"Where is merciful God, where is He?' someone behind me was asking."
Elie Wiesel heard these words as he and other Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz watched the SS hang two men and a boy. The grown men died quickly, but "the child, too light, was still breathing." The boy lingered, "writhing before our eyes," for more than a half hour.
|First Sunday of Lent|
"Behind me, I heard the same man asking: 'For God's sake, where is God?'
"And from within me, I heard a voice answer: "Where He is? This is where -- hanging here from this gallows ..."
In this story from his book Night, Wiesel offers a glimpse into the horrifying experiences he, his family and 6 million Jews endured under the Nazi regime (Night, Hill and Wang, 2012).
However, within these sad, sad words, there is also an affirmation of God's love. God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to be one of us in all things but sin. Even in Auschwitz, God was there, embracing the boy, one in his suffering, one in his sorrow, but never condoning the sins perpetrated against him.
Paul (Philippians 2:7) celebrated the oneness of God with us in Christ, as did the author of Hebrews (4:15). This unity was affirmed at the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes) and is repeated in Eucharistic Prayer IV.
Today, and every first Sunday of Lent, we remember Jesus being one with us in every way but victoriously resistant to sin. Jesus' temptation, as told by Luke, illustrates the willingness of our Lord and Brother to experience the human condition on our terms so as to teach us how to rise up against evil in all its forms and to overcome it. "He overcame for us in order to overcome in us, so deeply did he share our humanity," writes Fr. James Tolhurst (Faith magazine, January-February 2010).
Near Jericho in modern-day Israel, one can observe the traditional Mount of Temptation. A monastery on the side of the mountain houses a tiny chapel in a cave. It is there that Jesus is said to have spent 40 days and nights fasting, praying and, no doubt, meditating on what lay ahead for him as he struggled to discern and obey God's will.
Luke's Gospel states that Jesus went into the desert according to the guidance of the Spirit. Whether he was on the mountain or in the desert, save for God and grace, Jesus was alone at the beginning of his battle with evil just as he would be at its climactic end on the cross.
As C. Milo Connick has pointed out in his excellent book Jesus the Man, the Mission, and the Message (Prentice Hall, 1974), it was a common concept among the Jews that a person of God should undergo a time of testing. God had led stalwarts such as Abraham, Moses, Job, Joseph and Daniel through their trials. We could add Joseph and Mary to their number, for they, too, were tested as God called them to accept and believe, even though tradition, cultural mores and common sense may have dictated otherwise.
These trials had led Abraham and the rest to unforeseen triumphs. Some of these are recounted by the Deuteronomist, who, in today's first reading, offers a "snapshot" summary of Israel's history as a people.
During Lent, this story will continue to be told, and in the telling, we are invited to regain our perspective. We remember our ancestral roots; we trace their ups and downs; we look inward and try to learn not to make the same mistakes; we remember all the while that humankind has never been alone. We repent; we are forgiven; we gratefully praise God.
In today's second reading, Paul -- in his correspondence with the several house churches in Rome -- reaffirms the constancy of God's mercy and nearness to every sinner without exception. We sinners, for our part, are to believe and confess: Jesus is Lord! Jesus is risen! Jesus, in his dying and in his rising, has saved us all!
As we plunge headlong and full of hope and confidence into yet another Lenten season, Charles H. Talbert urges us to compare the threefold temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:6 (the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and supposed to make one wise) and the temptations of Israel in the wilderness (food, false worship, testing -- see Psalm 106) with those of Jesus (Reading Luke, Crossroad, 1984).
In so doing, we realize that those of Jesus are antitypical; Jesus, as the new Adam, shows the way to victory. Through the power of the Spirit, Jesus has reversed Adam's fall and Israel's sin.
As the first of a new humanity and the leader of the faithful, Jesus in his temptation experience did not deplete his spiritual resources. He emerged with spiritual power ready to take on evil in all its manifestations. With the power of the same Holy Spirit, we can be ready to do likewise.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]