FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT – YEAR C
When I was in grammar school, we took standardized tests each year, and we wrote the answers to the questions on special examination booklets issued by the Diocesan Schools’ Office. At the bottom of the last page of the booklet came a rather long statement to the effect that we had come by our answers honestly, without any form of cheating. Before we handed in our answer booklets, we had to write beneath that statement the words, “I do so declare,” and then sign our name. In doing so, we were taking a solemn pledge on which we staked our honor and reputation.
“I do so declare.” If the liturgy for this First Sunday of Lent were to have a slogan, that would be it. “I do so declare.” Because the readings today introduce us to people who make, or are urged to take that pledge, “I do so declare.”
Before the children of Israel cross over the Jordan River to take possession of the land flowing with milk and honey that God is giving them at the end of their forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses decrees a ceremony that is to be an annual observance. “The priest shall receive the basket from you and shall set it in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare…” The declaration has two parts. Number 1: I belong to the people God has chosen as his own, the people he has rescued from slavery in Egypt. Number 2: I have fulfilled my obligation to contribute the first fruits of the produce of the soil.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul teaches us that making a public confession of the faith that comes from our hearts brings justification and salvation. “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” And anyone can join God’s chosen people using this relatively simple procedure. Paul boldly declares, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
In the familiar Gospel story Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the desert, Jesus meets the devil’s three-fold temptation scheme with a triple declaration. In response to each challenge, our Lord says in effect, “I do so declare.” To the tempter’s suggestion that Jesus miraculously satisfy his own cravings Jesus declares that we need more than this world can offer; we have a spiritual hunger that can be meet only with spiritual food. “One does not live by bread alone.” The two other accounts continue the biblical quotation to conclude, “but by every word that come forth from the mouth of God.” In other words, you can have everything that this world offers: wealth, sexual liaisons, celebrity status; but if you do not have a vital relationship with God, nothing else will satisfy you.
Speaking of celebrity status and power, the devil wants to harp on that point, and so the second temptation to sell his soul in order to receive power and glory. That is an old temptation, the Faustian temptation to sell your soul to the devil, and it has given rise to many popular tales, including “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Well known, too, is Jesus riposte: the declaration-in-the-form-of-a-question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Then the temptation that will test Jesus to the limit. The devil suggests a parlor trick, but the people beneath the cross will suggest the real thing, “Come down from the cross. If you are God’s Son, let him rescue you now.” But on Calvary no less than in the desert Jesus makes the supreme declaration of faith and trust in the Father, “Father, not my will but yours be done. Into your hands I confidently commit my spirit.”
This morning as we began Mass, Lisbeth, a student in our Faith Formation Program, made a triple declaration that echoed those in the Scriptures. She declared that she wishes to become a member of God’s holy, chosen people. She declared that she believes in Jesus the Son of God, that she trusts God’s love and fidelity enough to request to be received into the Church and reborn in Jesus through the Sacrament of Baptism. And we pray with and for Lisbeth today, as we will throughout the remainder of Lent until she come to the baptismal font at the Easter Vigil next month.
Last Wednesday most of us made a declaration. By coming forward to have our foreheads marked with ashes we, in effect, confessed, “I do so declare that I am a sinner in need of God’s mercy.” But, by that very act, we also declared that we belong to God’s chosen, beloved people. At Easter, we will renew our baptismal vows, confessing anew our faith in Jesus Christ and his power over human sinfulness and mortality. May the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert and sustained him through his wrestling with the devil be with us to strengthen us and to prepare us to come together with Lisbeth and all our brothers and sisters to say, “God has renewed me in his love, reenergized me for the service of his Kingdom, made me glorious in his sight. This I do so declare.”