If you stand on the ruins of ancient Jericho, sometimes called the oldest city in the world, on the outskirts of modern Jericho and looked due West back in the direction of the Jerusalem road, you see a rugged cliff phase which the locals call in Arabic Jebel Qarantal. It means the 40-day mountain. This is the site of a monastery going back to the 3rd century whose later ruins still stand. Early Christian piety had to locate everything described in the gospels, even when the evangelists did not provide sufficient clues. The temptation narrative in today’s gospel is completely elusive geographically speaking. It describes a series of three visions — not in historical order but in the realm of prophetic fulfillment. Israel in its wanderings on the Sinai Peninsula was tempted sorely, and in three ways: over food — that is, having enough to eat; over idolatry — believing in the Lord or the gods of the peoples they encountered; and over basic trust – would their God see them through safely or not? An early Christian hand took what is a brief statement in Mark that Jesus was tested in the desert by Satan for 40 days (1: 13) and drew it up into a scenario that Matthew and Luke both drew on. In Luke’s contrast between Jesus and his people of old, Jesus succeeded in the tests where they had failed. The man of Nazareth quoted from Deuteronomy twice in response to Satan’s attempts to make him doubt God’s power. A third time, the devil quoted scripture to his own purpose, as the proverb puts it. Jesus came back at Satan’s misuse of two verses from a psalm (91) by saying you shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16).
It is clear why we use this passage from Luke as today’s gospel reading. Lent probably began on this Sunday before they added the first four days to make it a season of 40 weekdays. It got its start as the final preparation time for the new adult candidates for baptism; their last weeks were a series of testings, even as their whole post-baptism life would be a life of challenge. In gospel times Jesus prevailed over humanity’s ancient enemy, the devil. Would these converts-to-be — exorcised of Satan’s baleful power in a series of scrutinies as they were called — likewise stand fast? The spirit of the scripture readings on all the Lenten Sundays is one of readying for a test, entry into a new state, professing a faith publicly. Watch for it as we proceed from week to week.
It would be so much easier to understand Lent if we were a small, cohesive community witnessing the entry into our midst of certain adults, certain families, whom we all knew. We are accustomed to whole generations being Christians. We rarely encounter converts. It came to be that way in Europe after the year 1000. By then, everyone was a Christian of some degree. All the baptisms were done in infancy. And with that development the whole focus of Lent changed. It shifted away from the conversion and faith of new believers to become a churchwide attempt to recapture the fervour of early youth. Penitential practices like fasting were adopted, there was almsgiving, and attempts were made to expand preaching of the Bible to non-literate congregations. Alas, it was not easy to recall what Lent had been about! For the very people around whom all the activity had centred — the new believers repenting their past sins and eager to learn and to do — were missing. That is roughly our condition. Across many churches, however, there is a restoration of the ancient practice which carried people along in instruction and Christian living — over a year or more — until just before Lent. These people are as catechumens (from the Greek “being instructed”) and the last six weeks of intense preparation preparation begins. We have to have these people in mind wherever they are, all through Lent: they are the never baptized or those Christians in name only who wish to become so in fact. They do not proliferate in our midst for a number of reasons: one is that we’re intensely private about our religion. Again, we may not be convinced that being Christian would bring them joy so why trouble them? Most tragic of all, it is hard to find genuine Christian communities to invite them to. The symbol of all this is the infrequency with which the faith in our hearts becomes confessional on our lips.
The apostle Paul writes to the Romans as if nothing else but this evangelization can constantly be going on. The word is near to us, he says, near to all of us. One need not scale the heavens to find it or across the distant sea. It is as close to us as our very hearts or can be. The way to discover whether that is so as to confess it with our lips. “Jesus is Lord” is the simplest and probably the earliest Christian creed. If we believe that “Jesus is Lord”, our basic baptismal creed then we will want to proclaim it, share it with all the world. It is no empty phrase, no mindless sloganeering. It is a truth filled with consequences. If Jesus is Lord, there is no aspect of our lives, no portion of our day that escapes his lordship. Jesus is no Big Brother as in George Orwell’s novel 1984, a cosmic spy on all we do; he is not a shouting evangelical who expects us to rattle on in his praise 24 hours a day. Jesus is the love that bonds us together, the mutual respect that allows us to despise no one, especially societies least members, the reason why unconcern for peace or justice for all is not allowed us. To say “Jesus is Lord” and mean it is to begin to live life differently; to know that letting vicious, anti-human settlements continue is all wrong for the believer who may not sanction them for a moment.
Being a Christian, is not to live in an earthly paradise. But it is knowing who and what you are as a member of the baptized, a person sealed with the Spirit. God’s mark is on our forehead like a brand. We are forever, irrevocably, irreversibly his own. It is a blessed fate, not an indifferent or a tragic one. We are God’s people, the sheep of his flock. We have a six week opportunity to reflect on the glory of being Christian in a worldwide communion — and to share the word with anyone who will give us a hearing.