First Sunday of Lent • Year C

Francis J, Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Dt 26:4-10
Rom 10:8-13
Ps 91:1-2, 10-15
Lk 4:1-13

Some years back, I performed a baptism in southern Maryland for some friends in the Air Force, in a beautiful, old church overlooking a bay. Afterwards, the godparents took us all out for lunch in a town called La Plata. In addition to the five adults, there were three small children, ages eight, seven, and five.

Our waitress was very friendly, but obviously not experienced. She made a rookie mistake: She brought out the food for two of the children first, and then disappeared for five minutes. The mother of these two children tried to restrain them, saying, “No, don’t eat yet, wait until we all have our food. Be polite!” But politeness was not popular, as the five-year-old girl had a juicy hot dog sitting in front of her, and the eight-year-old boy was gazing hungrily at his plate of macaroni and cheese.

Finally, the rest of the meal arrived, and the children swooped down like hawks onto their plates. But they were frustrated yet again, as their mother said, “Wait! We have to say grace first.” The eight-year-old boy, Ethan, clearly at the end of his patience, cried out, “We don’t have to say grace! It’s lunch!”

His embarrassed mother leaned over to me and said, “As you can see, we’re obviously doing a crackerjack job of raising the children.”

All of us fall into Ethan’s way of thinking. We don’t say grace at breakfast, because it’s busy, with people sitting down and getting up at different times, the newspaper rustling, perhaps the t.v. blaring. We don’t say grace at lunch because…well, because we don’t: we weren’t raised that way, or we are eating on the run, rushing between appointments or working at our desks. And, of course, we don’t say grace in public, at a restaurant. It will make the other people at the table uncomfortable. Strangers will see us praying.

All of us fall prey to a pattern of partial praise. Even though we proclaim God to be Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible, even though every bit of food we have comes from God, we give Him thanks for only some of His gifts, for only a portion of what we receive from His hands.

And so we come to another Lent, another opportunity to make an end of ingratitude and recall how much we have to be grateful for, and Who it is we must thank constantly, daily, hourly.

In today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands that a farmer must thank God for the fruits of his fields by bringing an offering to the altar of the Lord. But why? Why thank God? God did not sweat to clear the fields, did not strain muscles digging up rocks and stones, did not bend His shoulder to the plow, or His back to the harvest. Why thank God for what the farmer’s hard work accomplished? Moses gives a simple, irrefutable answer: God delivered Israel from slavery and brought her to this land. There’s no point telling God that you’ve done all the work when He provided freedom, field, rain, and sun. Every corner of this world is God’s creation. And so the farmer makes his offering and prays, I have now brought you the firstfruits of the products of the soil which you, O LORD, have given me.

This doesn’t mean that the food is not a result of the farmer’s hard work. God does not drop the food into his lap. He has to work hard. But it comes from God, all the same. It is God’s gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil (Ecclesiastes 13:3). This is how we approach every good thing. Children come from both their parents and from God. Every new dawn comes from both the turning of the earth and from God. Physical health comes from good food and exercise and medical care and from God. By offering first fruits to the Lord, the farmer is called upon to remember the truth which he so easily forgets in the midst of his hard work: It all comes from God. The land is a gift, which the farmer works hard to unwrap. The earth is a favor which the farmer works hard to receive. His health is an alms from the Lord, and the farmer treasures it and cares for himself. But if he doesn’t offer thanks, he will forget. He will begin to think that when he brings the firstfruits of the land to the altar of the Lord, he is giving God a tip, offering the Lord a “cut” of the profits. If he doesn’t praise the Lord, he will begin to treat a gift as a right, a blessing from God as a personal accomplishment, a sign of the Lord’s favor as a mark of his own importance.

This is just how the devil tempts Jesus. Behind all the temptations – food, power, a mighty show of angels – there is one core temptation: pride. The devil says to Christ, “Why wait to receive bread at the proper time? Make it for yourself! Why wait for your Father to give you dominion over all the earth? Take it for yourself, right now! Why wait for God to show His love for you? Force God’s hand, make Him prove it right now.”

Jesus is hungry, tired, and lonely after forty days in the desert. He is tempted by Satan to treat as a right what is always a grace. Satan says, “Demand! Insist! Take! Grab!” Satan never says, “Give thanks!”

Jesus does not fail. He puts his trust in God alone. Jesus shows himself to be a man of undivided loyalty. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, waits to receive, and then gives thanks. Recall what we hear at every Mass: On the night before he died, Jesus took bread and gave the Father thanks. He took the chalice and gave the Father thanks.

And so we come to another Lent. Why do we give things up in Lent? So that a small denial, a freely sacrificed dessert or glass of beer, may remind us of the source of everything we have been given during the rest of the year, everything we have too easily taken for granted. Why do we strive to pray more, to come to confession, to set aside some money for the poor? Because all of these give God praise. All of these free acts of penance and charity are the sacrifice which pleases God, because they acknowledge Him as Lord by fulfilling His commandment of love.

Saying grace is not just for dinner. Indeed, saying grace is not just for food. This Lent, we are reminded again that saying grace is a way of life, the Christian way of life. Every time we thank God, the image of Jesus Christ, the man of constant thanks, grows clearer. Every time we thank God, we weaken the power of Satan in our lives.