Homily for Mass for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year B

18 Feb 2024

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 18 February 2024

Whether it’s ads on TV or your smartphone, flyers in doctors’ surgeries, billboards at railway stations, everywhere we look, we’re challenged to “torch, tone and transform”—torch the fat, tone the muscles, transform our fitness. There are workouts designed for your particular body-shape and goals, dietary exclusions and supplements, lifestyle fixes, coaching and motivational techniques, all packaged in a time-specified challenge format. Depending on how daring and determined you are, you can go for a “transformation” challenge as short as 28 days or as long as 100. But in the end, if you stick to it, you are promised weight loss, muscle gain, improved cardiovascular health, better looks and a better life…

Why is the “transformation challenge” all the rage? Much of it is human psychology. We are more likely to tough something out, even if it’s quite difficult, if there’s a foreseen endpoint: the voice in our head saying “only 13 more days to go” can be the difference between persevering and giving up. We are also sustained by others: if they, too, face the first-world struggle with obesity and unfitness, having their company on the road to recovery is cheering. Then there’s the competitive element: knowing you’ve achieved a personal best or beaten others, and kicked an unhealthy habit that others are still indulging, brings a sense of accomplishment and the confidence to keep pressing on. Whatever pushes our buttons, the transformation challenge reminds us that the quick and easy fix is usually too good to be true, results require perseverance over time, but transformation is possible.

There are parallels for our spiritual life in the Church’s 40-day transformation challenge called Lent. Just as we can’t expect to achieve lasting physical effects without putting time and effort into practices proven to work, so we can’t think our friendship with God will be sustained if we ignore Him most of the time, that our relationship with others will improve if we fail in generosity towards them, or that our attitude to ourselves will benefit from indulging our every desire. The spiritual life, as much as the physical, requires discipline and accountability, trust and perseverance in the process.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus Himself takes up the Lenten Transformation Challenge (Mk 1:12-15). Mark’s account is very spare: we must read the other Gospels for more detail (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13). But Mark makes it clear it was gruelling. Not because of arduous weight training, diet or early morning sprints, not even because of the elements and wild beasts. It was something far more taxing: for forty days, Jesus experienced no-holds-barred spiritual combat with Satan the Tempter; all the lies that Sin proclaims as true; every trick in the Accuser’s book to separate us from God, fellows, our best selves.

Why did Christ expose Himself to this trial? As Son of the Most High God, the Logos from all eternity, Christ had been in contest with the Evil One ever since the fall of the angels, and the result was never in question. So why now the spiritual boot camp? Some say that, like His baptism, it was play-acting, to give us an example. Since no-one was there to see it, Jesus must have taught His disciples about it later. He wanted them to know He’d experienced temptation and so was like them in every important respect (Heb 14:14ff). There is a valuable lesson here about humility: that none of us is beyond spiritual challenge; if even Christ was tempted and slandered by the Devil, we will know craving and calumny too. There’s a lesson here also in perseverance: that our struggles may be many and long, but that if we persist, we can overcome by God’s grace. And there’s a lesson in resignation: by letting Himself be led into the wilderness, Jesus displayed the resignation to doing the Father’s will that would mark of His whole life and must mark ours also. There are many lessons for us in Jesus’ response.

But we’d be wrong to think that, like a diet and gym regime, it ultimately all depends on us. Catholics sometimes talk as if they could save themselves by good deeds like prayer, fasting and charity. We can’t. Even Jesus didn’t go it alone. Immediately before His Lent, Jesus was baptised—a mirror image of our beloved catechumens whose Lent precedes their Baptism. Baptised by John, He heard the Father declare Him “my beloved Son”, and saw the Spirit descend on Him (Mk 1:9-11), before it accompanied Him into the wilderness, where angels attended Him as well.

Like Jesus, when we enter the spiritual gym in Lent, we don’t go it alone. We pray, fast and give, not to prove our spiritual self-sufficiency, but in tribute to our radical dependence. Lent’s first Gospel, last Wednesday, warned us against parading our piety out of pride or to win people’s regard: “by doing this,” Jesus said, “you lose all reward from your heavenly Father” (Mt 6:1-6,16-18). Instead of a “look at me, look at me” exercise, we must come to the Father humbly in prayer, asking Him to protect us from temptation and evil. Knowing our weakness and failings, we must deny the fat of our egos, letting God build virtue muscles in us against spiritual pride. We must help others, too, lest we imagine anyone is self-sufficient, seeking to bring God’s saving word and healing sacraments to others, as Jesus did immediately after His Baptism and Lent.

The proponents of the fitness challenges claim that when we’ve completed them we’ll be so habituated to our new life, and so proud of the results, that we’ll maintain the healthy lifestyle into the future. I think that’s unlikely. Certainly, we must embrace the Forty Day Lenten Transformation Challenge with a view to being transformed into permanent pray-ers, self-deniers and givers. But the Church is realistic enough about human nature to bring back that spiritual challenge every year—for many of us are backsliders and may even be more spiritually flabby as this Lent begins than we were last year.

Entering again and again, with Christ, into the spiritual combat, makes us active participants with Him in the mystery of salvation. In Lent we ready ourselves to renew our Eastering in Baptism by renewing our promises on Resurrection Day. In Baptism we pass through the flood that washed away sin and enter into God’s new covenant (Gen 9:8-15; 1Pet 3:18-22). Then, with Jesus, we are thrust back into the Galilee of this world with its opportunities and challenges, temptations and graces. God’s kingdom has come, God’s will is being done, on earth as it is in heaven. So repent and believe the Good News! (Mk 1:15)

Introduction to Mass for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year B – St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 18 February 2024

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the First Sunday of Lent. In this season of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, we journey with Christ to Calvary so as to share in the fruits of His life-giving Passion, Death and Resurrection.

I acknowledge concelebrating with me Fr Roberto Keryakos.

To everyone here today, regulars and those visiting, a very warm welcome to you all.