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FEBRUARY 21, 2010: FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Romans 10:8-13
Luke 4:1-13

Today’s combination of readings is fascinating. They take us into the heart of biblical faith. We’re provided the key to that heart in our first reading.

In teaching the Israelites the ritual for offering the yearly first fruits to Yahweh, Moses tell them what to say as they’re presenting the offerings. “My father (Jacob) was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt. . . And lived there as an alien. But there he became a nation great, strong and numerous.” So far, so good. As people of faith, Moses’ community is obligated to remember what Yahweh did for its ancestors. But then, almost out of nowhere, Moses changes pronouns. Instead of talking about “he and they” he states. “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried out to Yahweh, the God of our ancestors . . . .”

Jews who offer these sacrifices step into the history they’re narrating. They become one with their oppressed and liberated ancestors. These ancient events are now part of their own experiences. They’re not just watching a drama unfold on a stage; they’ve left their seats and have come up on the stage. What happened to them, happens to us.

The writings which make up our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were collected, saved, and read over and over again not because our ancestors in the faith were history buffs, but because they identified with those who first experienced these saving events.

Growing up in a pre-conciliar Catholic world, I was frequently taught an allegorical interpretation of the Eucharist. Somehow the priest’s actions mirrored the saving actions of Jesus. E.g. when he went up the altar steps we were to picture Jesus going up to Golgotha; when he slid the empty paten under the corporal, we were expected to reflect on Jesus’ hidden life in Nazareth. Because we lived centuries after these events, the priest had to reenact them for us.

The early church would never have tolerated such an explanation of the Eucharist. As we know from I Corinthians 11, Paul doesn’t teach that we’re to watch Jesus die again during the Lord’s Supper. Rather, the Apostle contends the celebration provides us an opportunity to actually die and rise with Jesus. He hints at this in our Romans passage. Speaking about being justified and saved, Paul states, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all. . . .” It takes a humongous death to become totally one with those who are different among us - especially during the Eucharist. But only by dying in that unifying way do Christians imitate the death of Jesus and at the same time join in his resurrection.

That’s why the Q document, from which both Matthew and Luke copied, expanded Mark’s generic wilderness temptation of Jesus into three specific temptations. How did the Q author know the exact temptations Jesus experienced? He or she simply looked around and noted the temptations the Christian community was experiencing. Because Jesus’ followers are one with him, their temptations are identical.

Like the historical Jesus, the Body of Christ is constantly drawn just to take care of people’s physical (bread) needs; to sell out to the demon of power and prestige; to be known for eye-catching feats.

Just as the historical Jesus chooses to go down the “road less traveled,” so we other Christs are expected to follow his path. Our daily deaths and resurrections are never to revolve around making ourselves important. We only truly imitate Jesus when we recognize the importance of others.

Today, of all days, we’re expected to ask, “Who among us is the most difficult to identify with?”