Seeing people walk around with big black marks on their forehead makes you wonder if they belong to some kind of a cult. However, for those in the know realize that sometime around mid February is the time of the year that this occasion usually happens. We call the experience Ash Wednesday because the season of Lent begins on that day.
Why ashes? For many years ashes have been used as a symbol of penitence. There are many descriptive biblical examples of this. Thus Ash Wednesday puts us in the framework of a penitential season which is what we call Lent, the preparation for Easter, celebrating the resurrection of the dead Jesus.
When the person receives the ashes placed on the forehead for all to see, the minister often says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Thus proclaiming two of most important themes of Lent: Repentance and the Bible.
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent (Luke 4:1-13) depicts for us how Jesus dealt with repentance and the Bible so that we could be more specific during Lent in emulation of the two themes.
First of all, there is the issue of repentance. If one were to reflect on the topic, one could see that the need for repentance depends on how we react toward temptation. Simply put, temptation is not a sin, but an opportunity to commit sin. Thus, it is the “decision” that makes the action sinful or not. The choice is to say “yes” or “no” to the temptation.
The opening lines of the day’s Gospel clearly state, as Jesus is about to enter the desert, “Filled with the Holy Spirit…” That is to say that having the Holy Spirit (the creative power of God) gives one energy and motivation to deal with temptation. It seemed important enough for Luke to have mentioned it.
Secondly, Jesus deals with the devil’s temptation by citing biblical passages. Almost always there has been a belief that the Bible reflects God’s word, and dwelling on the Bible provides providential background to challenge the temptation–as it did for Jesus. In other words, strengthened by the presence of the Holy Spirit and displaying a good biblical sense, Jesus successfully overcame temptation.
Now we may ask: What can we learn from the day’s Gospel? Well, many things. But I offer three suggestion. First, it should be that we have an understanding of what “temptation” is. It is not a sin in itself, but rather an opportunity to commit sin. The opportunity is facilitated by the decision making process. Do I decide to say “yes” or “no” to the temptation? If I say “yes” to the temptation, then I have committed sin and must do penance.
Second, when we are baptized we receive the Holy Spirit who gives us the strength and courage to say “no” to temptation. Second, the Bible, as Word of God, should become part and parcel of our defense system against temptation. Part of that defense system includes listening well to the readings at Mass, to join Bible study groups, and, guided personal Bible study.
Consciously aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us since our Baptism, together with a biblical sense of interpreting God’s Word among us makes it more than probable that we can honestly say to the devil, “Lead us not into temptation.” Even if he does, we can still say “no” to the temptation itself.