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Third Sunday of Lent: Repentance in the Desert

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The Third Sunday of Lent reminds us of the importance of purging sin from our lives

It is important to understand that sin and God's holiness are incompatible. There is a radical conflict between the total and infinite purity, goodness, perfection and holiness of God, and the horrid, empty, constrictive and dark nature of sin. Every sin is an attack against God, his purity, holiness and truth. At the heart of sin is always a disordered self-love, a pride which seeks to suppress the truth about God and supplant the Creator with the creature. This gets at the root of the sin of idolatry, which essentially "consists in divinizing what is not God" (CCC 2113).

GLADE PARK, CO (Catholic Online)--When we think if Lent, we think of growing closer to Christ through the practice of the Lenten disciplines. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, coupled with the grace of God, are ordered toward fostering an interior and spiritual awakening within us. Through these disciplines, we are made more aware of the desperate situation of sin and its effects. As the antidote to sin, the cross which our Savior endured for the sake of love for our redemption is raised before our eyes. The fact is, the innocent Son of God suffered a horrendous and undeserved yet freely chosen death in sacrifice for the sins of humanity, in order that the door to the kingdom of heaven be thrust open and salvation made possible.

In our first reading from Exodus (3:1-8, 13-15) we hear the story about how Moses, while tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro, leads the animals in his care to Horeb, the mountain of God. There he encounters the mysterious bush set aflame yet unconsumed by its fire. Moses is curious, and investigates. There, God calls him by name and informs him he is to act as God's instrument and deliver the Israelites from 400 years of Egyptian slavery.

In essence, the Israelites were suffering under the Egyptians in consequence to the bondage of sin. The Egyptians and the Pharaoh of Egypt grew to fear the Israelites who were thriving and had become mighty in the land. The Egyptians, in order to control the sons of Israel and prevent an uprising, put taskmasters over them and "afflicted them with heavy burdens" (Ex 1:11). Greed and the desire for power and control were at the foundation of the enslavement of the Israelites. The Egyptians were a pagan people who practiced polytheism and the worship of false gods--something the Israelites had fallen into as well. Through the effects of idolatry and the suppression of the truth about God, the Egyptians suffer from a darkness which prevents them from seeing the dignity of the human person. The people Israel are viewed by the Egyptians as but objects to manipulate, oppress and control for their own gain.

Moses is sent to deliver the sons of Israel from this bondage. If we read the entire passage from Exodus, we find that God promised to be with Moses on this divinely ordained mission. Near the end of the first reading, God reveals his name to Moses, telling him: "I Am Who Am." There is a great deal to be learned in the revelation of God's name. For now, it is important to recognize that the Creator of the universe, who is Life Itself, and who is the origin, ground and sustainer of all being and life, is himself initiating, guiding and bringing to completion the campaign to free Israel. We thus see Moses as a type of Christ; that is, as Moses is sent to free Israel from their bondage which is tied to sin, so too is Christ the Son of God sent to release humanity from its enslavement to sin.

God's goal for the people Israel is to lead them out of the land of Egypt into a "good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey." This is precisely God's goal in our lives today and relates to the season of Lent. Namely, it is Christ who frees us from sin and death by his sacrifice on the cross and, by the power of his resurrection, leads us to the abundance and unending beauty, perfection and goodness of the heavenly kingdom. This journey toward the Promised Land is initiated at Baptism which incorporates us into Christ and his Church, and bestows upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the sacrament of Baptism and faith in Christ sin is forgiven and we are justified before God (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21, Acts 2:38).

However, the Israelites ran into trouble in the desert. They began to grumble against Moses and therefore against God (see Ex 16, 17 and others). They suppress the truth about God and their situation/position as creatures of God. At their worst, they fall again into the grave sin of idolatry and give worship to the golden calf (see Ex 32). Consequently, God pronounces "not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers." Narrated in the Book of Deuteronomy, the exceptions are Caleb, Joshua, and children who have "no knowledge of good or evil" (see Dt 1:35 ff.). The Letter to the Hebrews, in speaking of the rebellion in the wilderness, recalls this situation of faithless disobedience with these words: "Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.' As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall never enter my rest'" (3:10-11).

It is important to understand that sin and God's holiness are incompatible. There is a radical conflict between the total and infinite purity, goodness, perfection and holiness of God, and the horrid, empty, constrictive and dark nature of sin. Every sin is an attack against God, his purity, holiness and truth. At the heart of sin is always a disordered self-love, a pride which seeks to suppress the truth about God and supplant the Creator with the creature. This gets at the root of the sin of idolatry, which essentially "consists in divinizing what is not God" (CCC 2113). As the Catechism explains, idolatry remains more of a temptation than people often admit:

"Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt 6:24). Many martyrs died for not adoring "the Beast" (cf. Rev. 13-14) refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God"(CCC 2113).

It is a rather common situation today to find many people who are dismissive of the seriousness of sin. There are some who incorrectly believe Christ has saved everyone from sin and thus salvation is automatic. Others focus on God's mercy to the exclusion of his justice and the consequences of sin. This situation is evident among some Catholics who no longer acknowledge the need for the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In our second reading (1 Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12), St. Paul makes note of what happened to the Israelites in the desert and warns against desiring evil things, which is precisely what sin is. Sin is constituted by the intention to withhold the good and commit evil:

"These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall."

The remedy for sin is repentance through faith in Christ. It involves a turning away from evil toward the light and holiness of God, with a firm resolve to amend one's life and live a life of holiness and justice in compliance with the saving gospel. In our gospel today (Lk 13:1-9), the Lord Jesus Christ warns sternly against a refusal to repent, which is essentially a rejection of our creaturely status, a refusal of God's mercy, and an assertion of pride over and above God. The person who refuses to repent is suppressing the truth about God and his human condition/existence. Speaking of the Galileans who suffered and perished, as well as the tower of Siloam that fell and crushed out the life of some, Jesus gives this divine warning:

"But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all parish as they did!"

At the end of today's gospel, Jesus gives us all hope with his parable of the fig tree. Essentially, this parable reminds us that a tree which does not bear fruit will be cut down. However, God is patient and, so long as we have not yet died, we may repent, cultivate our lives and bear good fruit, and thus be saved by the grace of God. Change and new growth is possible. The Promised Land is not yet closed off.

Clearly repentance, however, is a crucial element in entering the Promised Land. In our journey through the desert, having passed through the purifying waters of Baptism, we too have stumbled or fallen numerous times. God is indeed present, guiding and sustaining his children, always showing mercy to the contrite of heart, and, by his power, restoring us that we may be raised up through faith in his Son and enjoy everlasting life. It is important to understand that repentance is possible only by the grace of God. Hence the importance of prayer during this Lenten season. Yet our own efforts are indispensable. As St. John Paul II reminds us, repentance is the first step in returning to God. It is essential in conquering the journey through the wilderness:

"To acknowledge one's sin, indeed-penetrating still more deeply into the consideration of one's own personhood-to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. . . . In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes, therefore, doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance-which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father"  (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 13).

It is always helpful to recall the parable of the Lost Son, told by Jesus, when contemplating repentance and the infinite mercy of God our Father (see Lk 15:11 ff.). Recall that the lost son repented and returned to his father after leading a life of dissipation:

"But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry."

Peace in Christ.


Deacon Fred Bartels serves the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, as a member of the Catholic Clergy. He is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at


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