1st Sunday of Lent, Year A – 17
GN 2:7-9; 3:1-7; PS 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5:12-19; MT 4:1-11
A man took his young son to a baseball game. While they were sitting there, he asked the boy what he was going to give up for Lent. The boy replied, “I don’t know, Dad. What are you going to give up?” His father said, “I’ve thought about this a lot and decided to give up liquor.”
Later in the game, the beer man came by, and the man ordered a beer. His son objected, “Hey, I thought you were giving up liquor!” His dad answered, “Hard liquor, son. I’m giving up hard liquor. This is just a beer.” To which the boy replied, “Well then, I’m giving up hard candy.”
Thinking back to life before ordination, I can count on one hand the number of homilies I heard based upon the day’s Responsorial Psalm. To be honest, the same goes for the number of homilies that I’ve preached about the Responsorial since being ordained.
Why is it so rare to hear a homily reflecting at length upon the Responsorial? One possible reason is that the psalms are poetry. The western world in our day and age is very prosaic and practical, unfortunately. This is largely because we’ve made ourselves so dependent upon technology.
But God is a Poet, and while the Psalter—that is, the Book of Psalms—is not the only book of the Bible to feature poetry, we might well say that the psalms are God’s poetry par excellence.
The excellence of the Psalter comes in part from the breadth and depth of its poetry about God and man, and about how they relate to each other.
But the Scriptures on this First Sunday of Lent focus upon the needs of man. While the entirety of the Psalter speaks to man as created in God’s grace, and as fallen by his own sin, today’s Responsorial specifically considers the pride of fallen man.
Fallen man needs humility to accept the redemption that comes from Jesus alone. Today’s Responsorial is taken from Psalm 51. This psalm is, arguably, the most profound of the seven psalms that are traditionally called the Penitential Psalms.
For many centuries, the seven Penitential Psalms have helped Christians to focus on their need to accept God’s mercy, and to practice penance. Here, at the beginning of Lent, you might consider copying one of the Penitential Psalms, carrying it with you throughout Lent, and praying it every day.
If you’re unsure about which of these seven to choose, try Psalm 51. Today’s Responsorial is drawn from just eight verses of Psalm 51.4 But in these verses, the Psalmist—that is, the author of the Psalms—proclaims in poetry what today’s other three Scripture passages touch upon through narrative and doctrinal exposition.
Consider each set of verses that the Church sings today between the repetitions of the refrain. During the first set of verses, we repeatedly petition God. Four times the Church sings of our neediness. But these four needs are of a specific sort.
We might say that they’re negative in nature. Of course, every need is negative in the sense that we’re asking for something we do not have: asking God to fill a void, whether it’s an empty pantry, an empty savings account, or an empty garage.
But in this first set of verses, we ask God to have mercy on us, to wipe out our offense, to wash us from our guilt, and to cleanse us from our sin. What these four needs have in common is that we’re asking God to restore to us something that we once had but have lost.
The second set of verses complements the first. If we admit in the first verses what our need is, the second set of verses helps us answer the question “Why?” Why do we need what we are asking God for? Why did we lose what we once had?
The answer is that we need mercy, and our offenses wiped out, and our guilt washed away, and to be cleansed from sin because each of us has freely chosen to sin. Each of us has sinned, and each of us needs to admit this fact.
What the Psalmist in the first set of verses implied, he makes plain in the second. The Psalmist admits in four different ways that he has sinned.
He says: “I acknowledge my offense”, “my sin is before me always”, “Against you only, [God,] have I sinned”, and I have “done what is evil in your sight”. The Psalmist is willing to admit not only that he has a problem, but that he is the problem.
Admitting our sinfulness like the Psalmist might sound simple, but experience shows how bedeviling it is. Because we are sinners, you and I speak and act not like the Psalmist, but like Adam and Eve.
In the First Reading, we heard about Adam and Eve committing the original sin. But what did they do afterwards, when God confronted them? They rationalized. They pointed away from themselves. They blamed others.
They did everything except admit the simple fact that they had sinned. It’s not easy for anyone to admit that he’s a sinner. But the Church during Lent helps us to do so, in order to approach the Sacrament of Penance with heartfelt sorrow, and a true sense of the sins we’ve committed.
The Church offers written examinations of conscience based upon her authentic moral teachings. Likewise, attending a solid retreat during Lent can help us face up to our sins. Even watching a good movie about the Lord’s Passion or the sufferings of martyrs can lead us to greater honesty about the price of our sins.
So, while the first half of today’s Responsorial confesses the loss resulting from our human sin, the second rejoices in what God offers us through Divine Mercy. This second half consists of seven petitions, and one promise.
But these petitions aren’t like those in the first half. The first half’s petitions ask God to remove what is negative: to wipe out offense, wash away guilt, and cleanse one of sin.
But now in this second half, the Psalmist asks God to restore and sustain what is positive. The Psalmist asks God to restore to him a clean heart, a steadfast spirit, and the joy of God’s salvation. He asks God to sustain in him God’s presence, His Holy Spirit, and a willing human spirit.
Finally, the Psalmist sings of his end. In the last two verses of today’s Responsorial, we hear the goal both of God removing from the Psalmist’s life what is negative, and sustaining within him what is positive.
Here, each of us needs to consider herself or himself to be the Psalmist. What is true of the Psalmist is true of each of us, especially in terms of our Lenten fasting, prayers and almsgiving.
The final petition of the Psalmist is different from the others within the Responsorial. Now, the Psalmist sings: “O Lord, open my lips.” The Psalmist makes this petition with the aim of making God a promise: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
Praise of God is the end of mankind. Each of us during Lent needs to keep in mind that all our fasting, prayers, and almsgiving are oriented to this goal. This is what God created Adam and Eve for “in the beginning”.
The final Adam, Jesus Christ, lives and dies upon this earth to restore to each of us the chance to fulfill this calling from God: to proclaim His praise all our days on this earth, and forever in Heaven. Amen.