Archbishop Lucas: Starting Lent with the Gospel of Luke
In this week’s interview, communications manager David Hazen asks Archbishop George J. Lucas to explore the Gospel readings from Luke for the first two Sundays of Lent as a way of helping us to immerse ourselves in the liturgical season.
Q: In the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, we heard about Christ being led into the desert. This is a very provocative episode in the Gospel: Jesus contends directly with the devil. How do you see this passage as it applies to us believers today?
First, the fact that he is tempted is noteworthy. Jesus is without sin, but not without temptation. I find that very encouraging, because he immersed himself in our human experience without giving in to the temptations to be selfish or self-indulgent.
As we continue our own Lenten journey, this time of prayer and self-denial, we do so both in imitation of Jesus and in union with him. Our temptations might not be as stark and severe as Jesus faced, but we can take courage and strength from the fact that we’re uniting all this with the Lord himself, with his own experience.
Jesus came to the world to fulfill the mission given to him by the Father, and his delight is to do the Father’s will. We see the temptations as an attempt to attract him away from that. He has come among us to give his life for us, to give himself completely for our redemption.
The devil then presents him with these opportunities to be just a little less wholehearted about his mission, to cut corners, to make things a bit more comfortable for himself. The temptations are cleverly constructed so that it seems the result of giving in really won’t be so bad. The devil says, in effect, “You’re the Son of God, why not just take advantage of your prerogatives?”
The temptation given to Jesus is to push the Father out of the way for a moment. And Jesus refuses to do it, choosing the will of the Father over the will of the devil. He doesn’t defeat the devil through a display of might, but by choosing the will of the Father. The devil is banished at the end because he was not getting anywhere.
The choice and the freedom to follow the will of the Father makes Jesus unique as the Son of God. But it also sets the pattern for us as God’s sons and daughters, to understand what freedom is for, and how powerful it is for causing ourselves harm, but also in banishing the devil.
Q: During these 40 days, how can we develop the sort of freedom you describe, the freedom demonstrated by Jesus?
At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus recognized and accepted his identity as the Son of his beloved Father. He chose to conform his will to the will of the Father for our salvation. We can look at Lent as an opportunity to exercise our free will in this way. We strive to choose things that are good and helpful, and to deny the things that are harmful to us – and even things that are more morally neutral – as a way of exercising the will. This way, when we need it for something serious, we know what it means to be able to be free, and to choose the right thing even in a challenging situation.
We’re invited during this season to the traditional practices of prayer and self-denial and almsgiving. All of these really involve a choice.
In prayer we choose to give time to God, to carve out space and acknowledge that God is God. But we don’t just want to stumble into prayer; we take part in it actively, whether in liturgical prayer or our own private prayer (both are important).
We give that time and that acknowledgement to God in our penitential practices, giving up things that aren’t necessarily bad in themselves (coffee, TV, chocolate, what-have-you) as a way of practicing real freedom. Are we really conscious of how we use our time and how we make our choices?
Our freedom is also at play when we recognize that there are those around us who are in need, and we choose to go out of ourselves to assist them. It is the commission of Jesus to be concerned about our neighbors, but there is no compulsion there. We need to learn to recognize the other, and then to reach out in some way. It really is a celebration and an exercise of our freedom. And as this Gospel reminds us, that is where the devil likes to attack us: to encourage us to choose something that is not of God, to choose something that’s self-indulgent, and to make excuses for it both before and after the choice.
Q: On the second Sunday of Lent, the Church offers us the narrative of the Transfiguration. How should we understand this scene? Why is it important for our Lenten journey?
Jesus’ glory as the Son of God is revealed briefly for those disciples. For Jesus it must have been a beautiful experience of his closeness to the Father. We can’t understand completely how that relationship existed as he was here on earth, during his public ministry, but it was a great moment for him. He wanted to share it with those close to him. We normally think that this is going to be an encouragement to them, and to Jesus himself, we presume, as he’s getting ready to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. We have this preview of what this is all going to lead to in the end, that there is a glory that can’t be extinguished, ultimately, and the life and the power of Jesus as the Son of God, that can’t be extinguished, even though he offers it up, lays it down.
The disciples could not quite take this all in, as is clear from Peter’s reaction. It would have been very exciting and consoling for them, and would have looked like the time of fulfillment which they had been waiting for.
They were told to listen. Jesus’ identity is affirmed for them, and it’s an affirmation that his humility, his self-denial, his willingness to go to Jerusalem and to embrace the cross, is not a contradiction to his identity as the Son of God. That is somehow mysteriously consistent with the glorious manifestation that they saw there.
Q: It’s striking that they were rendered silent, and that they did not tell anyone else about this experience until after Jesus’ Resurrection.
Yes, this is somewhat typical of all of us on our spiritual journey: If we are prayerful and reflective at all, we come to those moments when things suddenly seem to fit together, when we have the grace, the light and the experience to understand events that previously confused us.
Now, looking back, we can talk about Jesus being enthroned on the cross – his crown of thorns is a crown of suffering, but also a crown of glory. We see the whole picture, and we see that the crucified Jesus and the glorified Jesus are the same Jesus. Applying this to our Lenten journey, a time of recognition of our sins and the need for God’s mercy, we see that a few weeks of humility and self-denial are not inconsistent with the joy of being redeemed by Jesus and being his disciple.
In imitation of Jesus and in union with him now as a member of his living body, we see that the penance, the self-denial, the humility, the glory, the joy and the fulfillment are all part of the same experience, and we experience it in our persons as Jesus himself has done.