the applause of our cowardice, and it easily persuades us to be at rest, just as though we had no dangers to fear, and no battle to fight; whereas we have both; for there is the devil, the world, flesh and blood. The Church never forgets it; and hence, at the opening of this great season, She sends us into the desert, that there we may learn from our Jesus how we are to fight. Let us go; let us learn from the temptations of our Divine Master that the life of man upon earth is a warfare (Job 7: 1), and that, unless our fighting be truceless and brave, our life, which we would fain pass in peace, will witness our defeat. That such a misfortune may not befall us, the Church cries out to us, in the words of St. Paul: Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation! Let us, in all things, comport ourselves as the servants of God, and keep our ground unflinchingly to the end of our holy campaign. God is watching over us, as He did over His beloved Son in the desert.
The Holy Gospel is taken from the fourth chapter of St. Matthew:
At that time, Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, "If Thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread." But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Not by bread alone does man live, but by every words that comes forth from the mouth of God'." Then the devil took Him into the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If Thou art the Son of God, throw Thyself down; for it is written, 'He has given His angels charge concerning Thee; and upon their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest Thou dash Thy foot against a stone'." Jesus said to him, "It is written further, 'Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God'." Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. And he said to Him, "All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me." Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan, for it is written, 'The Lord thy God shalt thou worship and Him only shalt thou serve'." Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
Let us admire the exceeding goodness of the Son of God, Who, not satisfied with atoning for all our sins by dying on the Cross, deigns to suffer a fast of forty days and forty nights, in order to encourage us to do penance. He would not that the justice of His heavenly Father should exact any punishment from us, unless He Himself first suffered it, and that too, a thousand times more severely than we could. What are all our penances, even were they done thoroughly, when we compare them with the severity of this fast of Jesus in the desert? Can we dare to be ever asking for dispensations from the little which Our Lord asks of us in atonement for our sins, which deserve such rigorous penance? Instead of complaining at our feeling a slight inconvenience of a few days' duration, let us compassionate our innocent Jesus, Who subjects Himself to forty days of most rigorous privation of food and drink.
What was it that supported Him? Prayer, devotedness to us, and the knowledge of the exigencies of His Father's justice. And when the forty days were over, and His human Nature was faint from exhaustion, He is assailed by temptation; but here again He thinks of us, and sets us an example: He triumphs over the temptation, calmly and resolutely, and thereby teaches us how to conquer. How blasphemous the boldness of Satan, who dares to tempt the Just One! But how divine is the patience of Jesus, Who permits the hellish monster to lay his hand upon Him, and carry Him from place to place!
The Christian soul is oftentimes exposed to the vilest insults from this same enemy; nay, at times, she is on the point of complaining to her God, for permitting her to have such humiliations. Let her, on these occasions, think upon Jesus, the Saint of saints, Who was given over, so to speak, to the wicked spirit; and yet, He is not the less the Son of God, the Conqueror of Hell; and all that Satan gains by his attack is utter defeat. In the same way, if the soul, when under the violence of temptation, resists with all her energy, she is not one jot less dear to God, and Satan retires with one more eternal shame and chastisement upon him.
Let us take part with the holy angels, who, as soon as the tempter is gone, come to our Redeemer, and respectfully administer food to Him. How affectionately do they compassionate His hunger and thirst! How zealously they make amends, by their adorations, for the frightful outrage the charity of their God, Who, out of His love for man, seems to have been forgetting His own dignity, in order to provide for the wants of the children of Adam.
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