“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” (Genesis 9:9-10)
In his message for Lent, our Holy Father, Pope Francis describes lent as a time for “renewing faith, hope and love.” This message titled “Behold we are going up to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:18)” shows us how we can apply fasting, prayer and almsgiving to bring about “lives of sincere faith, living hope and effective charity.” For Pope Francis, Lent is a journey; a pilgrimage which culminates at the Easter Vigil during which by the power of the Holy Spirit, we become new men and women as we renew our baptismal promises.
As we begin this wonderful journey of Lent, our readings so beautifully return us to the basic foundations of our Christian Faith. Why are we Christians? What is even our business with God? Why must we strive to avoid sin despite the temptations we face daily? In the course of reflection on today’s readings, we shall examine the answers to these questions and the lessons they present for our lives today.
1. Our Relationship with God is based on a Covenant Agreement.
According to the Easton Bible Dictionary, the word covenant “a contract or agreement between two parties. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for covenant is “berith” derived from a root which means “to cut,” and hence a covenant is a “cutting,” with reference to the cutting or dividing of animals into two parts, and the contracting parties passing between them.” (Read more in Genesis 15, Jeremiah 34:18-19). Given that a covenant meant the cutting of animals, it usually implied the shedding of blood.
In those days, it was customary for individuals or nations to enter into covenants. For instance, if a nation defeats another in battle, there would be a covenant wherein the bigger nation would state in clear terms their expectation of the defeated nation alongside the blessings (benefits that the smaller nation would get) and curses (what would happen if the smaller nation fails to comply).
As we read in today’s first reading, when God entered into a covenant with Noah, God solemnly promised that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. And a sign of this covenant is the rainbow. This covenant was the first and indeed the foundation of several covenants God would make with man; the ultimate covenant we know is that of Christ. Taking the cup at the Last Supper, Jesus said: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20, Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24). Each time we receive Holy Communion, we are re-enacting this blood covenant between ourselves and God.
2. Sin is a Breach of Contract, a Violation of our Covenant Agreement.
If our relationship with God is a covenant, it means that we are not free to do whatever we like. As long as we are enjoying the blessings from God for being part of that covenant, we must bear in mind that there are serious consequences for failing to live by the principles of the covenant.
For instance, in Jeremiah 34:18, God said: “And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts.” This teaches us that sin is a very serious matter and as such, we must do all in our power to battle against temptations. No wonder Jesus stated: “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 18:8).
If we truly consider what we stand to gain by our obedience and what lose by breaching our covenant agreement with God, we would resist all temptations even to the point of shedding our blood. (Cf. Hebrews 12:4). In the Collect of today’s Mass we prayed: “that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.” There are hidden riches contained in our covenant terms, riches far beyond what this world has to offer.
3. Lent Provides us with the Tools of Fighting Temptations.
In today’s Gospel passage, we are presented with Mark’s version of the temptations of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not present the fine details of the struggles of Jesus; the fact that Jesus was hungry when the devil tempted Him with food, the fact that the devil showed Jesus all the beauty of the world’s riches asking Him to bow in exchange, the fact that the devil asked Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple or the fact the devil was quoting from the Bible.
The three temptations of Jesus correspond to the three temptations Adam and Eve succumbed to in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:6 we read: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” St. John describes these temptations as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (Cf. 1 John 2:16). These three temptations can be overcome with fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
As the Pope Francis states in his Lenten message: “Fasting, prayer and almsgiving, as preached by Jesus (cf. Mt 6:1-18), enable and express our conversion. The path of poverty and self-denial (fasting), concern and loving care for the poor (almsgiving), and childlike dialogue with the Father (prayer) make it possible for us to live lives of sincere faith, living hope and effective charity.”
While Mark does not give us so much detail, he mentions the fact that “angels ministered to Jesus.” When we face temptations, we must never forget to call for help from above. In every temptation, there are angels at your side waiting to celebrate when you say “no” to the devil. Call them to help you; never trust in your own strength. To win the battle against sin, prayer is non-negotiable. Jesus said: “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:4)
4. Repent from sin, Return to God and Renew Your Covenant Agreement.
Have you been away from home like the prodigal son? Are things no longer working for you? Then it is time follow the words of Jesus in our Gospel passage: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). No matter what your past has been, you can begin anew. Today is your last chance. Today is the day you repent, return and renew your covenant with God. Today is the day that you examine your conscience and introspect on how well you have been living your baptismal commitments.
When the prodigal son repented from his foolishness, he decided to return to this Father. He was on the verge of making a different covenant with his father (he wanted to be treated as a slave to his father) but to his surprise, his father restored him to his former glory. God is waiting for you! He wants to restore you to glory.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, free me from my attachment to sin. May I be conscious of my covenant agreement with you and strengthen my resolve to fight temptations that I face every day. Amen.
Genesis 9:8-15, Psalm 25, 1st Peter 3:18-22 and Mark 9:2-13).