“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 4:1–13:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”

Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.

Earlier this week, a good friend asked me a question about Ash Wednesday that momentarily took me aback. She asked in total good faith about the readings that day and their potential conflict with the practice of having ashes placed in a cross on our foreheads. The reading came from Matthew 6, in Jesus’ instruction to remain humble in faith and joyful in practice, and the question has been on my heart ever since.

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” Jesus instructs the disciples. “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. … When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” Those who do that have already “received their reward” in the moment rather than in eternity, because that was their purpose all along — to impress others, rather than serve the Lord. Even when fasting, Jesus instructs His disciples to look festive in order to leave the sacrifice between themselves and God. “Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you,” He promises.

If that is so, do not our ashen crosses proclaim our piety? Actually, they proclaim exactly the opposite — the ash proclaims our sinfulness, and our mourning of it.

Lent is a season of mourning our sin in preparation for Holy Week and the celebration of the Passion. The ashes come from the burnt fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, the recognition of the celebration the Lord’s people provided Jesus on His entry into Jerusalem. In that instance, the people embraced Jesus but soon rejected Him when He did not meet their preconception of a Messiah. They did not want to be freed from sin, but rather made a mighty nation in worldly power.

So do we also when we embrace sin. We do not order our lives and form ourselves to salvation, but worldly power and pleasure. Unlike the people of Jerusalem, we know of the Lord’s salvation and can grasp its nature, but too often all of us cast the palm fronds to the ground and turn our back on the Lord.

The ashes, far from being a symbol of piety, actually symbolize our own individual and personal betrayal. The symbol of our welcoming of Jesus gets destroyed into ashes, and then placed on our forehead to remind us of our rejection of Him for sin. It is also a day of fasting, of penance, and reflection for the same reason. We mourn our sin so that we may recognize it and reject it more fully in the future.

Sin exerts a powerful force on us, and that temptation comes from our nature, whether one wants to call it “original sin” or not. The conclusion that “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” is generally credited to Reinhold Niebuhr, and our long history emphatically underscores its existence. This is, however, why the scene that unfolds in today’s Gospel is so remarkable.

Jesus goes to the desert, isolated from others and apparently also from the Lord, who allows the devil to tempt Jesus. The three temptations of Satan encompass all of the sins of men: avarice, power, and immortality — or equality with God. Despite Jesus’ state of distress, He rejects sin three times by referring back to the Lord’s commands to the Israelites in Deuteronomy. Rather than scheme to have His fill of food, Jesus reminds Satan in Deut 8:3 of God’s promise that “man does not live on bread alone,” and that He will provide for those who love and obey Him. When tempted by worldly power, Jesus responds by committing Himself to serving God (Deut 6:13). And when Satan demands that Jesus cast Himself onto the stones to prove His divinity, Jesus rebukes him with Deut 6:16 — “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

These temptations answer and redeem the previous great sins of men. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree when tempted to make themselves equal to God. The Israelites repeatedly tested the Lord, including at Massah, when they nearly put Moses to death before God allowed Moses to bring water forth. Similarly, when Israelites revolted for lack of sustenance, the Lord brought forth manna in the desert to remind them to be faithful.

Jesus came to us with a fully human nature to reject sin and to lead the way to salvation. He urged all of humanity to repent of sin and break out of their selfish natures to embrace all as children of God. That propensity toward sin isolates us from each other and distances us from God just as surely as the singular act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden did. The only remedy for that is recognition of our sinful nature, mourning it, and repenting of our rejection of the Lord. The ashes do not recognize our piety, but our understanding of the distance we have from it, and Lent gives us a season to form ourselves toward salvation in order to live eternally in the fullness of joy with our Father.

The front-page image is “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain,” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, circa 1308-1311.