Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent

‘Man does not live on bread alone.’ This is how Jesus answers the devil when he tempts him to turn stones into food. It’s a famous biblical saying. It’s not original to Jesus. He’s rebutting the Tempter with words of Moses from Deuteronomy 8:3. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus simply says: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’ In Matthew’s Gospel, it’s the fuller form: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ That’s also what we heard in the Verse before the Gospel. We will hear it again in the Communion Antiphon and the Prayer after Communion.

It makes good sense to hear this at the beginning of Lent.

So, let’s reflect on it. Here’s a statement inspired by the Holy Spirit, put into Moses’ mouth by an ancient author, taken up by Jesus, echoed by the Church through the centuries. Here it is on the lips of the deacon proclaiming the Gospel. Here it is on mine. We all know it. It’s a ‘word very near to us…on our lips and in our heart.’ Indeed, it belongs to all humanity. It is about ‘man’ – man in the generic sense, the human being.

The phrase is in two parts. So, let’s take it in two steps.

First, then, ‘man does not live on bread alone.’ We wouldn’t disagree. But I think it has to be said again and again, and especially now. It’s not just a statement. It’s part of the Gospel. It’s therefore good news. It’s good news because it’s saying we are bigger than bread. We’re more than what we eat or produce. We live in a culture with an ungenerous view of the human. It tends to diminish, lessen, reduce us, and in the end suffocate, stifle us. Perhaps every culture tends to do this. Certainly, there’s a contemporary mentality that often reduces, limits, defines us by one particular aspect of ourselves. The part is taken for the whole. We’re reduced, for example, to the biology we share with other animals, or to our sexuality or sexual orientation, or our state of health, our work, our bank balance, our police record, or our psychology and emotions, or to family background or relationships, or colour or nationality, or age. So I’m a customer or a patient or a client or a homeless person or a manic depressive or a success or a failure. That’s it; that’s me. Worse still, I’m confined to this life, this world; the gates are closed to anything beyond. There’s only the here and the now. It’s freakish and fanciful to believe in more. Earth is disjoined from heaven, and one doesn’t mention God over dinner.

And into this closed world bursts this word: ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ This rescues my humanity. It gives it me back. It opens it up. It exposes a depth. All the partial things I mentioned are real enough in their way. They have their place. They can sometimes loom very large indeed. But they’re not the whole of me or my life. We’re always more. We can’t be limited like this, either by others or by ourselves. We’re too big. We need other food.

So the second half of our ‘word’ comes on stage: ‘man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ There’s a story of some Hasidic rabbis gathered in a room to read the Bible. And the reading began, ‘And God said…’ When Rabbi Zusya heard that, he fell into an ecstasy. He became so wild with enthusiasm he had to be taken outside. And he stood in the hall and beat his hands on the walls and kept crying out, ‘And God said! And God said!’ He was right to be amazed. That is the Jewish and Christian faith in a nutshell. And it means, we’re not alone. We haven’t just got ourselves. God has come out of his silence and spoken to us. He ‘has sent out his word to the earth.’ And so our humanity is fed and grows. In the end, what God says is Jesus. He’s the Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father and became flesh and gives us the bread of his flesh as our food. But he also gives us the bread of his words. He has also taken flesh in the human words of Scripture, all of them, every word, and he feeds us through them. He gives us the nourishment our humanity needs more than anything else, the nourishment of communion with him. So our Mass contains a Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and we eat a two course meal. Or again, God speaks to us in Scripture and we speak to him in prayer. There’s a dialogue. There’s communication. And we’re no longer stifled and restricted. We open out to an infinite space, the ocean of God. We’re pierced by the two-edged sword of the word, and depths are revealed. Or like Mary, we find ourselves saying, ‘let it be done to me according to your word’, and carrying someone greater than ourselves. Our souls also have stomachs and wombs. We Christians have the task of reminding the world of this.

Jesus’ forty days in the desert are a pattern for our Lent. We know that. He consecrated our Lenten practice, as today’s Preface says, by his ‘abstaining forty long days from earthly food.’ But they’re a pattern in another way too. How did Jesus counter Satan? Always and only by using the words of Scripture. So what did he do those forty days? He prayed to his Father. But what was the food of his prayer? Jesus, as a boy and young man, would have learned his Bible. He would have known great portions of it by heart. He knew it was where he’d find his Father’s purpose for his life. So, in the lonely desert he fed on all those familiar, remembered words. They were his bread. They were very near to him, on his lips and in his heart. And the devil had no chance. It’s a pattern for Lent: let’s fast from food a bit, fast a lot from junk words, junk visuals, rubbish entertainment, and feast instead on the Bible. Read it, reflect on it, pray with it. Even for just a few minutes every day. The Fathers of the Church say Scripture is like a great lake. You may have the stature of a hippopotamus, be a genius or a saint, but there will still be deep water for you to swim in. You may be a poodle and can only frolic in the shallows, but you won’t drown. (I paraphrase only slightly!). There is something for everyone. And we’ll acquire the mind of Christ. We’ll see things as God sees them.

‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ Let’s not diminish ourselves. We really are that big! And Scripture has the power to enlarge us.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
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