Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the liturgical time of Lent, forty days that prepare us for the celebration of Holy Easter. It is a time of particular commitment on our spiritual journey. The number forty occurs several times in Scripture. In particular, it recalls the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert: a long period of formation to become the people of God, but also a long period in which the temptation to be unfaithful to the covenant with the Lord was always present. Forty is also the number of days it took the prophet Elijah to reach the Mountain of God, Horeb, as well as the days that Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public life and where he was tempted by the devil. In this Catechesis I would like to reflect on precisely this moment of the earthly life of the Son of God, which we will read in this Sunday’s Gospel.
First of all, the desert, where Jesus withdraws, is a place of silence, of poverty, where man is deprived of all material support and is faced with the fundamental questions of life, he is prompted to examine that which is most essential, and hence it is easier to meet God. But the desert is also a place of death, because where there is no water there is no life, and it is a place of solitude, where man feels temptation more intensely. Jesus goes into the desert, and there undergoes the temptation to leave the path indicated by God the Father, to follow other, easier and worldly paths (cf. Lk 4:1-13). And so he bears our temptations, takes upon himself our misery, to defeat the Evil one and open us to the way towards God, the way of conversion.
Reflecting on the temptations undergone by Jesus in the desert is an invitation for each of us to answer a fundamental question: what is truly important in our lives?
In the first temptation the devil suggests that Jesus turn a stone into bread to satisfy his hunger. Jesus replies that man also lives from bread, but not by bread alone: without an answer to his hunger for truth, hunger for God, man cannot be saved (cf. vv. 3-4). In the second temptation, the devil offers Jesus the way of power: he leads him on high and offers him dominion over the world, but this is not the way of God: Jesus knows clearly that it is not worldly power that saves the world, but the power of the Cross, of humility, of love (cf. vv. 5-8). In the third temptation, the devil proposes that Jesus throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple of Jerusalem and make God save him through His angels, that is, to do something sensational to test God; but Jesus answers that God is not someone upon whom we may impose our conditions: He is the Lord of all (cf. vv. 9-12). What is the crux of the three temptations that Jesus undergoes? It is the proposal to manipulate God, to use Him for one’s own interests, for one’s own glory and success. And, in essence, to put oneself in the place of God, removing Him from one’s life and making Him seem superfluous. Everyone should then ask himself: what is God’s role in my life? Is He is the Lord or am I?
Overcoming the temptation to place God beneath oneself and one’s own interests or to place Him in a corner and to convert to the proper ordering of priorities, to give God the first place, is a journey that every Christian must undertake. “Conversion”, an invitation that we will hear many times in Lent, means to follow Jesus in such a way that his Gospel is a real guide for life; it means letting God transform us, to stop thinking that we are the only creators of our lives; it means recognizing that we are creatures who depend on God, on His love, and only by “losing” our life in Him can we gain it. This requires making our choices in the light of the Word of God. Today one can no longer be Christian as a simple consequence of living in a society with Christian roots: even those who come from Christian families, and are brought up religiously must renew every day the choice to be Christian, that is, to give God the first place, in front of the temptations that a secularized culture presents us with all the time, before the criticism of many of our contemporaries.
The tests to which modern society subjects Christians, indeed, are many, and affect both personal and social life. It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, to practice mercy in everyday life, to leave space for prayer and inner silence, it is not easy to publicly oppose choices that many consider obvious, such as abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia in the case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation to set aside one’s faith is always present and conversion becomes a response to God which must be confirmed repeatedly in life.
There are, as an example and stimulus, the great conversions such as that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or of St. Augustine, but also in our time of eclipses of the sense of the sacred, God’s grace is at work and works wonders in the lives of many people. The Lord never gets tired of knocking at the door of man in social and cultural contexts that seem swallowed up by secularization, as occurred with the Russian Orthodox Pavel Florensky. After a completely agnostic upbringing, to the point that he felt outright hostility to the religious teachings taught in school, the scientist Florensky found himself exclaiming: “No, one cannot live without God!”, and changed his life completely, so much so that he became a monk.
I also have in mind the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch girl of Jewish origin who would die in Auschwitz. Initially far from God, she discovered Him by looking deep within herself and wrote: “There is a very deep well inside me. And God is in that well. Sometimes I manage to reach Him, more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then God must be dug out again”(Diary, 97). In her scattered and restless life, she found God right in the midst of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah. This young fragile and dissatisfied girl, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace, able to say: “I live in constant intimacy with God.”
The ability to oppose the ideological blandishments of her time, to choose the search for truth and open herself to the discovery of faith is evidenced by another woman of our time, the American Dorothy Day. In her autobiography, she confesses openly that she fell in the temptation to solve everything with politics, adhering to the Marxist cause: she writes: “I wanted to go off with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dream to the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!” The journey of faith in so secularized an environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts all the same, as she herself points out: “It is certain that I felt more and more often the need to go to church, to kneel down, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I inserted myself into the atmosphere of prayer…”. God led her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a life dedicated to the underprivileged.
In our time there is no small number of conversions understood as the return of those who, after perhaps a superficial Christian upbringing, have fallen away from the faith for years and later rediscover Christ and His Gospel. In the Book of Revelation we read: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me “(3:20). Our inner man must prepare itself to be visited by God, and precisely for this reason should not let itself be invaded by illusions, by appearances, by material things.
In this time of Lent, in the Year of Faith, we renew our commitment on the way of conversion, to overcome the tendency to close in on ourselves and to make room for God instead, looking at our daily reality through His eyes. We might say that the choice between closing in on our egoism and opening to the love of God and others, corresponds to the alternatives in Jesus’ tempations: the choice, that is, between human power and love of the Cross, between a redemption viewed solely as material well-being and redemption as the work of God, to whom we give the first place in life. Conversion means not closing in on oneself in the pursuit of one’s own success, one’s own prestige, one’s own position, but making sure that every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become the most important thing. Thank you!